Why Evander Kane is a top-6 forward

Earlier today Gary Lawless said a few things about Winnipeg Jets young forward Evander Kane during an appearance on TSN 1050. Some of what he said I agree with, and some I don’t.

Let’s get into it.

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Let’s start with a necessary disclosure: I have a lot of respect for Gary Lawless, who I consider to be an intelligent, hard-working hockey writer and analyst with whom I have a collegial relationship. 

For those that do not know, I have written in the Winnipeg Free Press and been a guest on TSN 1290 strictly because Lawless can disagree but still be civil and respect someone. In my opinion, this is the right way to do things. 

I dislike the back-and-forth ad hominem garbage that occasionally goes on between bloggers and media working for more traditional outlets on a daily basis. If I had it my way, discussion would be like two friends arguing at a bar over beers, similar to Norm and Cliff (for you youngin’s out there, that was two characters from a television show)

You can disagree passionately and complete with someone and not be a jerk about it. I’d also be lying, if I said I have never made the mistake of being uncivil in situations, but I’m working on it. With that out of the way, let’s see how I do as I tear into some of Lawless’ comments about Kane’s abilities as a hockey player. 

As I stated earlier, there are things I don’t necessarily disagree with. Should the Jets trade Kane? Should the Jets not have paid Kane 6 million dollars? The answers to these questions are normative. While you can support your opinion with facts, it’s still going to be subjective and based on your values. I could see myself agreeing with either point.

Let’s get on with it and unpack Lawless’ actual comments from his TSN 1050 appearance on Wednesday:

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(Evander Kane) is not a natural goal scorer.

He scored 30, I think it’s an anomaly. He can get streaky, but you look at his career, he scores at a .6 per game clip over his career. This year he has 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points, he’s at .59. That’s what he is.

He’s not a three-quarters of a point guy a game, he’s not a point a game guy, he scores at a little bit more than half a point a game. His career is almost 400 games old, he’s 23. If we’re expecting more to come from Evander Kane, I think our expectations are probably unrealistic…

He’s a very good third-line player, he can climb up in the lineup if there’s an injury, but I don’t think he’s a regular top-six guy… I don’t see it.

*Lawless is asked about Kane’s linemates and usage*

He’s played with different people and it never seems to make much of a difference for him… When he scored 30 goals, who did he play with?

Natural Goal Scorer?

When arguing points logically you need to define terms. What is and isn’t a “natural goal scorer”? Good and bad – or other similar words in meaning – are relative to a floating point. Compared to the entire human population there would be no argument that Kane is elite just by being in the NHL as a goal scorer. There’s no doubt Kane could destroy my men’s league.

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But what about when we compare his performance to his NHL peers?

From the moment Kane started playing in Winnipeg up until now, he’s 53 goals in 3315 five-on-five minutes. This places Kane 44th in the entire NHL in goal scoring pace, and second of any Jet (FYI: Andrew Ladd is 43rd, Mathieu Perreault is 45th, and Blake Wheeler is 125th). Keep in mind that there are 90 players in the NHL on a first line, and 180 players in top six positions. For more context, Sidney Crosby is at 42nd and Patrick Kane is 41st.

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Now Lawless stated that Kane’s 30 goal season was likely an anomaly. This may or may not be true, but just incase it is, we can cut it out of the sample. If we remove that season – so looking at 2012-15 – we see that Evander Kane falls all the way down to 63rd, one spot ahead of Marian Gaborik.

But this is unfair selection bias… While Kane may not be as good as his best year, he is equally unlikely to be as bad as his worst year. Closing the sample to 2012-14 we find Evander Kane sitting 35th in even strength goal scoring per minute, right in between Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.

With well over 300 forwards a year playing 500+ minutes, this places Evander Kane in the top 21% in the best league at the very worst case scenario.

Now you may be wonder about all situations, since the numbers above are just even strength. For the larger 2011-15 sample, Evander Kane sits in 61st in goals per minute. The trend is similar for the other years.

Good Third Line Player?

Again this can depend. If you look at Team Canada in the Olympics, there are elite forwards in the NHL who are good third line or fourth line players. Crosby is a good fourth line player if you somehow find nine players better than him.

The question should not be: Is he a good third line player? The question should be: Could he be a good first or second line player? Again, we can compare him to his peers.

Since the move to Winnipeg, Evander Kane has scored 0.89 goals (G/60) and 1.85 points per sixty minutes (P/60) of 5-on-5 ice time. The average (median) first line player – sorted by ice time – since 2007 scores 0.84 G/60, while the value is 0.75 and 0.59 respectively for second and third line players. Then looking at P/60, the depth chart averages fall at 2.03, 1.73, and 1.42.

In other words, Kane scores goals at a faster rate than the average first liner, and his points sit in between the average first and average second line player. For the Jets, he places in second for goals and fifth in point production.

If you are really set on using the inferior points per game rate rather than per minute rate, Evander Kane’s 0.69 points per game rate is 82nd in the NHL for active players with 100+ games played. This number rises up to 59th if you select only listed wingers at hockey-reference.com; the young forward falls between the mis-listed David Backes and Brad Marchand.

Scoring is important – someone has to put the puck in the net – but out scoring your opponent is more important. Under the same sample, Kane has posted a 51.3 Corsi For percentage. The average player in their respective depth position sits at 51.9, 50.7, and 49.3. Kane’s Corsi percentage combining this season and the last sits at 51.8 percent, and rises to 52.0 percent when you adjust for his teammates and line matching.

Does Kane Make His Linemates Better?

So does Kane improve the performance of his linemates?

Not in the same way as a playmaker like Crosby does, by directly improving players with specific intentions to do so, but Kane still improves the performance of his teammates when they share the ice with him.

In terms of shot differentials, his linemates have a tendency to do better with Kane than apart from him. Kane’s linemates have generally been solid plays and have out-attempted their opponents, directing 50.2 percent of shot attempts on the opposing net when playing apart from the controversial Jets power forward. However, Kane’s linemates with the 23-year-old winger have directed 51.3 percent of shot attempts.

So Kane helps his teammates tilt the ice in favourable direction, generally speaking.

It’s not just looking at shot attempt differentials that we see improvement either. Kane’s linemate’s Corsi For percentage may improve by 1.1 percentage points, but their goal differentials improve as well, by a slightly smaller margin.

Kane isn’t just helping his teammates control play, he’s helping them outscore the opposition.

Finally, Kane’s linemates tend to score more points with Kane than without him. On average the Jets score 2.25 goals per 60 minutes without Kane, but score 2.68 goals per 60 minutes with Kane on the ice.

So he helps his teammates control play, out-score the opposition, and pick up counting stats.

Does the identity of Kane’s linemates matter?

This brings us to Lawless’ final point: that Kane is what he is regardless of who he’s skating with. Is that the case, or do Kane’s linemates impact his rate of production?

The short answer is that, in my view, they do. Other players always make a difference. 

All evidence and research by the analytical blogosphere has indicated that linemates are the single most important usage factor in a players results. Whether you’re Sidney Crosby, Jonnathan Toews, or Tanner Glass, your linemates will mater and by similar amounts. What sets players apart is how they do with comparable linemates.

Linemates matter, and Kane’s coaches haven’t done him much of a service with who he’s been placed with.

For example, it would appear that Kane’s scoring rates (points per 60) have a significant relationship with his centre’s Corsi percentage, with the one outlier being Mathieu Perreault – a relatively new teammate with whom he has only played alongside for only 97 minutes. In 2014 I made this to show how Kane’s goal scoring tended to align with his shot output, which tended to align with his Corsi percentage with his linemates:


Kane has never been given the best linemates, because they have gone (rightfully) to Andrew Ladd. While Kane is really, really good, the Jets captain tends to be better overall (this shouldn’t be a knock against Kane, Ladd is just a beast). 

Still, for some odd reason, Kane tends to get the third best linemates rather than second best.

In 2011-12, Kane played predominately with Alexander Burmistrov and Kyle Wellwood. It was no coincidence that Kane had his “anomaly” year with these players. While many said they were not a true second line, they outscored most second lines both in terms of outscoring their opponents and having higher combined points.

Then came 2012-13 with large free agency pick up Olli Jokinen. Former Jets head coach Claude Noel attempted to fit the square peg in the round hole this season, and Jokinen was Kane’s primary centre. All evidence pointed to this being a mistake. Kane scored better with Burmistrov the year prior (and that year) than he did with Jokinen. Burmistrov was also posting a better Corsi percentage and scoring more points per minute on the third line with players like Eric Tangradi, than Olli Jokinen was doing on the second line with players like Kane. 

Then in 2013-14, Kane split his time evenly with Jokinen once again and rookie Mark Scheifele. Jokinen’s numbers had improved somewhat, but both Jokinen and Scheifele still scored and controlled play at roughly a third-line rate, while Kane scored more.

And we finally come to this year, where Kane has split time with Adam Lowry and Mark Scheifele. While both are performing well in terms of two-way numbers, Scheifele’s even-strength scoring rate has been pacing per minute just under third line averages, and Lowry has produced offense at a fourth-line rate.

If the Jets really were to put the best second line together in terms of scoring and two-way numbers, they would likely put Evander Kane with Mathieu Perreault and Michael Frolik. Also, if Alexander Burmistrov is ever to return, it would be wise to put them together as they have had exceptional chemistry together:


You may try to retort that Paul Maurice doesn’t agree with these numbers, but Kane actually leads the Jets in 5v5 TOI per game and fourth in both shifts and TOI per game for all situations. When he’s not being disciplined, he is being relied on.

Why the Disconnect?

The difficulty in evaluating talent relative to context is that context is not intuitive. People rarely know what to set their expectations to.

Some want Evander Kane to be a forty goal scorer. Over the past three seasons combined you’d need about 103 goals (due to lockout shortened season) to pace that on average. Only Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin have accomplished that. The next best is Corey Perry who averages out to a 36 goal scorer on average over that time period.

In terms of points per game, you would need to exceed 0.49 G/GP. Only Stamkos and Ovechkin have exceeded this value, while James Neal and Evgeni Malkin sit right on the threshold.

On average the 90th best goal scorer in the NHL only pots 20 goals, while the 180th gets 14. On average the 90th best point scorer in the NHL only scores 49 points, while the 180th gets 33. These are not the high scoring ’80s anymore, goalies cover the bottom of the net now.

Kane is by no means a perfect player, or a perfect teammate. While he has his warts as a player though, he is definitely a better than average top 6 NHL forward. 

Frankly he’s a first line talent on some teams and a second line on others. No team has picture perfect depth, even the Cup contenders. Maybe the time is right to trade him, and maybe it’s not… But as an exercise, try naming six forwards on fifteen teams or more that out-perform Kane. 

You can’t do it. And neither can Lawless.