Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--LW, Evander Kane

Published by, 9-6-2016

Back in February, 2015 Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray, who'd been on the job just over a year, defined the makeover of his team with a blockbuster deal that landed LW, Evander Kane. Murray told the gathered media at the Kane presser, "I think I said from Day-1 that we have a lot of picks and I've said all along that I'd much rather use them for players that have played a certain amount of games in the league, but that still fit the rebuild, still fit the age category that we needed."

Murray had scouted Kane for years dating back at least to the Vancouver, BC native's time with his hometown Giants in the Western Hockey League. In his last year of junior Kane produced a well-balanced 48 goals and 48 assists in 61 regular season games for the Giants while adding 7 goals and 8 assists in 15 playoff games. He was taken with the 4th-overall selection by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft then proceeded to hit the ice as an 18 yr. old. Throughout his NHL career thus far--from Atlanta to Winnipeg, where the Thrashers were relocated to in 2011, to Buffalo--that scoring balance has remained. His career stats are 129 goals and 128 assists in 426 regular season games.

What Kane brings to the table is a rare convergence of size, speed, skill, physicality and selective pugilism, the latter of which was on display as an 18 yr. old in April, 2010. It was late in his rookie season when he goaded into a fight by hated NHL pest Matt Cooke. Kane proceeded to drop Cooke with a one-punch, knockout right hook which immediately gained the attention of the hockey world.

Outside of that famous incident Kane was progressing nicely and by the end of his entry-level contract, he hit the 30-goal mark. At the post-trade presser Murray told the gathered media, "You watch him play on the ice, he plays hard, he plays in traffic, he doesn't play a perimeter game, he plays a heavy game, he scores goals from around the net, he plays the game right.

"He finishes checks, he's a good fighter. That's his character on the ice."
That last part is a very telling quote. On-ice Kane surely does all of those things but he's yet to find the proper balance off-ice.

At the end of his entry-level contract Kane was re-signed by Winnipeg to the tune of a 6 yr./$31.5M extension and he proceeded to ride the wave using social media to post pictures of himself in Las Vegas on his "money phone" and doing pushups with stacks of cash on his back. Eventually his flamboyance got him into hot water in Winnipeg and he was essentially blackballed by the players in his own locker room before being traded to Buffalo.

The incidents in Winnipeg were many and he allowed his off-ice troubles to scar his first year in Buffalo as well. In December, 2015 he was the subject of a sex offense investigation by the Buffalo Police Department. A couple of months later, he missed a Sabres practice after hobnobbing with NBA All-Stars up in Toronto. And last month Kane was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass, non-criminal disorderly conduct and four counts of non-criminal harassment stemming from an incident that occurred in a Buffalo bar while the city was hosting the NHL Draft.

Such is the dichotomy of Evander Kane. On-ice he can be a coaches dream yet off-ice he can be a GM's nightmare.

It's gotten to the point in Buffalo where nearly everyone is wondering if it's all worth it. Management, of course, is pretty tight-lipped but the rumor mill has him on the block with the Vancouver Canucks being the only team possibly interested in trading for him. This makes for a very tough situation for the Sabres and that doesn't even include possible disciplinary actions the league might take for this latest incident.

Kane finished last season with 20 goals and 15 assists in 65 games for the Sabres. Not a bad season for a player coming off of shoulder surgery and coming to a team that just spent two years in the basement of the league. The Sabres also had a new coaching staff, quite a few new players and a new system for everyone to get acclimated to. Kane also was felled by a knee injury suffered in October after playing in only eight games. Chemistry problems were on display from the get-go as his solo efforts were as hard to track for his linemates as were his shots. Kane's shooting percentage of 7.4% were the worst of his seven-year career.

It was about as bad a season, both on and off the ice, as Kane could have had yet he still managed to hit the 20-goal mark. Which leads us to this season.

There are a lot of question marks for Kane and the Sabres heading into the season, plain and simple. Organizationally the left side is probably the weakest area for the club and at the NHL-level it's second only to the question marks in goal. The Sabres have loaded up on centers over the past four years and have used the likes Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons in a top-six role at left wing. At the 2016 NHL Draft they selected a highly skilled left-winger in Alexander Nylander 8th-overall but as with most 18 yr. olds coming out of junior he probably won't be ready to make the jump. Even if it looks as if he could, a younger team still trying to find its way with a one-year old system may not be the best place for Nylander to develop and long-term it might be best if he at least started the year in Rochester with the Amerks.

The depth-chart for the Sabres on the left side is weak, that's why Murray went so hard after left wing  Jimmy Vesey, and regardless of his off-ice antics and/or his on-ice unevenness, Kane is the only legitimate top-line left-winger Buffalo has. And barring a last minute trade, that's where he'll more than likely start the season.

At this point in time one shouldn't count on a full Saul-to-Paul off-ice transformation for Kane regardless of what happens when he goes to court later this week. Rarely does something like that happen especially with a player so seemingly in love with himself in the social and social media spotlight. It's a shame, really, but it's nothing new to sports.

Best case scenario for both player and club is for Kane's focus to be on the ice while trying to stay out of trouble outside the rink. At 25 he's still very young, right in the middle of his prime, and he still has all the skills he's always had. He has two top-flight NHL centers in Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel to work with and he's on a team that's on the rise. Ownership isn't afraid to spend money and management isn't afraid to pursue any piece that might fit their puzzle as they try and put together a Stanley Cup Championship team. About the only thing lacking for a young stud like Kane is the nightlife, which doesn't seem very healthy for him anyway.

From a purely hockey perspective, there's no reason why Kane shouldn't be on the top line heading into the season and there's no reason why he shouldn't hit the 20-goal mark again with decent shot at 30. But it's up to him.

Murray bet big on Kane and defended the to his owner by saying  "Players have warts. The best players have warts. I can tell you the best of the very best players have warts." For the betterment of the team and the player, someone needs to take a freezy gun to Kane's off-ice antics so that both player and team can move forward.

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane/ C, Ryan O'Reilly

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