CHICAGO — The locker room had emptied out of reporters, but I was still chatting with Patrick Kane, and the general rule of thumb is you can linger in the room as long as you need to if you’re in mid-conversation with a player. We were talking about Jonathan Toews circa 2013 for The Athletic’s NHL 99 project, but with literally no other people in the room to hear us, I threw in one unplanned question about how much he — as a very proud, very accomplished professional athlete — was enjoying shoving the Blackhawks’ unlikely start in everyone’s faces.
He smiled at the question. But even in the quiet of a one-on-one conversation, his response was measured, almost wistful.
“It’s good, this team competes,” he said. “Everyone works so hard, right? You can’t really ask for much more than what a lot of these guys are giving in here.”
That was on Nov. 2. The Blackhawks beat their old rivals the Kings the next night to improve to 5-4-2.
They’ve won just one game since.
Kane knew. Kane always knows. The Blackhawks’ start was admirable but unsustainable. They were winning with goaltending and timely scoring, smoke and mirrors. They were still getting dominated most nights, chasing the puck, chasing the score, pulling wins out of thin air.
This is a bad team. It was a bad team then. It’s a bad team now that it has lost seven straight (and 13 of 15) after Sunday’s 7-2 thrashing by the first-place Winnipeg Jets. It’s a bad team by design, a naked ploy by general manager Kyle Davidson to secure the best odds possible to draft Connor Bedard first overall in Nashville next June. It’s a team with the likes of MacKenzie Entwistle and Jujhar Khaira — two good role players, but two role players all the same — on the power play because the depth of high-end skill simply isn’t there.
The Blackhawks are now staring at nearly five months of utterly meaningless hockey. It’s only going to get worse, too, once Davidson starts trading off assets in January or February. Andreas Athanasiou is a chance-generating machine (he saw a goal overturned because the Blackhawks were offside in the first period on Sunday) and could intrigue a contender looking for an injection of speed at the deadline. Max Domi is a solid center who could be a nice addition to a team looking for some grit and goals. The resurgent Toews continues to be the Blackhawks’ most consistent forward this season, and if a third team is willing to launder his $10.5 million cap hit, he could be a fascinating addition for a contender. Colorado needs help down the middle, after all.
But the only question that really matters for the rest of this season is how Kane feels. And the more the Blackhawks lose, the more hopeless this gets, the more real this rebuild becomes and the harder it is to imagine his feeling too good about it. Kane is the ultimate company man, and you’ll never hear him say a bad word about an organization that stood by him when so many others might not have. Toews has never been shy about sharing his true feelings, but Kane is his polar opposite in that regard. He’d rather not talk about it. Doesn’t want to ruffle feathers. Doesn’t want to make anyone look bad.
Like Toews, Kane has total control of his situation, empowered with a full no-movement clause in the final year of his contract. Unlike Toews, he’s still considered an elite player in the NHL and will surely be the biggest trade chip of this year’s deadline season.
All summer, and throughout the Blackhawks’ unexpectedly fun start, people around the league — other reporters, radio hosts across Canada, execs from other front offices, and in two surprising incidents, other NHL players — asked me what I expected Kane to do. And my answer was always the same: I really didn’t know. Everyone else was so sure he was a goner, but I wasn’t. Everything I had gathered from my own reporting and everything I knew about Kane, having covered him for a decade, told me…