Why the Sabres would likely be better off trading Evander Kane

December 12, 2017
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The Sabres find themselves in a difficult spot with their top goal scorer. On the surface, re-signing Evander Kane should be a no brainer. He leads the team in goals, he’s only 26 years old and plays with the kind of speed you need to succeed in today’s NHL.

Kane is probably playing the best hockey of his career, and therein lies the problem. He has undoubtedly earned some kind of raise, and as a mid-twenties unrestricted free agent there’s no doubt he’ll be able to cash in somewhere. However, the Sabres are no longer a “right now” team and some tough decisions have to be made as to who fits Jason Botterill’s vision going forward.

Very little has been reported on Kane’s negotiation status. Most insiders are leaning towards him likely being traded but nothing on what kind of deal he’s looking for. The more recent marquee signings should serve as a decent benchmark so we’d be looking at left wingers such as Marleau (3 years, $6.25 million aav) Panarin (2 years, 6M) Palat (5 years, 5.3M), Marchand (8 years, 6.125M) and Drouin (6 years, 5.5M) . It’s also important to factor in that Panarin, Palat and Drouin were RFA’s when their deals were struck.  Comparable players can be tricky to identify since different wingers bring different things to the table, but James Van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs finds himself in a similar situation as Kane and the Maple Leafs will have to make a decision on their winger soon as well.

The first thing that jumps out with the recent signings is that if used as benchmarks for Kane, there isn’t much room for a raise. After his 30-goal breakout campaign with the Jets, Kane got a pretty hefty contract at 5.5 mil AAV. A 15% raise on his current salary would put him at 6.325 mil AAV, making him the 7th highest paid left-winger, a couple hundred thousand shy of what Johnny Gaudreau makes. It would also make Kane the third highest paid Sabre behind Ryan O’Reily and Jack Eichel. Assuming Kane is looking for a long-term deal, this is the sort of contract you dedicate to what most would call a “core” player.

Determining whether someone is worthy of being called a core player isn’t always easy, but as a general rule these are the kinds of players the team leans on and are widely recognized as either well rounded or elite in certain areas. A player you can’t really afford to lose because replacing them would be very difficult or impossible.

The Chicago Blackhawks are a good model for this, as they sold off plenty of good players between Stanley Cups but identified key players to whom they were willing to pay top dollar in order to remain contenders. This is where making a decision on Kane really gets tough because now the question becomes, is he the guy you keep at all costs? The one you pay top dollar and have your team built around?

While he may score a lot of goals, Kane is not a player you’d consider a sniper. Most goal scoring success in his career has been a result of volume shooting and beyond the goal scoring; there isn’t a whole lot to speak of in terms of defensive play or playmaking. He has two primary assists this year and is in the bottom 30 in total Corsi Against. His goal scoring rate this year at one point did come in at what most would consider elite, but he’s cooled off recently having scored just one goal in his last nine games with his shooting percentage coming back down to his career norm.

It’s important to understand what it means to be a volume guy versus a high possession player or possession driver. Corsi is constantly referred to as the “possession” stat, but this can give you a mixed understanding of what a player is bringing to the table.

One of the most noticeable skills Kane has is his willingness to get pucks to the net. Last season, he ranked fifth in the NHL in individual shot attempts for and he’s on his way to ranking somewhere in the top 10 again this year. This high volume shooting helped cover up for some poor defensive play 5v5, and his Corsi finished at 47.22%, ranking him 5th on the Sabres (min. 1000 minutes) in 2016-17 and has him 2nd this season at 48.4% (min. 200 minutes played).

Those are pretty good numbers on a team that over the last few years has gotten caved in with regards to shot attempts for and against. However, like most advanced stats, Corsi on its own doesn’t really give you the full picture. As far as driving possession goes, there are several other areas to consider, and the Sabres will need to look at all of them when negotiating a new contract.

Thanks to this wonderful chart created by Ryan Stimson and Corey Sznajder (tracked through May 2017), we can take a look at Kane’s overall performance leading up to this year and where he ranks against his potential comparables. Since we’re working under the assumption of a long-term deal at roughly 6 to 6.5 million, the two players I’ll compare with Kane here are Brad Marchand, whose 8-year extension kicks in this season, and Johnny Gaudreau, who signed a 6-year extension after his entry level deal expired. Both are relatively recent and are long-term core type contracts.

First up is Kane:

 

 

Kane’s chart reads about how you would expect. He’s dominant in shot volume, ranking right up towards the 100th percentile and revealing a pretty good job with entry/entry assists and shot contributions.

Where is he lacking? Well, pretty much everywhere else.

He’s at or near the bottom quarter of the league in shot assists, total passing and build up play. This is particularly alarming because they happen to be three categories that are focused on team play rather than individual.  This isn’t uncommon for goal scorers, but if you’re going to hand out a long-term deal and pay that player an AAV that would rank him in the top ten at his position, you probably want more than just bottom 25th percentile value at his position in those areas. For example, here’s Marchand’s chart:

 

 

This is about what you’d want from a core player on an eight-year deal. Marchand ranks in the top quarter percentile for his position in pretty much every category except build up play, where he’s just below.

Over this season and last, both players have played a similar amount of games (Kane 99, Marchand 98). Marchand has nearly as many 5v5 goals as Kane (27 vs. 29) while having double the amount of assists (32 to 16) and 11 more primary points (46 to 35). Part of this can be explained by Marchand playing on a significantly better team, but the chart above shows that Marchand is likely one of the driving factors for his teams success instead of just feeding off it. While he may be slightly older than Kane during his new contract, his cap hit coming in at 6.125 mil AAV probably doesn’t bode well for Kane’s hopes of a major raise.

Now let’s take a look at Gaudreau:

 

 

The first thing that jumps out at you here is shot volume, or lack thereof. The rest, however, is right up there with Marchand. I did find it interesting that Gaudreau didn’t rank higher in transitional play, especially for someone with his speed. While he may not have as many goals 5v5 as the other two (19 in 101 GP) he seems to make up for it in the playmaking department with 36 assists and 46 primary points.

So while Gaudreau may not fire the puck at will or gain the line like Kane, he’s still driving possession when he’s out there and he’s definitely having a positive direct effect on his teammates — perhaps to a lesser extent than Marchand — but keep in mind Gaudreau’s deal came at a younger age after his entry-level deal expired, so the Calgary Flames are likely betting on some growth here.

What we can take away from this is that Kane’s value to the Sabres is almost entirely in his goal scoring and shot contribution. When he’s not scoring, he’s probably hurting the team more than helping, although even during his cold streaks he’s still getting pucks to the net.

But that doesn’t really mean the Sabres should cut bait and move on. Most pure goal scorers don’t show well on charts like that one. The real issue is that the players he compares well with all make near or less than what Kane already makes and the players at his position making the money he may want bring far more to the table than he does.

While Kane may not bring the all around play that would warrant a big contract, his goal scoring might be enough. His 29 even-strength goals from last year to now puts him 10th in the league despite playing fewer games than anyone else in the top ten. Still, the eye test suggests that this could be more about opportunity than actual goal scoring prowess. On a weak team with a lack of goal-scoring threats, Kane is going to get a ton of opportunities as most of the passes will go to him.

It’s something to consider with potentially handing Kane a long-term deal. Can he keep up the goal scoring if he sees less ice time or if he’s no longer the primary recipient of Eichel’s passing?

I mentioned James Van Riemsdyk as a comparable earlier. The change in his situation with the Leafs over the years, especially as they got better, can shed some light on what may potentially happen with Kane.

Over the last five seasons, Van Riemsdyk has seen his ice time go from 21:03 per game all the way down to 14:15. Not coincidentally, this drop has come as the Leafs have gotten significantly better. With more forward talent to choose from, the coaching staff can afford to spread the ice time around.

Despite the decrease in ice time, JVR’s total shot attempts per game has held at around five. However, he’s seen a decline in actual shots on goal per game from 3.5 to 2.8 so far this year. Even so, Van Riemsdyk has remained pretty consistent with his goal scoring averaging out to 29.65 goals per 82 games.

Kane this season has received about 20 minutes of ice time per game and has registered 191 shot attempts, with 126 of them going on net (4.5 per game). That’s roughly 60% of his shot attempts converting to shots on goal, a few percentage points more than Van Riemsdyk, and both have similar goal totals (13 for Kane, 14 for JVR). So while Kane is throwing more pucks to the net and getting more shots on goal, he’s not scoring more than a player receiving close to six minutes less per night.   Below are 5v5 shot location/heat maps courtesy of hockeyviz/@ineffectivemath

 

 

The two images here are very telling. Kane likes to shoot from, well, everywhere. But his volume shooting is either coming from well outside or right at the net. Meanwhile, Van Riemsdyk is doing the majority of his shooting from in and around the slot and right circle.

Van Riemsdyk has done a really good job making the most of his ice time ensuring that the shots he’s taking are coming from high danger areas where the probability of scoring is significantly higher. It’s worth noting that Van Riemsdyk’s shooting percentage is well above his career norm right now at 17.5%.

Getting into better shooting areas helps. But, like Kane, we can expect to see that return to normal at some point this year. Between these two approaches, the latter is far more likely to be sustainable long term because even with the decreased ice time, Van Riemsdyk is getting to and shooting from areas where the probability of scoring is significantly higher.

What does this all mean for Kane and the Sabres?  Even though his goal scoring has been a bright spot, it probably isn’t good value for the Sabres to lock him up to a long term deal at any sort of raise in AAV. The Sabres have been saddled with quite a few really bad value deals over the years and can ill afford to take the risk of signing another one.

Now, more than ever, the organization needs to find value deals while they redo the original rebuild. Benoit Pouliot was brought in at a cap hit of $1.15M and has scored as many 5v5 goals and primary points as Kane has this year, all while not playing with Eichel. This isn’t to suggest that Pouliot is a direct replacement for Kane, but rather that Kane’s production (and the style in which it comes) isn’t irreplaceable.

The Sabres could seek cost effective alternatives while addressing other areas of need — like the defense — and developing young forward talent like Casey Mittelstadt, Alex Nylander and perhaps even C.J. Smith to provide goal scoring and offense for the future.

Michael Ghofrani
About Michael Ghofrani

Michael Ghofrani has been working on finding hockey statistics that can break down and explain certain game events. He's also a Sabres follower from Toronto doing his best to fend off Leafs Nation.

Browse more articles by Michael Ghofrani.

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