Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-22-2016
Evander Kane has been getting a lot of positive attention lately. And he should.
During his time with the Buffalo Sabres criticism has been heaped upon him because of his immature off-ice antics and his very good, but not great, on-ice contributions. Add in injuries that have kept him out of the line up for large chunks of the season and the headaches he's brought to the organization weren't worth the $5.25 million cap-hit the Sabres were using on him.
Last year he scored 20 goals and had 35 points in 65 games for Buffalo. This year he's played in 20 games after coming back from injury and he's scored 11 points (6g+5a) with all of his goals and all but two points coming in the last 10 games. That turnaround puts him on a pace for about 24 goals and 20 assists. Points are one thing, but how he's getting them is more important as he's playing his game and doing the things that lead to production in the NHL.
Sabres beat reporter Paul Hamilton was on WGR550 today telling hosts Howard Simon and Jeremy White that Kane is using his speed to be first on the forecheck, is winning he battle for the puck and is getting to the net and getting pucks to the net. "It was like [he] was a totally different player," said Hamilton.
Kane was demoted to the fourth line by head coach Dan Bylsma and the reason the coach did that, according to Hamilton, was because Kane was doing one thing in particular that was detrimental to the team. "Dan Bylsma despises the 'just take a shot, you never know' type of mentality," said Hamilton of Kane's well known 'shoot from anywhere' trait. "To him that's a turnover."
"[Bylsma] believes in a shot with a purpose," continued Hamilton, "he believes you shoot from the high percentage areas."
Kane was notorious, especially when he was playing poorly, of flying up the left wing and sending a shot that lead to the other team gaining possession--either by an easy save or a wide shot that rings around the boards--and turning back up ice. He did that a lot last season which contributed to his career-low 7.4% shooting percentage. Upon his return from injury he began doing it again and Bylsma, according to Hamilton, had enough.
"I think it just got to the point where [it became] 'if that's all your're going to do, and you're not going to listen, we're just going to put you down there'" is how Hamilton believed Bylsma came to demoting Kane to the fourth line.
There's been a change in Kane's game that's drawing a lot of positive attention and if Kane can continue to eschew a "Mr. Hyde" type lapse into the dark side of his game, we may finally see the complete player GM Tim Murray traded for. Although with Kane off-ice issues always seem to be a possibility, at leas he might be able to get half the equation correct.
Speaking of that "shoot from all angles/just get pucks to the net" mentality, a young, highly skilled Toronto Maple Leafs squad is having a similar problem. According to TSN's Kristen Shilton the Leafs are second in the league in shots on goal, yet in their last meeting against the Colorado Avalanche (a team they face tonight on the road) they lost 3-1 despite sending 99 shots to the 'Lanche net and getting 52 of them on goal.
Shilton points out that Leafs coach Mike Babcock joked about his team missing the net too much as a contributing factor to their scoring deficiency and she quotes forward Nazem Kadri on the subject. "I think we have to stop trying to pick the exact corner of every single net, especially on the flank side,” said Kadri. “When you’re on the outside and putting pucks on the net and it misses the net it can wrap around the boards and create an odd-man rush for [the other team]. And if you miss the net, you don’t get secondary opportunities. So realistically we don’t have to put it in the top upper corner of the net, or go post and in, just hit the net and hope for a rebound and get goals that way.”
Wonder if Kane's been in Toronto lately?
When Rasmus Ristolainen signed his six-year/$32.4 million contract extension, his status amongst most followers that he was at the very least a top-pairing defenseman and on the Sabres he was their No. 1. He went into this season with steady season-over-season progression in points, ice-time and responsibility. As of right now he's continuing mightily with that progression and it's looking like the team got themselves a helluva deal.
If you'll remember, Ristolainen came into camp as an unsigned restricted free agent that asked permission to practice with the team. It was a curious request, one not normally found in any sport, much less hockey, but Murray granted Ristolianen's wish while they worked on his contract. When it was inked, here's what Murray said to the media, "Rasmus has already proven to be a pivotal player on our blue line, and we are eager to have him back with the team. This deal is a reflection of the hard work and improvement Rasmus has shown since being drafted. And we hope to see him continue on this trajectory moving forward."
Sure enough, Ristolainen has continued that trajectory and has taken it to another level. His ice-time is up and he's on pace for major up-tick in his production.
After Ristolainen finished last season 10th in the league in ATOI with 25:26 minutes/game, Bylsma said in the off-season that he'd be trimming his minutes. Yet as injuries piled up on the blueline, Ristolainen found himself reaching the 29:00-mark and now averages a fifth-best 26:41/game. And he can handle more. "He’s a guy who’ll take as much as you give him. The overtimes, he seems like he can keep going and going and going. Nothing can stop him," said Bylsma to the gathered media yesterday.
"He gets a 30-second breather and he’s back out there again. He ends up with 28 minutes and again we can have this conversation probably over and over again about the number of minutes that you want him to play, but he handled 28 minutes just fine, [Tuesday] night."
Ristolainen's also on a tear in the scoring department with 13 points (3+10) in his last 10 games which places him atop the team in scoring with 23 points (3+20) overall. The run has him on a 60-point pace (8+52) and with the confidence the 22 yr. old has shown of late, he could very well hit that.
Many are starting to look at Ristolainen as a possible Norris candidate while this blogger was simply looking at him as a having the makings of a good captain once Gionta steps aside. Hamilton kind of sealed it for me when he told the morning guys on WGR550, that Ristolainen "really wants to help this hockey team and he was willing to take less money to do it."
Regardless, we're watching the evolution of something special. Just how special is yet to be determined, but something special none-the-less.
--The only person that will be of any help to Robin Lehner when it comes to the shootout is...Robin Lehner. It's in his head, obviously, but he needs to go into the skills competition with an open mind. Simply put, it can't get any worse.
--Dan Bylsma coached NJ Devils winger Beau Bennett when he was behind the bench in Pittsburgh. The Penguins used the 20th overall pick in 2010 to draft Bennett. During his best years I saw a player who was extremely quick to the puck and as a rookie he scored 14 points (3+11) in 26 games. Devils GM drafted Bennett when he was in Pittsburgh then sent a third-rounder to the Pens when he took over in New Jersey. Injuries have been an issue but it might be a low-end/low-risk move for the Sabres to bolster the bottom-six with some high-end skill.
--Speaking of the shootout. Sam Reinhart is 2-4 this season and 3-6 over the last two. Methinks it might not be a bad idea to go with him should the Sabres find themselves in that predicament. Next on the list is Matt Moulson who went 1-3 last season but has yet to score this season. He should be another choice. And, one would think that Jack Eichel should be an automatic player designate for the shootout since he is the team's franchise player. There's your top three for the foreseeable future, the only question should be, what order?
--Zemgus Girgensons is having a rough year after coming off of a pretty rough year last season. He's been relegated to the fourth line and can be seen on the ice with the Sabres coming out of special teams situations. Last game he was on the penalty kill for 3:06. I wonder if we're seeing the possibility of him being rebuilt from the ground up after his confidence sunk to an all-time low.
--According to Sabres.com, Ristolainen blasted one off the mask of backup goalie Anders Nilsson and cracked it forcing Nilsson to go with a plain white backup mask. After all the new sticks Ristolainen broke early in the season, at one point prompting Bylsma to bench him on the powerplay because of it, it's good that he went back to the old one. At least for the stat-sheet.
--Finally, and this has nothing to do with above post, Lehner gets the call tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes in Buffalo's final home game before the Christmas break. Hopefully Nilsson gets his mask situation in order as he'll probably be in net tomorrow night at the NY Islanders in Buffalo's last game before the break.