The combination of Patrick Kane and running mate Sam Gagner are finding the kind of success that’s propelled them up the draft boards. In the early season, Gagner appeared to have the upper hand, but since a breakout performance at the World Junior Hockey Championships over Christmas, momentum has been on Kane’s side. And with an OHL scoring championship in his rookie season to his credit, and the promise of a healthy playoff run ahead of him, Kane’s rise up the hit parade sees him second behind only Alexei Cherapanov in ISS’s Mar. 7, 2007 rankings.
"Yeah, definitely, I’m excited [about the No. 1 talk]," explained Kane, who Central Scouting had ranked fourth overall in its mid-term report. "I’m trying not to think about it too much and you try to keep it in the back of your mind, but anytime you hear that you’re going to feel good about yourself. Right now I’m just trying to finish strong and state my case for that No. 1 overall pick. But if it doesn’t happen, then I’m not worried."
Kane joined the OHL‘s London Knights this summer after two years in the United States National Team Development Program. The Knights took a flyer on the talented winger with a fifth round pick in the 2004 draft. While most teams expected the Buffalo, NY native to go the collegiate route, Kane was swayed to the OHL by a combination of persistence, opportunity, and the fact that due to academic requirements the forward would not have been able to join the collegiate ranks until halfway through the season.
"You can play up to 100 games, with the World Junior, playoffs, and exhibitions here, so I thought that would really help me more than maybe 40 games in college. I think that’s the biggest thing," Kane explained. "[The collegiate delay] factored in a little bit. I didn’t really want to go switching teams halfway through the year and come in a little bit behind, whereas here I could come here and have a good start right a way. That was a little factor, but not too big."
In 58 OHL regular season games, Kane tallied 62 goals (becoming the first Knight to break the 60-goal plateau in over 20 years) and added 83 assists to take the league scoring title by 11 points over John Tavares. With the Knights were reloading following the loss of last year’s high-powered trio of Robbie Schremp (EDM), Dylan Hunter (BUF), and Dave Bolland (CHI), Kane made the most of the opportunity presented to him.
"I can’t say I [expected to lead the league in scoring] but coming in you try to establish yourself as a good player for the team first and then as that happens you just try to continue and do your best for the team," he said. "I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities playing with Sam Gagner and Sergei Kostitsyn (MTL) where they give me a lot of opportunities to get goals and get points, so that obviously helps a lot.
"I think coming into the season [the coaches] kind of slotted out the ice and you could see that was going to happen with losing Schremp, Bollsie, and Hunter."
Knights General Manager Mark Hunter expected big things from Kane, but not this big. "I had seen him a lot and I really thought he was a special player and he’s proven that he’s a special player. Did I think he was going to do what he did here? No, but this young man is driven," he explained, adding – while laughing – that there’s one key reason for his success. "Skill, skill, skill. You don’t teach all that stuff."
Even though opportunity was knocking, few expected Kane to answer in such a big way.
"He came into training camp and everyone was expecting big things from him and he hasn’t disappointed us," explained Knights’ netminder Steve Mason (CBJ). "The things he does with the puck makes you wonder how he does it. Last year we had Robbie Schremp and he’s taken over that role and then some. Especially being his rookie season and winning the scoring title, it’s more credit to him than anybody else because at the end of the day he has to do it, nobody else.
"Nobody, I think, expected him to pick up the slack that much. I think he’s almost made the fans forget Schremp – he’s here and he’s the present-day guy and the fans enjoy watching him play because when the puck’s on his stick it usually ends up in the back of the net."
The pairing of Kane and Gagner has been a match made in hockey heaven for the London Knight and their fans. "I think they’re competitive and they play well together. They pass pucks well together," Hunter said. "Good players need other good players to play with and they’ve developed a good chemistry."
Knights’ captain Rob Drummond has seen many top players pass through the Knights system. And as an overager in the OHL, he’s had the chance to see some of the league’s top talent in action. Kane, he explained, is comfortably amongst that group of players.
"I’d say he’s right up there with one of the best players I’ve ever played with. He’s so gifted offensively. There’s really nothing wrong with him," Drummond said. "Some people say he’s too small, but that doesn’t really matter. The game’s changing and he’s quick, he’s got great hands, and he can finish. He’s a complete player in my mind.
"I think he’s so strong on the puck and he’s got great vision as well. He spots guys that other players wouldn’t see. He’s a great set-up guy and he can finish."
Kane joined the Knights as part of a much-ballyhooed group of players brought in by Mark and Dale Hunter. Joining him was fellow rookie Gagner, who is still a contender in his own rights for the top of the draft chart. Individually, the players are dynamic – but put together, and with Kostitsyn often serving as a catalyst, the results have been explosive.
The trio accounted for 137 goals and 257 assists and finished the season first, third (Kostitsyn) and fifth (Gagner) in scoring. Gagner is quick to credit Kane for much of the unit’s – and the team’s – success.
"I think the thing about Pat is that he makes the game just so easy for his linemates. He has so many elements to his game that he’s able to make time and space not only for himself but for his linemates," Gagner said. "You always have to be ready for a pass because he’ll hit you when you’re not expecting it and it’s usually an awesome play. Having the chance to play with him all year has been really beneficial for me. He’s so skilled with the puck and he’s got such a drive to be a better player that’s just fun to be on the ice with him every day and learn new things for him and get a chance to play with a guy that’s so determined to be the best.
"Obviously his skill level is unbelievable, but his vision out there and his scoring touch are something you don’t see very often. But mostly it’s his constant want to be the best and I think that’s why he’ll be good at every level because he accepts every challenge and be better than everyone else, but at the same time he doesn’t bring other people down in the process."
It’s that drive to be the best, combined with Kane’s natural skill, that scouts feel will compensate for any concerns about his size. At 5’9, 160 pounds, Kane’s not going to put fear into anyone physically – but those offensive gifts are enough to give opposing netminders nightmares for years to come.
"He’s an extremely good player. He’s smart, he’s competitive, and he’s quick. Obviously he’s small – that’s the only point against him," explained one scout. "He’s pretty quick now. I mean you look at him and he’s got good body positioning, his feet are quick, and his hands are quick. Everything about him is quick – and he’s smart as well. Those are the kind of guys, when they’re smaller than average, that do make it.
"I generally find if a player has everything except size he can make it, but that’s a tough bill. You’ve got to be able to skate, you have to be quick, you have to be smart, and you have to be competitive. Having all of those things can overcome the other."
Another scout, who has followed Kane for years, adds that his ability to continually improve his game also complements his natural gifts.
"He’s just a highly skilled guy. He’s going to be a high pick. I think he’s a lot of fun to watch. I know I like coming to watch him and I’m sure there’s 9,000 other people in London that do every home game," he said. "You know what. I don’t know in any NHLer if size would make a difference when you’re that highly skilled.
"I don’t know if [his physicality and defense are] where they need to be right now, but has he improved with that over the years? Sure he has, so I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t continue to improve. Size isn’t as big of a difference as it used to be, and when a kid is that highly skilled somehow they’ll find a way."
And while some say that size matters, one scout added that knowing where to fit his own size will play a key role in any future success for Kane. "You have to look at what it takes to play in the National Hockey League. You have to figure out where you can go and where you can’t go," he said. "I mean, Wayne Gretzky was the perfect example of that. He knew what he could do, what he couldn’t do, where he should be, and where he should not be – you have to figure those things out."
Hunter added that he thinks strength is the key, but he expresses little doubt that Kane will make an impact at the next level.
"He needs to get a little stronger, but he’s just so skilled," he said. "At the end of the day, what are you going to say? He’s skilled. Some people have a God-given skill and he has a God-given skill."
Growing up in Buffalo, Kane had little knowledge of the OHL. However, the Hunters’ persistence – plus the fact that his parents still live in Buffalo and have been able to make the commute to London – played key roles in his arrival.
"We didn’t have much exposure [to the OHL] at all, actually. I think the first time was when I got drafted and I started coming around," Kane said. "The Hunters started pursuing me when I was at the U.S. program. I fulfilled my two years there and then I thought it was time for a change and time to step up to a higher level.
"[My family has] only missed two games the whole year – even the road games. They missed one in Sudbury and one in the Soo. They’ve been really supportive. Definitely it makes it easier. Especially when they’re only two-and-a-half hours away. I was sick a couple of weeks ago, so I got to go home for a little bit. It was really good just to go home for a bit – it was my first time this year. But when they’re coming all the time it’s good because I get to see them every week, where maybe in Michigan we’d have those far trips and that’s five hours away from our house. It’s a lot easier having them here and living close to the rink."
Kane made quite an impact on that U.S. program. With the under-17 team in 2004-05, he scored 70 points in 63 games. Last year, in 58 games with the under-18 squad, he tallied 102 points in 58 games – a record total for the program. Kane explained that the program taught him what he needed to do to succeed.
"I would recommend that program to anyone, I have no regrets about going there. It is one of the greatest programs in the world, I think," Kane said. "The biggest thing about that is the weight training and how much they push you off the ice as well as on the ice. They really make sure you work hard. You know if you’re there at first you’ve got the talent, so if you’re working hard then you should get something out of it."
Kane, who grew up enjoying season tickets to the Sabres, has been overwhelmed with the atmosphere in London, Ontario. And he’s been enjoying his newfound fame.
"I wasn’t really expecting this for junior. I mean, it’s almost reminds me of the old Sabres games – it’s unbelievable," he said. "You’ve got 9,000 fans every night screaming and yelling. It’s amazing to be in a game and when you get the puck you get this feeling that they’re at your back so it’s unbelievable playing here – I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
"It’s pretty cool. Sometimes I’ll be driving down the street and people are waving at me. It’s crazy. There’s autograph signings and pictures – it’s pretty fun. I like the fan support, it’s better than having none at all and I’m just enjoying it right now."
As good as Kane’s been in London, he may have been even better in Sweden at the WJC with the U.S. team. In seven games, the forward led the tournament in goals with five goals, adding four assists. And a bronze-medal performance has only left him hungry for more.
"It was probably the best experience of my hockey career. You see the best competition in a three-year radius, so going there and seeing the competition level and just how competitive the countries are, like the U.S. versus Canada," he said. "Even against Sweden every game’s a tough game and you’ve got to take every game seriously. There’s just so much talent over there and such a high competition level that it was really fun and just one of the greatest experiences ever – I’m looking forward to next year."
He attributed the quality of his OHL club – which finished the regular season at the top of the standings – for helping him make a smooth transition to the quality of play in the tournament.
"It helped me a lot playing with Sam and Sergei – they really helped me prepare for playing at that level," he said. "I come in and I’m playing with [Peter] Mueller (PHO) and [Nathan] Gerbe (BUF) to start and that was pretty cool, but it’s almost like playing the same thing [in London] and I really enjoyed it."
Of course, instead of lining up alongside Sam Gagner, he faced off against him in two pivotal games. "It wasn’t that much different, we were just going out and trying to play hockey. Usually he’s at my side on my line and here I’m seeing him on the other bench," he said. "It’s pretty tough, but it was a fun competition. We kind of joked about it after.
"We talked about the things the Canadians had, you know – they brought their own chef and everything. It kind of seems like they take the tournament more seriously than the U.S. But as far as we were concerned we’re going there and we were as prepared as we’ve ever been. But these guys have their own chef and they’re getting all this stuff for Christmas – it’s pretty cool just hearing what he had to say about the whole thing and other players and I’m sure he felt the same way about what I said."
That relationship continues to blossom both on and off the ice. As both Kane and Gagner are dealing with the pressures of a playoff run and an impending draft day, they’ve been able to share their experiences together.
"We talk sometimes. You know, who’s going to go higher in the draft and stuff like that. We have jokes about things like that. So we have a good relationship and it’s still growing," Kane explained. "We just kind of push each other to get to that next level and if one of us wants to be better than the other then we’re just going to push each other, so I think it’s good in that case because it means there’s a lot of competition. I think it’s also great for the city and the organization just to have two hopefully first-round picks coming in the draft. That doesn’t happen too often."
And when it comes to draft night, Kane said he’d like to be alongside his linemate again. "I’m just worrying about playoffs right now. I’m sure after that, hopefully we’ll be together," he said. "I’d like to be there when he gets drafted and I’m sure that he feels the same way. I think it will be a fun experience going to the draft and the combine."
Getting to draft night has been an adventure in itself. With two top-10 prospects in London joined by a revolving door of prospects from opposing teams, London’s John Labatt Centre is usually crawling with scouts – just don’t tell Kane.
"When there are scouts here I really prefer not to be told because the games that they seem to be here I kind of, like, choke," he said, laughing. "No, I try not to think about it too much and just play. Hopefully they like what they see. If they don’t, then obviously there are things that I have to improve, but overall I hope they like what they see and I’ll be happy."
Kane’s also chosen to internalize his preparations for the draft – preferring to focus on what he’s doing as opposed to keeping abreast of other prospects. "I think Sam keeps up on that stuff and he updates me a lot. I’m pretty good friends with [Jakub] Voracek. We kind of got to know each other at the prospects game," Kane explained. "To be honest, I’m just trying to watch out for myself and worry about my game and hopefully that will take me where I’m supposed to go."
Of course, being a potential No. 1 draft pick has its perks. Beyond teammates, family, friends, and coaches, Kane’s been getting support from a few potential future opponents – an experience that still overwhelms the young forward. "It helps a lot when you’re going through this process when you’ve got guys, maybe like [former London Knight and first-overall draft pick] Rick Nash, or somebody like that who will help you with the draft by giving you a call," he said. "I had [Daniel] Brière call me the other day from the Sabres – just stuff like that, it’s unbelievable."
With the call for greater physicality coming from all corners, the message hasn’t been lost on Kane. And while some suggest he may be ready to jump to the NHL ranks, Kane appears to be comfortable with returning to junior.
"It’s crazy to think about [making the NHL next year] but I think there are some things that I need to work on – my strength and maybe gaining some weight. You can work on everything in your game," he said. "Obviously I’m going to have to have a good summer and a good camp. If everything works out, then it’d be great, but I wouldn’t mind coming back here for another year – that’d be great. I love playing [in London], it’s really fun."
One scout suggested that a return to junior may be of benefit to help Kane continue the maturing process. "Kane’s definitely going to be [in the NHL]… It’s hard to say whether he’ll be there next year though," he said. "He’s not a [Sidney] Crosby. I think he’s got to work away from the puck. I think he gets a little bit frustrated if the puck doesn’t come to him. Those are things that are going to come with maturity and I don’t think it’s going to hurt him if he does come back.
"And if he does come back he’s going to be a heck of a player."
And if Kane does return to London next year, expect him to continue to develop the leadership role he’s already assumed. "I think his position with being a leader on this team, not only does he put up the big numbers, but he’s also a great kid and he’s a lot of fun to be on the team with," Drummond added. "He gets along with everyone and he makes everyone better – that’s the key."
Knights assistant captain Adam Perry added that Kane combines a vocal approach with the ability to lead by example. "He’s good in the room, he talks during intermission, and he’s not shy to share his opinion. He’s well respected by his teammates," he said. "If we’re down by a couple of goals, he’s in the room trying to get us going again. And his work ethic just shows what the other guys need to do.
"Even though he’s a younger guy and a rookie in this league he’s taken a big leadership role on this team just by how good he is."
Mason is one person who may get the shivers a little bit about the prospect of another year of facing Kane in practice. "I know what he does with the puck and I think I have a bigger edge over any other goalie because I’ve seen him so often," the netminder explained. "But there’s still some time in practices where he just undresses me and I just have to shake my head and think that, ‘Hey, this kid’s going to go in the first round and potentially first overall.’"
Having a coach and a general manager with copious amounts of NHL experience has been of benefit, Kane explained. "I went out to eat with an agent [the other day] and [Dale Hunter and assistant coach Dave Gagner] showed up after. I was just sitting there and I never thought I’d be at a table with Dave and Dale Hunter, telling stories about their suspensions or something," he said. "They always stress defense because I think they know that myself and Sam have the offensive abilities to get to the next level, but your penalty killing and if you’re playing good defense then it’s obviously going to help. Getting stronger is something they stress. And they’re as hard about school as anything. They look out for your best."
One thing Kane isn’t lacking is in confidence. While some teams are ready to write of the Knights as too young, Kane feels that his club is poised for a long run in the CHL playoffs. "Yes, we’ve got young guys on the team, but we’ve got a lot of good experience on our team with our overagers. They’ve been in the league for a while," he said. "We even have a couple of guys from that Memorial Cup team that can help guide us through it.
"Maybe we’re rookies, but we’re coming in and we’re going to find ourselves."
The life-long Sabres fan lists Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk as a favorite player. He added that he doesn’t model his game after any one player. "I always liked [Pat] Lafontaine and [Alex] Mogilny with the Sabres – they were always fun to watch," he said. "But growing up I always admired [Joe] Sakic."
Kane does admit that he’d love a return home. "Growing up in Buffalo I always wanted to be a Sabre. That’d be cool to see me get drafted there but I’m not really worried about wherever I go. Just getting drafted by a team that would want my rights – that’s exciting enough for me."
For some reason, one doesn’t expect that Kane will go unwanted too long in this year’s draft.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.