BUFFALO – Barely a year ago, as rumors swirled the Sabres wanted to trade Evander Kane, the same question kept popping up: did the enigmatic winger possess any real value?
Kane, 25, wasn’t just coming off a disappointing 20-goal season in 2015-16. Off the ice, he partied in Toronto and missed practice, earning a one-game benching. Then in June, with the team hosting the NHL Draft, Kane was arrested.
Combine his limited production and other issues with a hefty $5.25 million salary, and Kane wasn’t exactly a hot commodity.
Fast forward to today, and Kane, having just completed an impressive 28-goal season, might be coveted this summer. He not only established himself as a lethal goal scorer over a torrid four-month stretch, he also never made headlines off the ice. The charges from the June incident will be dropped soon if he stays out of trouble.
With one year remaining on the six-year, $31.5 million contract Winnipeg awarded him, Kane could fetch a notable return, perhaps even help the Sabres acquire the young, puck-moving defenseman they need so badly.
Of course, the Sabres acquired Kane to score goals, so if he has morphed into the slick power forward they envisioned and he’s not a distraction, why trade him? The Sabres need his production. They ranked 25th in goals this season, scoring only 199.
That said, the Sabres’ higher-ups and team leaders have said they want a better commitment from everyone next season. Yes, Kane goes full tilt during games. Still, he’s usually the first player off the ice when practice ends. Kane said last week he doesn’t prepare like “the typical hockey player.”
“I just reiterate about our whole team, we need to show a lot of growth and a lot of maturity in our whole game,” coach Dan Bylsma said last Monday as the Sabres held exit meetings after finishing last in the Atlantic Division.
Kane’s future should be one of the Sabres’ top storylines this offseason. General manager Tim Murray has said he might be open to negotiating a new deal.
“That is something I’ve thought very, very little about,” Kane said of a new contract.
Clearly, if Kane produces around 30 goals again, he could cash in if he hits unrestricted free agency.
Despite starting the season ominously – he barreled into the boards and broke four ribs opening night – Kane produced more goals than any Sabre in the last five years.
When he returned from his injury after an 11-game absence Nov. 9, he wasn’t ready to play.
“I got off to a tough start, getting hurt,” Kane said. “I came back too early, didn’t feel, I want to say, 100 percent the first five, six, seven games coming back.”
Incredibly, Kane scored his first goal Dec. 3, his 13th appearance. Once he scored his first, he rattled off 25 goals over a scorching 45-game stretch. Most impressively, he did much of his damage at even strength, often skating on the third line.
Kane scored just three power-play goals all season. The 25 even-strength goals he scored from Dec. 3 until the season ended ranked first in the NHL over that stretch. His .36 even-strength goals a game over 70 appearances – the highest average by a Sabre since Jason Pominville in 2006-07 – ranked 11th in the league.
“(I) was able to get out of that funk and start playing the way I know I can play,” said Kane, a minus-17, the worst rating among Sabres forwards. “I’m looking forward to hopefully doing that over an 82-game schedule.”
Kane’s season, however, was still filled with disappointment. Eight years and 496 games into his career, he has never played a single postseason contest.
“That’s kind of the ultimate goal,” he said. “I’ve always envisioned myself as a playoff player, but I haven’t had an opportunity to show it. That’s disappointing as well. With the guys we have in here, I feel there’s really not an excuse, especially up front. We have a lot of talent, a lot of skill.”
Kane believes the Sabres just need “a little bit more bite in our game.”
“That doesn’t mean bringing big, physical guys in,” he said. “It means our skill guys, whether you’re big, whether you’re small, playing with a lot more bite, a little bit more grit and being hard to play against.”