Kane and Panarin ensure Hawks remain contenders despite cap crunch

Patrick Kane scored his first career regular season hat trick and the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The story could have played out that because of greed, because Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane wanted to make more money or earned the right to make more money than should be supportable by one team under the NHL salary cap system, the Chicago Blackhawks had no chance to defend the Stanley Cup title they won last June.

It could have played out that way. But it hasn’t, and that’s making for an amazing Windy City hockey story this season, at least partly because Kane, in particular, is more than delivering value for his increased wages.

We’ll get to that, and what may be one of the greatest individual offensive seasons in recent seasons by a player who, let’s remember, began the season under the cloud of sexual assault allegations.

Chicago’s Cup defence began with the realization that as they were lifting the venerable trophy at the United Centre, they were going to have dump players. Good ones, too.

Between them, Kane and Toews were going to see their combined salaries jump to $21 million from $13 million. Given that the cap was only increasing by $2.4 million, GM Stan Bowman had a headache after Hawks won their third Cup in six years, and not just from the champagne.

Some of the players knew what was coming. Patrick Sharp, for example, read the tea leaves months in advance and knew he’d likely be moving on, and ultimately he was dealt to Dallas.

Johnny Oduya and Brandon Saad, key secondary components of the Chicago lineup, moved on as well, as did veterans Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette.

Bowman didn’t get tons in return for those he traded. He got forward Ryan Garbutt and defenceman Trevor Daley for Sharp, for example, and Daley was such a poor fit he’s already been traded away. He did get centre Artem Anisimov in the deal that sent Saad to Columbus, and prospect Marko Dano.

But for the most part, the Hawks were just subtracting from their lineup. Hanging on to Brent Seabrook was viewed as a victory. Losing Oduya meant they no longer had a strong four-pack on the back end. They should have needed to take at least a half-step back, right?

Wrong. Bowman felt confident last year in the playoffs he could find enough useful bodies to fill the holes, and he did. Five teams chased Russian forward Artemi Panarin, and while those players often go to teams where they know they’ll play and play a lot, Panarin had enough confidence in his own abilities that he chose to go to the champs. He’s been an absolute massive addition, far more than even the Hawks believed he’d be, and a key element in Kane’s incredible season as Chicago’s second leading scorer.

Scuderi came from Pittsburgh for Daley. Phil Danault, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Dennis Rasmussen have filled holes. Brandon Mashinter, Victor Svedberg and Tanner Kero have each played at least 15 games. Those players fill the small roles, and Chicago’s extraordinary core group, which has been brilliantly managed by Bowman (and aided by a couple of old style contracts now illegal) to keep each and every one of them a Blackhawk, does all the heavy lifting.

The Hawks won their 10th straight against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night, and after a sluggish start to a season caused by chance and a lack of cohesive team play, have now caught the Dallas Stars at the top of the Western Conference. The chance of a repeat, once thought unlikely, is now looking very possible.

“We’re a confident group,” said goalie Corey Crawford, who had the night off against the Leafs. “We never doubt ourselves.”

Really? Never?

“Never,” he reiterated.

Kane, of course, is the scoring whiz helping drive all of this. When a Buffalo woman claimed he had sexually assaulted her during the summer, the NHL declined to suspend him in the absence of charges, and got royally roasted by critics for that decision. The Hawks were also ripped far and wide for their handling of the situation, and there were many who believed that Kane would either be a distraction to the Hawks or unable to function properly amidst such ugly allegations.

Neither happened, and police ultimately dropped the case against Kane. For reasons only he could explain, he has soared from the day the season started, as if able to completely shut out the scandal and totally focus on demonstrating he could be full value for his enhanced salary.

In a year in which scoring is dropping on what seems like a weekly basis in the NHL, Kane is putting up numbers like he’s playing in the wild and woolly 1980s, leaping far ahead of the dynamic Dallas duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

On Friday night, the struggling Leafs had no way to contain him, no answers to the creative offensive questions he posed.
The best they could hope for was a low-chance game and a lucky bounce, and for 33 minutes they achieved that. But then Duncan Keith set up Kane with a clever goalmouth feed, and four minutes after that Panarin threaded a diagonal pass through the Leaf penalty killing box to Kane, who had the patience to settle the puck then fire it home.

Early in the third, Kane returned the favour to Panarin, who scored his 16th, more than any Leaf. From a pure skill standpoint, the only Toronto player who looked he had the combination of pace and ambition for the Hawks was defenceman Morgan Rielly, who finally got the Leafs on the board with just over 16 minutes left in the third. Actually, Nazem Kadri battled hard, as well, just as he usually has in this difficult season.

With leading scorer James van Riemsdyk (brother of Trevor) out, however, Leaf head coach Mike Babcock might have hoped that veterans like Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak would provide some offensive production for their combined $9.45-million cap hit, but both seem to have descended into a mid-season freeze. The Leafs have scored three goals in four games.

Kane and Panarin, meanwhile, continued to dipsy doodle throughout the night. Six minutes into the third, Panarin was sent in behind two Leaf defenders on a breakaway, but just for fun opted to pass the puck backwards to Kane, who very nearly scored.

“It helps a lot when you can add players (like Panarin). ...I don’t want to say for nothing. ...but for basically nothing,” said Kane. “With the core we have in here, well, you can never count us out. We’ve had a lot of success.”

Joel Quenneville’s 784th career victory, 4-1 over the Leafs, was sealed by Kane’s third of the night into an empty net, giving him 28 goals and 39 assists in 47 games this season.

The intrigue of this Chicago hockey season, then, is about a proud champion defying the odds, demonstrating just how great its great players are, and how this organization been able to fashion a team that can play the game any way and deal effectively with lineup losses caused by the salary cap system.

And Kane, well, he’s just a marvel. Maybe his Hall of Fame talents have been obscured to some degree by the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, but no longer. One can question his lifestyle choices and decisions, and many do, but on the ice his ability as a relatively small man to play this wonderfully and inventively, at a time when the NHL seems to despise offence, is quite incredible.