Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane cemented himself as one of the league's five best players this season. His year ended with a Conn Smythe Trophy after his team won its second Stanley Cup title in four years.
The 24-year-old forward is now six years into a career that has been filled with ups and downs on and off the ice.
Coming into the 2013 season, Kane's legacy was difficult to assess. He was a Stanley Cup winner, an Olympic silver medalist and one of the most electrifying players in the world. But even after all the success he achieved in his first five seasons, the Blackhawks still needed more from him.
He tallied only 66 points last year despite playing in all 82 regular-season games, which would be a phenomenal campaign for a normal player. But a player of Kane's caliber is expected to be more productive than that.
Inconsistency negatively impacted his performance in 2011-12. To his credit, Kane was exceptionally consistent this year. He went more than two games without tallying a point just one time and contributed to the score sheet in 37 of his 47 games.
The result was a team-leading 55 points and a career-high 1.17 points-per-game average. As Chris Peters of CBS' Eye on Hockey noted on Twitter, Kane is on track to become one of the top-scoring American players in NHL history:
After such a strong regular season, scoring goals in the postseason was surprisingly difficult for Kane at certain times. He scored just twice in the first 15 playoff games, which once again ignited concerns about his consistency.
But in typical Kane fashion, he stepped up when the Blackhawks needed it most. He helped eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings with a spectacular hat trick in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final to finish the series with five points in five games.
Following a 2-0 shutout loss in the Cup final to the Boston Bruins that put the Blackhawks in a 2-1 hole, Kane erupted for three goals, an assist and a plus/minus rating of plus-four in the final three games of the finals.
In Game 5, with the series tied 2-2, Kane scored the first two goals of the contest and completely dominated the vaunted Bruins defense led by captain Zdeno Chara. Kane didn't get on the board in Game 6, but he was one of the most dangerous players with the puck and set up the game-tying goal scored by Bryan Bickell with just over a minute left in regulation.
Kane has built a solid reputation as a big-game player, one who relishes the pressure of the postseason. In six playoff appearances, he has tallied 71 points (29 goals, 42 assists) in 74 career games. Even though he's still a young player, it's not difficult to argue that Kane has already established himself among the best players to ever wear the historic Blackhawks sweater.
Tim Sassone of the Daily Herald offered his opinion on the matter Monday night:
You could have made the case for Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford as a more deserving Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, but Chicago would not have hoisted the Stanley Cup on Monday without Kane playing at an elite level in the second half of the series.
He's a special player who satisfies diehard hockey fans and draws in casual fans with his brilliant displays of exquisite skill. Not many players do something incredible every game that makes the insanely expensive ticket prices fans pay to watch their favorite stars more than worth it.
Kane already has a stellar NHL resume that includes two Stanley Cups, a Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) and a Conn Smythe Trophy with his best years still ahead of him. After his most impressive season with the Blackhawks, it's now time for the young superstar to become a model of consistency and further his legacy.
Becoming one of the all-time best is all about being consistent. There's no doubt that Kane has an unbelievable amount of talent—that's never been an issue. But the greatest players of all time, such as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, consistently produced and rarely went through prolonged slumps, especially in the playoffs.
If he wants his legacy to be comparable to the game's best, Kane has to play like he did in 2013 on a yearly basis. There's no reason why he should fail to perform at a point-per-game pace if he continues to play 80-plus games each year.
He matured a lot in this shortened season and deserves credit for putting in the time and effort required to be a more consistent and dedicated player. There were no off-ice stories that hurt his image like there were in previous years, and he's paid back the Blackhawks for the trust and support they have shown him through some difficult times.
The Hawks have a fantastic opportunity to become one of the greatest teams of all time. Their current core, which includes Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and captain Jonathan Toews, is signed long-term with two championships in four years.
If Chicago is going to become the rare team that contends for Stanley Cups over an extended period of time in a salary-cap league, it needs Kane to keep improving and maintain the hunger and determination to win trophies that he displayed this season.
Winning this year's Conn Smythe is a nice addition to his list of achievements, but the Buffalo native is capable of winning so much more before he retires. When it's time to look back on his career, Kane will be judged on the amount of titles his teams capture, not the number of individual awards he wins.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2013 Stanley Cup Final in Boston.