BUFFALO – Phil Housley’s approach with the Sabres throughout his first training camp has been straightforward: the past doesn’t matter to the rookie coach.
“It’s simple for me,” Housley said Monday inside KeyBank Center. “We want to come in with a clean slate and a fresh start.”
That explains why Sabres winger Evander Kane, a slick scorer dogged by off-ice incidents two years ago, sported an ‘A’ as an alternate captain for some preseason games.
“We’ve established a leadership group here, (I’m) happy to be a part of that,” Kane said. “I definitely feel I’m able to take on that role. I look forward to that challenge.”
For most coaches, Kane’s past would’ve disqualified him from wearing a letter. To Housley, who said he has “seen nothing but positive things” from Kane, the veteran deserves an opportunity.
“I don’t take into regard what’s happened in the past,” Housley said. “I only see what’s happened in front of me day-to-day. Evander’s been a great role model for our guys on and off the ice. He’s a hard worker on the ice. He leads by example, and that’s part of the reason.”
A glowing review like Housley’s probably would’ve never been uttered by former Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, who benched Kane for one game in February 2016 after he partied in Toronto and overslept practice. Kane was arrested that June following an incident at a local bar. Trespassing and harassment charges were later dropped.
But Kane, 26, stayed out of trouble in 2016-17, and he enjoyed a splendid season, scoring a team-high 28 goals in 70 games.
These days, Kane’s excited by Housley’s presence. Kane said Housley told his players right away he would deal with them honestly.
“(He’s) backing that up with his actions,” Kane said. “That’s really all you can ask for as players. I think everything he does on and off the ice with our systems and how we play, it’s pretty honest.”
Housley’s fast-paced style could unleash the speedy Kane, who dazzled last season despite playing in Bylsma’s slow system.
While center Jack Eichel’s frustration with Bylsma’s style grabbed most of the attention, Kane often voiced his displeasure.
Kane later acknowledged he probably returned too soon.
Then his first goal in his 13th appearance ignited him. From Dec. 3 until the season ended, he ranked sixth in the NHL with 28 goals in only 58 appearances.
How valuable was Kane to the Sabres? He scored 18 percent (25) of the team’s league-low 139 even-strength goals.
“I could’ve finished a whole lot more (opportunities),” Kane said. “I definitely wasn’t satisfied with my totals. I’m really not looking at last year, I’m just kind of focusing on this year.”
This year could be a breakout campaign for the former fourth overall pick.
Given Kane has a new coach who plans to better utilize his talents and he’s playing for a new contract as an unrestricted free agent next summer, the prestigious 40-goal mark seems attainable if he stays healthy.
Kane, however, wouldn’t reveal a number he wants to hit.
“Everybody that walks into training camp has goals in mind for themselves,” he said. “I just … want to try to be as consistent offensively as a can. After I scored my first goal, I thought I was pretty consistent, had a good pace going and just want to try to start that this time in game one.”
In the past, Kane has been criticized for shooting the puck too much, often giving it up too easily inside the blue line. Keeping the puck and zooming to the net buoyed last season.
Still, Housley wants Kane to shoot more often.
“That goes along with the other players on our team,” Housley said. “We’ve got to have more of a shot mentality. It’s something you can talk about. Until you keep driving it in, eventually it’s going to come.”