The London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League allowed 3.4 goals a game during Kane’s 2006-07 season with them. But in their defense, they really didn’t require much defense. They countered with 4.6 goals a game and went 50-14-4 in the regular season. Kane registered 145 points in 58 games.
It’s with that defensive background Kane entered the NHL.
Seven years later, Kane shakes his head at his old self. His appreciation for defense has grown each year in the league, and he’s more defensive-minded this season than he’s ever been. He ranks second on the team and is tied for fourth in the league with nine takeaways.
“I didn’t know too much about defense, I guess, coming into the league,” Kane said on Thursday. “I was on a high-powered offensive team in junior that was a lot about scoring and was pretty much strictly about offense for myself and players like myself.
“As you grow older, you learn more about it and you become mature about defense. I think you see a lot of players have done that throughout their career.”
Aside from wanting to prevent opponents’ goals, what further motivated Kane to come over to the defensive side was he discovered it can actually lead to more offense. He’s learned his quick hands can be used to snatch pucks from opponents or knock them loose for teammates and lead to rushes and opportunities for him the other way.
The 17-year-old Kane may not have believed it, but the 24-year-old Kane actually likes playing defense now.
“I feel like I’m making strides every year in that department,” Kane said. “I think it’s a part of my game to where if you feel like you get a takeaway you can go the other way and try to produce on offense or make plays that way. Sometimes just making a good defensive play gets you into the game a little bit, too. I’m excited about trying to play both ways of the ice now and trying to complete and round out your game as best as possible.”
Playing with Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa has also benefited Kane. He’s taken tips from Hossa and just closely watched how Hossa gets back on defense and is constantly pestering opponents when they possess the puck. Hossa currently leads the league with 16 takeaways.
“I’ve learned from some of the best,” Kane said. “I got this guy right next to me, Hossa, who is I think is the best in the league at it, maybe him and at [Pavel] Datsyuk. Just the way he tracks back on the backcheck and lifts guys' sticks and then he can go the other way and make plays. It makes a difference.”
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has witnessed Kane’s defense make a difference, too.
“Offensively, you never had to worry about Kaner,” Quenneville said. “I just think he’s added to that part of the game where he’s growing and being more responsible on both sides.
“Kaner has gotten better every year. I think this year it’s the most noticeable improvement in his game. All areas of the game without the puck and all zones, he’s going to the right areas. Defensively in his own end, he’s killing a lot of plays. He’s positionally strong and aware, backside pressure as well. He’s really progressed. I thought this year was his biggest step.”
St. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was already terrified about playing Kane, and Kane’s defensive awareness has only heightened that.
“I think he’s stealth,” Hitchcock said. “He’s smart stealth. There’s maybe eight, nine players in the league that read the game. He knows the puck is going to be turned over a second or two before it actually gets turned over, and he’s gone. And he has offensive anticipation that you wonder why he gets all these odd-man rushes and all these scoring chances because he has anticipation that’s ahead of everyone on the ice.
“He makes you nervous. He makes you nervous as a coach, and he makes you nervous as a player. Because you have to protect the puck and be so careful out there that sometimes you get nervous when it’s up for grabs. He’s a guy where we have clips (that) he’s not in the zone and then he’s got the puck. You wondering how the hell it happened, but he just knows how to make himself available.”