Raise your hand if you didn’t want the Sabres to move on from Evander Kane this past summer. How about at the end of November, shortly after he had returned from breaking his ribs on opening night?
Put your hands down. Liars.
I too thought it was time for Tim Murray to cut bait from his big-ticket acquisition after Kane found himself in hot water for the second time in roughly six months. It seemed like the right choice to make; find a team searching for a bit more offense and see if you couldn’t get a little defensive help coming back the other way.
Now, just a few months later, my tune has changed. Slightly. Kane has scored at a torrid pace since early December, racking up 21 goals in three months’ time, all while going goalless through November – likely a side effect from returning from his broken ribs too early. Kane has now posted back-to-back 20 goal seasons for the Sabres despite missing 17 games last season and another 12 so far this year. He’s had injury issues through most of his career as his style of play isn’t conducive to completing an 82-game slate. However, his goal scoring has been something of a constant despite failing to hit the 70 game mark since 2011-12 (he did play all 48 games of the lockout shortened 2013 season).
After hitting the 30-goal plateau in 2012, Kane potted another 17 goals in 2013 (a 29-goal pace) before scoring only 19 (in 63 games) and 10 (in 37 games) the following two seasons. His injury history has kept him from playing a full NHL slate and it’s also kept him from hitting higher numbers in the goals column each season. Kane’s goal scoring pace averaged out for an 82-game season beginning is 2013-14 has been 24, 22, 25 and 35 this season. His hot streak this year is certainly something of an aberration, but for a player who has performed above the 20-goal mark for each of the last four seasons I think this season is closer to the norm than it is an outlier. Plus, I think you could argue that given his injury history, perhaps this is the closest he’s been to 100% in the last few years, so perhaps this is the player you get when Kane is truly 100%.
Projections aside, Kane’s value has never been higher. He’s scoring at nearly a 50-goal pace since his return and while that’s absolutely bonkers, it’s also exactly what contending teams are looking for. Kane’s overall game is appealing to every type of general manager. He boasts excellent speed, plays a tough, physical game and can score. He’s a prototypical power forward who is arguably playing the best hockey of his career.
His play is exactly what was advertised when the Sabres acquired him in 2015 and the production he’s provided over the past two seasons makes it awfully hard to justify trading him. Why move away from a player who is giving you exactly the type of play you were searching for when you first acquired him? Further, why move a player who could conceivably serve as a vital member of the team’s top six (or top nine) for years to come?
The caveat from the Sabres’ perspective is that Kane has one more year left on a deal that pays him $5.25 million per season. If he performs at even half the level he’s been at since December, he’ll be in for a significant raise. If he scores at this impressive of a pace again next year, he’ll be asking for a Brinks truck. With both Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart due extensions next summer, plus whatever new salary Murray adds to the blueline (hopefully), finding space to fit Kane without completely destroying the cap could be a challenge. There’s certainly a way to fit him in, but it likely means cutting corners elsewhere which can create more problems than it solves down the road.
He’s certainly not going to be taking a pay cut from the $5.25m he makes now. In a perfect world maybe the Sabres get him to take a hometown discount of $5.5m but that seems like a tall order. He’s played very well since arriving in Buffalo, I think his play last year was undersold by many and he’s obviously exceeded expectations this year. Kane is extremely effective in nearly every aspect of the game and I think his power play production would be better if Buffalo’s second unit wasn’t made up of spare parts. His on-ice resume alone justifies an extension, I just have concerns as to how that would affect Buffalo’s maneuverability elsewhere in the coming seasons.
For that reason, I’m still open to trading him. I’d prefer to keep him, I think it’s probably more conducive to long-term success to keep Kane as part of the core forward group for years to come; but if there’s any player on Buffalo’s roster who can fetch the team a defenseman capable of playing top pair minutes, it’s Kane. And despite how good he’s been for the Sabres, there’s more depth on the wings than there is on defense. So combining the potential contract pitfalls with the glaring need for talent on the blue line leads me to accepting the fact that moving Kane probably makes the most sense.
If Tim Murray can work out a deal where he doesn’t need to move Kane, then that’s ideal. If there’s a way to package picks and prospects to bring back a capable defenseman, do it. Maybe Murray thinks he can address the shortcomings on the blueline in free agency. I’d be totally open to pursuing a course of action that keeps Kane in Buffalo.
The obvious risk is not having a proper replacement for Kane’s production in the pipeline. Do Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste or Alex Nylander have 20-30 goals in them per year? Is it wise to try to replace a 25-year-old who has hit 20-plus goals in back-to-back years? The silver lining here is the Bailey hasn’t looked out of place in a top-six role, Will Carrier has adapted well to the NHL game and Baptiste has looked capable in his cameos as well. Alex Nylander projects to be a top-six winger and Hudson Fasching is still developing as well. So it’s not as if the Sabres are completely devoid of options for replacing Kane, it’s just that none of those players are known NHL quantities. None have scored 20 goals in the NHL, let alone 30 like Kane has. So there is some reason to question exactly what is waiting in the wings if you move on from Kane.
It’s really a catch 22 for Murray to feel out. He doesn’t have to make a move by March 1, which not only allows for more flexibility but keeps the ball in his court. His hand isn’t being forced prior to the deadline nor will it be forced this summer if he doesn’t get the right deal.
Shoring up the blueline is the only reason for trading Kane. That’s been fleshed out over and over as Kane’s play has continued to improve. Finding an elite number one defenseman will certainly be out of the equation, but targeting someone who can fit somewhere in the one-to-three territory is realistic to discuss. Perhaps there’s a package of players that provides a young defenseman who is a rising asset but is also ready for NHL minutes along with a promising forward who can plug into the pipeline. Going the younger route is more of a gamble as there’s more unknowns to grabbing an up-and-coming asset vs. a player whose NHL resume is a bit longer.
The debate over targeting Anaheim is a good example of this. Shea Theordore and Brandon Montour are both tremendous, young players who still have growing to do as they develop into NHL regulars. Meanwhile a player like Cam Fowler – everyone’s favorite trade target from the summer – comes with a longer track record at the NHL level. The Ducks are an easy example for this as they have a surplus of defensemen but Fowler’s play this season has followed a similar track as Kane’s and he’s about as untouchable as you can get at this point. Their youngsters are all prized talents too, so it’s not as if the Ducks are going to be knocking down the door to give away a defenseman.
Frankly, there aren’t too many ready-made trade targets when it comes to moving Kane. Most top two or three defensemen are going to be considered untouchable and of the group that aren’t prohibitive to ask about, only a handful of teams are likely to be looking hard at a trade.
Murray hasn’t been shy about sniffing out big deals in his tenure with the Sabres. So despite having a small target when it comes to potential targets to acquire in exchange for Kane, I think Murray’s one of the few GMs you could count on to swing for the fences in terms of a deal.
Finding that deal will be a challenge but if the right one comes along, accepting it seems like the best way to round out Buffalo’s roster.