EDMONTON — There is soft skill all over the place, but the National Hockey League playoffs are a hard, hard place.
So the player who helps get you through an 82-game regular season is a necessary one, but not necessarily one who can help you through the grind that is the NHL playoffs. See Maple Leafs, Toronto.
And as our game moves slowly away from the hard places where it once resided — away from fighting, from intimidation and, to an extent, hitting — that playoff player becomes increasingly rare.
Evander Kane becomes increasingly rare.
“He revamped the top six,” Zach Hyman said of the addition of Kane in January. “Just a massive addition.”
There are likely 22-25 legit top-line left wingers in the game today. Guys who are no-doubt first-liners on the left side.
But how many come in a six-foot-two, 210-pound package? And in that subset, how many can keep up with Connor McDavid? With hands soft enough to score 35 a season, hard and willing enough to keep the flies off the game’s top player?
Unique? In today’s game, Kane is just this side of a unicorn.
Today, that unicorn is an unrestricted free agent, one who has seduced a hockey city with his prodigal skills, despite a reputation that brought him here under cloudy circumstances.
“I’ll go back to when I was in a similar, but very different situation a few months ago,” began Kane, when asked about his plans for free agency, on Tuesday. “Where I was had the opportunity to pick where I wanted to go. Edmonton was interested in me, and I was interested in them. The way I looked at it was, you’ve got two of the best players in the world, a team that you know wants to win now and is primed to win now.
“I'm happy to say that we had some success doing that. I've been very happy with my time here,” continued Kane, who turns 31 in August. “The fans have been phenomenal. The people in the city have been phenomenal. This has got to be the best organization I've played for. So, I have no complaints and, just like everybody else, I'm curious looking forward to see what happens.”
Ken Holland, the Oilers general manager, told us a series ago that he’d love to re-sign Kane. But there is a salary cap, and what does the leading goal scorer in the NHL playoffs command on the market?
Six million dollars? Seven million? Eight?
“I can sign anybody. But someone's gotta go,” reasoned Holland. “If you love everybody, somebody's not staying.
“Can you keep him? I can keep anybody. But I can't keep ‘em all.”
There are salary cap machinations that would have to take place: trading Tyson Barrie’s $4.5-million cap hit; moving Zack Kassian at $3.2 million; perhaps having to choose between which restricted free agent to sign, Kailer Yamamoto or Jesse Puljujarvi.
Then there is the baggage that has dogged Kane throughout an NHL career spent on the outs with teams in Winnipeg, Buffalo and San Jose, where he was kicked off the island by the Sharks players. San Jose GM Doug Wilson was seduced by Kane once. Now the two sides are in arbitration, as the Sharks seek to void the seven-year deal they signed with Kane, while he wants some or all of the $22.9 million they would have paid him.
Here in Edmonton, however, where Kane and his girlfriend welcomed a baby boy during these playoffs, Kane has been by all accounts a stellar teammate. And, boy, did he help this team win.
“Guys like that are rare,” said Leon Draisaitl. “What did he score? Thirteen goals in the playoffs? By playing hard, but doing it the right way. Those guys are hard to come by. Those are the guys that you can go on runs with, the type of guys that you're going to win with, eventually.
“He was amazing off the ice. He was a great teammate, and on the ice he had a great year.”
Us folks outside the dressing room will have our opinions. But those words come from inside. From a leader on the team, no different than Dustin Byfuglien in Winnipeg or Logan Couture in San Jose.
Draisaitl knows, better than you or I, how valuable Kane is to the Oilers.
So here we are.
We all knew this was coming, didn’t we?