The complicated case of whether or not the Buffalo Sabres should sign Patrick Kane
The debate of whether or not to bring a locally raised superstar into the fold has a lot of layers to contend with.
It’s time to have a discussion about the possibility of superstar Patrick Kane joining the Buffalo Sabres.
There’s always been some kind of whispers that came out of his old stomping grounds in South Buffalo that Kane would one day play for the Sabres and now that he’s a free agent coming off of hip resurfacing surgery and the Sabres are a team on the come up, those same whispers start to get a bit louder.
Mind you, this kind of talk even went on while Kane was at the peak of his playmaking abilities in Chicago and the Blackhawks were a perennial Stanely Cup favorite that was pressed up against the salary cap. The same explanations of how it would come about and how it would go down would circle each autumn and then Kane would both stay in Chicago and help lead the ‘Hawks deep into the postseason.
Sometimes people wish for something so hard they’ll ignore reality to make it real in their own mind. Only now, Kane can go to whichever team wants him the most and is willing to offer him the kind of contract that both works for the team and gives Kane some of his own insurance should his hip not respond well to the rigors of the NHL schedule.
Kane has choices, of course. Legendary players, even those coming off surgery that could leave them looking like a shadow of the player they once were, will still draw a crowd and it’s felt like the past few months have allowed for three teams to get the most attention in all of this and they’re the same three that keep getting mentioned now: Buffalo, Detroit, and Florida.
If Kane is dead set on winning another Stanley Cup as soon as possible, Florida is head and shoulders ahead of Buffalo and Detroit. Not only were they in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, but they’re playing well again now and just got Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour back into the lineup after injuries they sustained in the Cup Final are healed and rehabbed.
Going to the Panthers would also give Kane some cushion to work with as he gets back up to NHL speed. He wouldn’t be asked to go in and play big minutes immediately and he’d help make a true contender even deeper. If Florida’s salary cap situation were in better shape, he might already be there.
But it’s not and he isn’t.
Detroit is alluring because of Alex DeBrincat. Kane and DeBrincat made magic together in Chicago and DeBrincat’s best seasons came while playing on the opposite wing to Kane. It’s a connection that makes a lot of sense and even Chris Chelios has said it’s where Kane should go. That advice coming from Blackhawks legend who jumped to the Red Wings 20 or so years ago could really speak to Kane.
Buffalo seems like the outside shot team here for a couple reasons:
They’re not close to being a Stanley Cup contender
You have to think that at nearly 35 years old, Kane doesn’t want to wait around too long especially when there’s so much unknown about how his hip can handle things. Look at other players who have had this done: Ed Jovanovski played 36 games after he had the procedure and was forced to retire. Ryan Kesler never played again. Nicklas Backstrom played 39 last season and eight more this year before he stepped away from the Washington Capitals to take care of his body. He believes he’ll be different, and he can have better fortune. But there’s the known history of others who haven’t recovered well from this that will be fresh in his mind and might push him to get with a team that’s a lot closer to a Cup than others who might be a year or two away.
The Sabres are really young
Yes, the Sabres have NHL games experience now, and they’re not a green team, but with youth comes the ups and downs of competing in the NHL. We’re seeing a fair bit of that again this season.
Kane’s time in Chicago ended on a team that was transitioning out of the dynasty seasons into a rebuilding franchise. He’s been part of the young core once upon a time that grew and learned together how to become a perennial contender and he’s a long time removed from those days. He was one of the older guys that got moved out to make room for younger ones to start a rebuild.
The Rangers were a more veteran team and close to being a contender last season, but this Sabres team is not that. The talent level is sky-high in Buffalo, but learning and adapting what’s been learned can be a tricky process. How much patience would Kane have for that? Maybe it would be easier to handle playing in front of family every night at home, but maybe it would make things more difficult.
Noted Hockey is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Why would the Sabres bring in Patrick Kane? Right now, the answers for that seem easy, even though the situation does not allow for simple answers.
Heading into the games on Black Friday, Buffalo is tied with two other teams for fifth fewest goals scored per game (2.84). Only San Jose, Chicago, New York Islanders, and Washington have scored fewer per game and two of those teams are rebuilding while the other two have to ask hard questions about whether they should be as well.
The Sabres are one of the league’s rising teams that is unfortunately stuck in a rut to start the season. They’re not bad, but they’re not good, and while goal scoring was a major strength a year ago, it hasn’t happened yet this year. Injuries are a source of this, yes, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to go through. What’s more frustrating is that they’re ninth in 5-on-5 goals for. The power play has been a major source of angst for Granato and the rest of the team.
Again, injuries play a major role in this. It’s tough to get any sort of flow going when guys like Tage Tompson and Alex Tuch are out of the lineup. The big thought there is how Kane could help the power play. Of his 1,237 career points, 402 have come on the man advantage. If he wasn’t scoring goals, he was setting up others to score and the Sabres would be tickled to have someone consistently be able to do either on the power play right now.
Buffalo has the sixth worst power play in the league at 12.7 percent and a year ago they had the ninth best that scored 23.4 percent of the time. Thompson was their top power play scorer last year when he had 20 power play goals, so going without him until probably the New Year is rough. Tuch and Jeff Skinner were their next two highest scorers with eight each. Skinner is tops on the power play this season with two while five other players each have one.
It’s been tough and even though Thompson and Jack Quinn will return roughly around the same time or thereabouts, the question is do Kevyn Adams and Granato have patience enough to let their current players work it out or will they call up Jiri Kulich or Isak Rosén from Rochester to provide a spark or will they sign Kane. Maybe it‘s both? There are decisions to come with this roster no matter what, it’s just a matter of when.
Should the choice be Kane, and he’d likely come with a multi-year offer (two or three years, tops). The money is negligible for the Sabres (or Red Wings) because there’s space against the cap to do it. But if the Sabres opted to grab Kane as a more “sure thing” veteran so as to not put the weight of the world on even younger shoulders… I somewhat understand that.
The team is really young as is and introducing another young player to the mix means more learning on the fly that while it’s good for the player and their development to do that at the NHL level, it would also occur in a situation where the team’s goal and how they’ll be judged this season rests on making the playoffs or not. That’s a really tough spot to put a young player into where they’re going to be asked to spark the offense (particularly the power play) and if that doesn’t happen, they’d be right back to where they were before. A veteran player can take that heat, especially a superstar because that comes with the territory, but if the veteran player doesn’t produce or can’t because their healthy won’t allow for it, that also sets everything back to start.
The Sabres under Adams have always trusted the guys they have to take care of everything and to pull themselves together and there’s enough talent to do that moving ahead. But when you look at the forward lines now, and what they likely will be with Thompson and Quinn back, there’s a reason Kane becomes a serious consideration.
Potential future lines
Factor in Jost and Olofsson as rotating extras in this situation if they don’t add or re-jigger the roster in some way. Also don’t think about how Krebs has struggled offensively with Girgensons and Okposo and that’s opened the door for Jost to play more (and he’s done reasonably well in that spot) and try not to think about how Olofsson (by the eye test anyway) has looked better of late.
The “easy” changes aren’t easy because they’d involve scratching veteran leaders, but a lineup where Greenway is on a line with Krebs and Okposo and Kane plays next to Benson and Mittelstadt seems awfully tempting (and exciting) in a vacuum. You could say the same about Kulich or Rosén in that spot as well. Kane there would arguably give Buffalo three lines that can fill up the score sheet and help create nightmares for opposing coaches trying to handle matchups. He’s a known quantity but with a supreme unknown factor of how he’s going to look post-surgery. It’s a devil of a gamble to make.
There’s also something to be said about how Kane would fit into the Sabres locker room given… everything about his past. For me, this isn’t as big a factor as some think it would be.
The Sabres in-room leadership is strong, headed up by Okposo and Girgensons. There’s also Dahlin who’s as strong a leader as there is and he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for it. Tuch leads by being the guy who keeps everyone loose, but also focused and is as intense a competitor as you’ll find. Kane’s at a point in his career where he wants to be a key contributor and lead on the score sheet, but he’s not looking to stir up a room or anything of the sort.
Most of these Sabres have been through more raucous and fraught days and they’ve learned that’s not how they want to do things now. Kane wants to win, and he wants to score lots of points, too. When to add in the familiarity Adams and Granato each have with him as well, any idea that he’ll blow up what they’ve got going on by his mere presence is greatly overblown. Everything about Kane from outside of the dressing room is more of an issue to contend with, however.
Kane’s past off the ice is not great and his history within the city of Buffalo is quite checkered, to say the least, and that kind of public relations would be very difficult to navigate, especially if he were to sign with the Sabres while they were still treading water in the standings. You could argue that if there’s a tiebreaker in any decision on whether or not to sign him that the potential negative backlash to signing him might not be worth the trouble, especially if they’re not 100 percent sure what he’ll bring to the team on the ice.
But Kane’s not just from South Buffalo, he’s the greatest player to ever come out of the area. He might be the best American player of them all, although that’s a bar argument that’s easy to have at a moment’s notice. That kind of thing is harder to ignore in the debates on whether to sign him or not. Trust me, I get it has little-to-nothing to do with whether he’d be good or bad to sign, but it’s hard to ignore that as a selling point in the entire process.
If all of these issues are enough to make you throw your hands up and say, “forget this, do something else,” then that’s very understandable. No part of any of this regarding Kane is easy to figure out and there are far more unknowns than knowns. But the Sabres are in a spot where they’re in need of a boost and one ideally from a veteran just to be safe.
It’s not a time to panic, although each loss makes it feel like it should be. They’re in the playoff race, but any losing streak makes the climb feel exponentially more difficult. Buffalo is in a position where the competition and pressure of a playoff race is great for the young core to be part of. There’s no better learning experience for the toughest games in the NHL than a playoff race but putting so many young guys under that microscope for the long haul of a season makes the psychological side of the game much more stressful. A veteran, particularly one who’s been there and done all of that, to take the heat off of them and provide a kind of leadership and confidence from that could provide a huge lift. It’s a major reason why Kane is under such strong consideration.
But while they continue to mull over what to do next, at the very least it is time to look for some kind of new ideas for the power play to get it going. It’s not like they’re not trying to work things out, it’s just what they’ve been working on hasn’t provided steady results. Is Kane enough to help boost a power play? Maybe a few years ago and healthy, yes absolutely. Now after potentially career-altering surgery? It’s not as likely, but the Sabres may feel like they’re in a position to get things fixed up as soon as possible.