When you peruse the top five scorers in the NHL this season, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl occupy the top two spots. And, of course, they have each other. Occupying Nos. 3 and 5 are Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, who also have each other. And all four of them play in the North Division, where they really, really like their goals.
Wedged in at No. 4 is Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, who it could be argued is putting together the most remarkable season of his career. And (checks notes…) that’s saying something. At the age of 32, the alpha dog on a young and hungry team that is without its captain, Kane is dragging the Blackhawks into playoff contention and contributing all over the ice. Kane has been a major contributor to linemate Alex DeBrincat’s bounce-back season and has been the vital cog on a team that has shocked the NHL with its ability to hang with the big boys in the Central Division.
And for that, Patrick Kane has emerged as the frontrunner for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Yeah, you read that right. Not McDavid, not Matthews. By whatever metric you want to measure in the age-old debate surrounding the Hart Trophy – either best player or most valuable to his team – Kane makes a very strong case. Of players who have played at least 10 games this season, Kane is fourth in the league in points per game with 1.5. Only McDavid, Matthews and Marner have more even-strength points than Kane (who has 20) and only McDavid has more primary assists than Kane (who has 16 among a total of 21). That latter stat is a major indication that as a winger, Kane is driving his line, which includes rookie Pius Suter at center.
“I mean, look at what the expectations were for our team and where everyone had us finishing,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said after watching Kane score a goal and three assists Tuesday night in a 6-5 shootout win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. “And we’re right there. We’re in the battle. And he’s a big part of that. His production is better than ever, but to me it’s all about the work ethic away from the puck and his willingness to put pressure on the puck and create transition for himself and his linemates, too. That type of team-first mentality is what we’re trying to build here so we can have long-term success and we can get back to being an elite team. Not only is he doing it, but he’s encouraging other guys to do it.”
One of those 16 primary assists Kane has had this season came on a very special goal. Rookie Brandon Hagel had gone without a goal through his first 16 games of this season, but finally found the back of the net on the 17th after being set up for an easy empty netter on a brilliant pass from Kane. During the goal celebration, it was difficult to determine whether Hagel or Kane was more excited about the goal.
“Dream come true, I’ve dreamt of this my whole life,” said the 22-year-old Hagel. “No better feeling than getting a pass from a legend. I’m happy (Kane) is happy for me and a great pass by him. I can’t thank him enough for that gift.”
Kane has talked a lot this season about feeling rejuvenated playing with the Blackhawks’ young players. He deferred to DeBrincat, saying the right winger has taken his game to another level and making plays all over the ice, which has undoubtedly helped. If this were an 82-game season, Kane would be on pace for a career-high 123 points. As it is, Kane’s 9-21-30 totals represent the second-highest output after the first 20 games of a season of his career, trailing only the 13-18-21 totals he posted in 2015-16 en route to the scoring title and his first Hart Trophy. But that year his regular linemates were Toews and Artemi Panarin.
“Just trying to help the team as much as possible with the way I play,” Kane said. “I feel like I’ve had some pretty good seasons the past couple of years, too. Just trying to get better each year, I guess.”
Well, mission accomplished. And if Kane can sustain anything close to this dizzying pace and he pulls this supporting cast into the playoffs, he should be rewarded with the second Hart Trophy of his career.