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Why Evander Kane is making Sabres' trade-or-extend decision a difficult one

Evander Kane is playing arguably the best hockey of his life right now as his contract is set to expire this summer. And, on the subject of trade talk, might the Sabres consider keeping him around?

When it came to roster moves, Jason Botterill’s first big test as Buffalo Sabres GM was a sizeable one. Hired in May, Botterill was tasked with hammering out a new contract for Jack Eichel, the Sabres' young star center who was due for a big-money extension, one that grew in size as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl put pen to paper on massive second contracts. It took time — almost an entire off-season — but Botterill got the job done, signing Eichel to an eight-year, $80-million deal and taking care of Buffalo’s most pressing bit of business before the puck was dropped on the campaign.

But striking the top to-do off his list has put the focus on the next-most important move Botterill will have to make this season, and that’s a decision on the future of Evander Kane.

Kane is playing out the final year of a six-year, $31.5-million deal, one that has paid him $6 million annually over the past four campaigns, and through the early part of this season, the 26-year-old is playing like he wants to ensure himself a nice raise come next season. 

In 14 games, Kane has scored seven goals, 13 points and has been remarkable in nearly every facet of the game. He’s scored three of his goals and seven of his points at even strength. He’s registered another goal and three points with the man advantage. And given the chance to out-skill opposing power play units, Kane has been impressive on the penalty kill, scoring a league-leading three shorthanded tallies. It’s the best start of his career, with some of his highest ice times and more responsibility than possibly ever before, and every single outing he’s been among the Sabres’ very best players.

And the thing is, it doesn’t seem to be smoke and mirrors. Kane’s shooting percentage isn’t exorbitantly high — he’s sitting at 10.1 percent, which is slightly above his career average but down 0.7 percent from last year’s mark — and he’s getting a handful of primary points instead of boosting his point totals with secondary assists. He also possesses a 50 percent Corsi For percentage and a relative percentage of 3.2 percent. That’s third-best among Sabres forwards. He also has 31 hits, five blocked shots and eight takeaways, for those who are into those types of numbers.

Put it all together and it’s making a situation that once seemed so incredibly cut-and-dried much more difficult.

It’s been no secret that Kane’s time in Buffalo, which began when he was shipped to the Sabres in a blockbuster deal in February 2015, has been trying. Kane has faced off-ice legal trouble, has been suspended by the team for missing practice, has sustained injuries that have kept him out of action for lengthy stretches and has failed to live up the expectations placed upon him when he was the centerpiece of an eight-player deal, which is especially the case when all five assets sent to Winnipeg in the trade — Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux and a first-round pick that became Jack Roslovic — have either contributed, are contributing or are projected to contribute to the Jets in the near future.

It’s all of those things that made it seem so incredibly likely that Kane would be shipped out last year. But Buffalo, in the face of trade speculation, made the choice to hang on to Kane not just through the deadline but through the summer and into the season. It was a move we were on board with last year as a way to keep Kane and potentially drive up his trade value. However, with former GM Tim Murray out, Botterill in and Kane playing the best hockey of his career, maybe the Sabres wouldn’t be wrong to reevaluate the situation altogether.

Reason No. 1 for second-guessing a trade may be that, in Kane, Buffalo seems to have found the perfect winger for Eichel. Under coach Phil Housley, the two have been paired together for the majority of the season, including during shorthanded situations, and the results have been impressive. A 55 percent rate of shots for, even rate of scoring chances for and against and a duo that has put up a boatload of points. Combined, Eichel and Kane have 26 points — they’re tied for first in team scoring with 13 points each — and they have both been involved in the same scoring play on eight of Buffalo’s 33 goals, nearly a quarter of the Sabres’ offense.

It’s not as if there’s another clear-cut replacement for Kane coming down the pike, either. Alexander Nylander, the Sabres’ top prospect, plays the opposite side and doesn’t possess the same tools as Kane. The former is a playmaker through and through, the latter built for and thriving as a power forward. The left wing is thin in Buffalo to the point that Housley’s second option right now is Benoit Pouliot or Zemgus Girgensons, neither of whom have had a 20-goal campaign in the NHL, let alone a 30-goal year. So, finding someone to play alongside Eichel in a Kane-less Buffalo won’t happen with the snap of a finger.

Of course, Botterill’s decision regarding Kane comes down to more than a simple keep-him-or-trade-him answer. There’s money and term involved for the pending unrestricted free agent. On the money side of things, Kane could be seeking $6 million-plus per season over several years. And while Buffalo is projected to have more than enough cap space to make that happen, they have 14 pending free agents — eight unrestricted and six restricted — whose contracts expire after this season. That has to be considered. Botterill also has to understand the market for Kane and what Buffalo could get for him at the deadline. High-round picks and a noteworthy prospect might be too much for the Sabres to pass up.

No matter what Botterill decides, though, it stands to reason that Kane has made things that much more difficult. Across his first two seasons in Buffalo, most would have considered trading Kane a no-brainer. But as he continues to show his potential to reach that 30-goal plateau once again as a prototypical power forward, the Sabres will have to decide whether or not that’s going to help this team make their long-awaited return to the playoffs.

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