The big story this past week had been the healthy scratch and “sudden” injury to Winnipeg Jets star Evander Kane. I thought it would make a great jumping-off point to discuss injuries and their effects on short- and long-term planning. Maybe I’d have tongue-in-cheek awards for how teams have handled or been sunk by injuries.
Yesterday, however, the narrative changed. It was no longer about the injury, but about The Big Damn Trade.
Underneath the blockbuster trade, though, it’s still about injuries, depth, and player management. Perhaps the best way to discuss the Big Damn Trade is to look at the series of events leading up to it.
The Evander Kane Honeymoon
There are so many dissections, discussions, and hot take on the Evander Kane sudden injury fiasco, I don’t even know which ones to link to. So here’s the basics:
Once upon a time, in 2009, there was a Vancouver native drafted fourth overall by a terrible NHL team in Atlanta. This kid, one Evander Kane, would jump straight into the big leagues, having a couple of pretty good seasons for a disappointing hockey team.
Then the team moved to Canada, and suddenly there was an air of expectation around these reborn Winnipeg Jets. Kane seemed to hit his stride — only 20 years old, and he turned in a 30-goal season for the Jets. The team appreciated it so much, they signed him to a 6-year, $31M contract.
The next season was shortened by the lockout, but he kept the same goal-scoring pace, netting 17 in a 48-game season. But the honeymoon began to fade when Kane posed for a picture during the lockout, using fat stacks of cash in place of a cell phone. Hockey loves an easy scapegoat almost as much as it loves its players who appear modest and not-at-all-brash, so the image went viral.
The Marriage Hits a Few Rocks
The next couple seasons didn’t help. Hampered by injuries and worsening linemates, Kane’s numbers fell. He was still good — real good — and he still played physical, and he was improving on his ability to drive possession. But was he $5.25M-against-the-salary-cap good? Probably not. And once someone becomes a scapegoat, it’s hard to shake that role unless your team wins. The Jets were not winning.
It wasn’t until this season that the Jets started to consistently win, and win enough to put them firmly in the playoff picture. Unsurprisingly, this happened the same season that they seemed to realize that Ondrej Pavelec was an albatross in their net. The Jets were winning, and yet…
Evander Kane was still scuffling. He was out for a couple stretches due to injury, and even up through last week was still playing hurt. His role fluctuated, his time on ice fluctuated, and it was obvious he wasn’t at 100%. But the Jets were fighting off rabid wannabe wild card teams, so he played through injury.
The Point of No Return
Then came the weird series of events that we’re not so sure about. The Jets were in Vancouver for a game against the Canucks, and Kane showed up to a meeting or a practice in a track suit instead of the required business suit. A teammate threw the track suit into cold water to teach Kane a lesson.
And when it came time to take on the young man’s hometown team, the Jets announced that Kane was a healthy scratch. Was it punishment for breaking dress code? Was it Kane taking his track suit and not returning? We don’t know. What we do know is that a couple days later, Evander Kane decided that maybe it was time to stop playing through his injury — choosing to get healthy for next season while his team fought to hold onto their first playoff spot in years.
Words flew from fans and pundits. Some vilified Kane for taking his puck and going home when his team needed him to fight on. Others pointed out that playing through injury is an unfair request made of players, especially for a team that treats you like shit. Just as the takes were getting hot and heavy, the trade came through.
The Big Damn Trade
I was going into a meeting at work when my cell phone buzzed. The NHL app informed me that the Jets had traded Kane to the tanking Buffalo Sabres. In my meeting was a co-worker who’s also a huge Sabres fan. He hadn’t heard the news yet, and when I told him, his eyes lit up like a kid who discovered one last present the day after Christmas.
Why wouldn’t he be excited? The Sabres’ front office has given every indication that fans should expect a last-place finish. Fans’ best hope is that this season represents the nadir, and that their front office follows the trajectory of the Panthers and not the Oilers. This trade bolsters that hope.
For the rest of the season, though, the trades yesterday made Buffalo an even worse team. Before acquiring Kane, Buffalo traded away their starting goaltender in exchange for the Dallas Stars’ backup. With the Kane trade, Buffalo solidified their tank-for-McDavid strategy. The Sabres gave up an underperforming defenseman (Tyler Myers), and got one back of similar current quality, if with less upside. They also gave up a winger to get Kane, but Evander is out for the season, leaving a gaping hole in a forward line. Prospects, money, and a draft pick were also exchanged, but the reality is that Buffalo made itself worse this season in hopes that it’ll payoff in the seasons to come.
If it works, they’ll have a team that’s a year older, with two first-round draft picks in 2015, and a potential stud rookie in either McDavid or Eichel (or Sam Reinhart, last year’s first-round pick). And they’ll have a fully healthy Evander Kane, playing for a team and fanbase that look to him as something other than a scapegoat.
The Jets, meanwhile, improve their team “chemistry,” even if it doesn’t vastly improve them on the ice. But they did get a decent return from a perceived position of weakness, which speaks well for their GM. While fans and pundits argue about who hosed whom, this may be a trade that ends up benefiting both teams. We’ll see.
A Tale of Two Injuries
The Evander Kane saga may be the epic tale of injury and team planning this season, but it’s far from the only interesting injury tale. Could the Preds and Rangers keep winning without their world-class netminders? (“yes” and “we’ll see.”) Would Krecji’s return really improve the floundering Bruins all that much? (It would seem so, yes.) Can the Islanders win the Metro without Okposo? (Maybe?) Can the Blue Jackets catch a single break when it comes to injuries this season? (Nope, not a single break is to be caught.) And who’s really to blame for the mumps outbreak?
For Chicago fans, the questions are less grand, but just as pressing for such a deep roster mired in such mediocre results of late. When will Trevor van Riemsdyk return? What happens to the already logjammed forward corps when Versteeg returns?
We found out the latter answer yesterday. With Versteeg back to take his role on the PB&K line, the ‘Hawks needed to make room. They sent down Replacement Guy Nordstrom, which gave fans hope that rookie Teuvo Teravainen might continue to get regular time. Why keep up your top prospect if he’s just going to be a healthy scratch?
That question still remains unanswered, as Teuvo sat so that professional chaos guy Carcillo could get his 5-6 minutes of questionable ice team. The rationale is that Teuvo is not a “checking line” guy, and the ‘Hawks don’t have room on their scoring lines. If you think that Shaw is the perfect anchor for a not-checking line, then I guess that might make some sense.
On second thought, no, it makes no sense. If you want a checking line, why not put Shaw on the wing across from Smith with Kruger at center? That opens up the opportunity for Teuvo at the pivot for Sharp and Bickell, which is a very intriguing line. It pairs Teuvo with Sharp, a veteran who spent most of his career at center until Coach Q moved him to the wing. It also leaves Carcillo as a healthy scratch most nights, which means that other forwards won’t have to double-shift to cover his lack of ice time. Sounds sensible to me, but what do I know?
…While the Defense is Still Missing
I do know that van Riemsdyk can come back from injury at his earliest convenience, please. Chicago’s depth at defense looks suspect as of late. Rozsival has been a serviceable #6 defenseman, if I’m being generous, but giving any more time that is minimally needed is a high-risk, low-reward situation. He’s been getting more time with van Riemsdyk out of the lineup, mainly because there aren’t any NHL-ready defensemen below him. Rundblad has been filling the gap, and he has a good nose for offense, but his defense is a big liability.
The problem is that all the blue-liners are turning into defensive liabilities of late. Maybe it’s the shuffled pairings. Maybe it’s because defensive lapses are a contagious disease. Maybe it’s just the point in the season where fatigue and lack of focus spike. Whatever it is, last night’s game made it clear the ‘Hawks could really use TvR back in the lineup. Chicago’s defense looked less competent than the Keystone Kops, and a whole lot less funny.