The Sabres’ lone deal was a minor league trade involving two players, Dan Catenacci and Mat Bodie, who have a combined 11 games NHL experience. Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov were both potential deadline rentals for teams in contention, but neither free agent-to-be was sent packing on March 1. And the most interesting of the Sabres’ assets, winger Evander Kane, was also among those who stayed on the roster past the deadline.
Kane, 25, was an interesting one heading into the deadline for a number of reasons. There had been speculation throughout much of the early season that the Sabres were, at the very least, listening to offers for the winger. On-ice, Kane hadn’t performed to near the level Buffalo was hoping when they made the blockbuster trade with the Winnipeg Jets to acquire him. In his first full season, he scored only 20 goals and 35 points, despite being pegged to have 30-plus goal potential. But it wasn’t just that. Kane had run into some issues off-ice that made it seem like his days as a Sabre were numbered.
That said, Kane had been coming on strong in the back half of the season. From the start of January up until the March 1 deadline, Kane had posted 14 goals and 20 points in 27 games. He was skating nearly 19 minutes per night and putting a ton of shots on goal. Kane was seemingly starting to come into his own. Around these parts, we argued that it’d make more sense to hang on to Kane through the deadline and see if he can’t keep this up, leading to an even bigger haul at the 2017-18 deadline.
But apparently that Kane wasn’t traded wasn’t just because the Sabres want to increase their haul next year. Instead, a pair of factors were at play for Sabres GM Tim Murray. First, he said that the offers for Kane simply weren’t good enough for it to make sense, via The Buffalo News. Second, he said that he’d be open to inking Kane to a contract extension, something that few thought would have been a possibility when the campaign began.
According to The Buffalo News, Murray indicated that would be contingent on whether or not “a couple things [Kane] has going on off the ice go away and stuff like that.” And there’s the rub with any extension for Kane. His time in Buffalo has been rocky. There were two run-ins with the law, the first a sexual assault allegation that didn’t result in any criminal charge and the second resulting from an alleged altercation in a bar. The latter saw Kane handcuffed and charged in July, but the charges were dismissed in April. That’s not to mention the one notable difficulty with the coaching staff. Kane was benched last season for missing a practice late in the season after attending the NBA All-Star Game the night before.
But, as far as this season goes, Kane has stayed out of trouble. The only games he’s missed all season have been due to injury and illness, and it’s clear coach Dan Bylsma respects Kane’s game and relies heavily on the winger. He averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time per game during the 2015-16 season and Kane is still up around 19 minutes per night on a deeper Sabres team. There’s been no indication that Kane didn’t mean what he said when he told reporters following the missed practice that he was going to start taking hockey more seriously.
The on-ice results have shown that he’s taking things more seriously, too. His point production this season stands to dwarf that of the 2015-16 campaign, despite the fact that his overall ice time will be down significantly. In eight fewer games, Kane has already surpassed the past season’s goal total by three — he has 23 markers in 58 games — and he’s one off of matching his 35-point total from 2015-16. His 5-on-5 point rates have shot up this season, as well. He’s producing 1.54 goals and 1.93 points per 60 minutes, thanks in large part to an uptick in his shooting percentage. Unsustainable? Sure, but even a slight dip from the 13.7 percent he’s shooting at 5-on-5 would still make him a steady goal scorer.
He’s one of the better scorers the Sabres have at this point, too. At a per-game rate, the only players who’ve produced more for Buffalo are Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo. Kane’s the team’s leading goal scorer by four goals — in 11 fewer games, it’s worth noting — and he’s only nine points back of the team scoring lead.
So, with Kane scoring and an extension at least in consideration, the question becomes the price tag. Right now, Kane carries a cap hit of $5.25 million and he’s earning $6 million per season. It’s hard to say that’s exactly where Kane will land on any new deal — the raise could be more slight than $750,000 — but his production would indicate he could be in for a slight increase in pay. If he hits free agency, he’s almost sure to get a raise based on promise alone. It’s tough to find a comparable for Kane, but here’s one possibility: Milan Lucic, he of the seven-year, $42-million deal.
Lucic has the playoff experience, the physicality to his game and a certain intimidation factor. Kane, however, has greater scoring ability, more speed and his own kind of physical edge. Both have scored at a .59 point per game rate since the start of the 2014-15 season, but Kane has 53 goals to Lucic’s 52. And the overall difference in scoring, which is 43 points, can largely be attributed to all the time Kane has missed. His scoring rate would project him to have 78 goals over the same number of games played as Lucic, making Kane a near consistent 30-goal player. Maybe that puts him into the range of a $6 million annual salary, right alongside Lucic.
The money could prove difficult down the line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart up for new deals the same season as Kane becomes a UFA, but that’s the same cap math that every team has to go through at some point. The recent addition of Okposo, who has six years and $36 million left on his contract after this season, could also come into play. With that in mind, money could be one of the biggest factors in Buffalo’s decision to keep Kane, trade him or let him walk as a free agent.
Signing Kane as early as July 1, the day the Sabres can offer an extension, would be hasty, but like shipping Kane out at the deadline, it could worth it for the Sabres to see what he can produce next season. But there will still be a lot of questions to be answered before an extension becomes a reality. Kane will have to prove himself to management on- and off-ice and both sides would have to find a way for the money to work. If that happens, though, the Sabres handing Kane an extension might not be as far-fetched an idea as it seemed earlier this season.
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