Should Evander Kane Be Better?

Kane at goal mouth_JetsCaps

Photo by clydeorama

The TSN talking heads offered up their usual keen analysis in the intermission of last night’s shootout loss to the struggling Canucks. One of the most stunning bits of wisdom came from Bob McKenzie’s mouth, who articulated something Jets fans have heard before. Sure, Evander Kane is good and all, but why isn’t he better?

In particular, McKenzie and TSN showed clips of Kane’s speed – busting around Jason Garrison in Vancouver, drawing a penalty shot call, and beating Jan Hejda like Hejda was on roller skates – and made the comment that even as a 30 goal scorer, Kane looks like he should score more. 

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Is that a reasonable analysis of Kane? How much better can he be?

How good is he now?

Evander is in his fifth NHL season and may feel like an old-hand to fans who have watched all or most of his 310 NHL games. In truth, he turns 23 in August and is just 3 months older than Taylor Hall. As a very good player with an advanced physique for his age, Kane stepped onto NHL ice in the October that followed his 4th overall selection at the draft (just behind Matt Duchene and just ahead of Brayden Schenn – remember those names). It didn’t hurt that he was taken by a very poor club desperate to make an impact on the ice and spread hope in their fan base.  

His 14 goals (17-goal pace) that season put him in Rick Nash / Kirk Muller territory for best all-time seasons by an 18 year old. A 21-goal pace in his final Atlanta season was followed by a 30-goal (33-goal paced) season at 20 that tied him with the older Nash for 25th in league scoring (though Kane was 20th if you go by goals per game). Paced for 29 more in the lockout-shortened year and having never topped his very reasonable rookie shooting percentage of 11%, it seemed Kane had established his scoring level. 

In fact, fighting through injury, all sorts of team drama, a coach that may or may not have benched him, and long stretches with the linemate he is least suited to, Kane is on pace for a 25 goal season on a depressed 7.6% red-light rate.

But the point McKenzie made is not that Kane is bad, just that he could be better. 

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Compared to Other Scorers

There is a serious disconnect between what fans and media discuss as an ‘elite’ scorer and what players actually produce. In Kane’s best scoring season, Stamkos had 60, Malkin had 50, and Gaborik was third in league scoring with 41. James Neal and Ovechkin hit (or were on pace to hit) the 40 goal mark. Just five players at or over 40 goals. Only 30 players in the whole league scored 30 or more goals. That seems like pretty rare company in the world’s best league where 540 players are in active duty on a given night.

2011/12 was a season in which Scorers of Fortune – Radim Vrbata, Michael Ryder, Matt Moulson, Erik Cole, and Milan Michalek – were all around the 35 goal mark with the help of elite linemates, big minutes, and in some cases a smidge of luck. Meanwhile, Evander Kane matched Daniel Sedin, Rick Nash, and Patrick Marleau while playing half of his 1,067 5-on-5 minutes with Burmistrov as his centre, and the rest with Kyle Wellwood and/or Nik Antropov. He played just over 2 minutes a night on the PP, 4th on the Jets and 40% less than what other 30 goal scorers were given. And where, for example, John Tavares (selected 1st in Kane’s draft year) scored 31 goals in almost 1,680 (non-shorthanded) minutes, Kane managed 30 in fewer than 1,300. 

In other words, Evander Kane IS better than his numbers tell us. Travis Hrubeniuk found that Olli Jokinen has been a real impediment to Kane’s game, but it’s not like he had Nik Backstrom or Martin St Louis on his line before the Jets brought in the reigning Winner of the JetsNation Season Goat Award. And though most 30+ goal scorers are given heavy minutes to make it happen, Kane has never been his team’s top offensive option at evens or on the powerplay. 

Compared to Players his Age

This is where I think Kane’s elite status is most obvious. As an August ’91 birthday, Kane narrowly fell into the 2009 draft. He is 11 months younger than Tavares (taken 3 spots ahead of him), and just 5 weeks younger than some players taken a year later. 

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Evander Kane is the third highest scoring player born in the calendar year of 1991 at .616 points per game. Ahead of him? Taylor Hall (.896) and Matt Duchene (.775). Tarasenko (.590) is fourth, followed by some big name players like Ryan O’Reilly (.547, 6th), and 5th overall pick in 2009, Brayden Schenn (.469, 11th).

Once again, Hall and Duchene are supremely talented players who have been given every chance to succeed. Evander Kane has been given second-tier (or worse) linemates and limited powerplay time. All three have terrific speed and can create vertically. Hall and Duchene have also shown their half-court offensive chops, and there is a fair debate about whether Kane’s lesser success in his area is a limitation of his skills or a limitation of his opportunity.

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How Much Better Can He Be?

There’s no math equation here, though his shoot percentage is low this year and should rebound. And despite Bob McKenzie’s insistence, it’s equally silly to assign Kane greater expectations because he can beat slow-footed defenders a half-dozen at a time. He’s already in the top 5% of league scorers and the ceiling is closer to 35 goals than the mythical 50 mark so liberally thrown around by on-lookers. 

Still, the question may hinge more on how much better the team wants to support Kane. Injuries have constrained both Jets coaches this season, but Kane was a big part of Scheifele’s 6-game point streak in December and the two-some had real chemistry. 

Strangely, former coach Claude Noel put that line (with Frolik) against the toughest opponents and it wasn’t always pretty. With a more sensible coach in 2014, Kane may have a chance to play with a puck-savvy center and another scoring winger consistently for the first season of his NHL career. 

For now, Evander Kane is already an elite scorer and for all the shots we wish would find the twine instead of the glass behind it, there are only a handful of NHL players who could do more in his situation. 

  • The Last Big Bear

    I agree with McKenzie.

    There’s no reason Kane can’t be a top-10 scorer in the NHL.

    Before the Olympics, I compiled ‘Advanced Stats’ Canadian Olympic team. The roster was based purely on advanced stats, and I was blinded to the player names, so I couldn’t see which player was which.

    The forward ranks were very similar to what the pundits were saying, but one of the few surprise additions was Evander Kane. And he was an absolute lock for the All-Stats Olympic team.

    My comments at the time were:

    “Evander Kane’s advanced stats are an eye-opener. The kid is doing some damage against the best players in the NHL, while on a terrible team.”

  • The Last Big Bear

    Kaner is unlikely to hit big goal numbers in his career, 50+ stuff, because he does not deliver the kind of consistent above average shooting % that the Stamkos and Ovis of the world do. Unfortunately his low PP minutes look justified as well, he is just that smart with the puck in that circumstance.

    On the otherhand Kane can take heavy D-zone deployment and convert it into offence, in my mind this is far more valuable than just scoring talent. That he would be an excellent Blues or Kings top line player bodes well for the Jets if they can ever develop something close to a rational deployment strategy.