Evander Kane back with Oilers, ready to build on last season's success

General manager Ken Holland speaks to the media about what he's looking for from Jake Virtanen during his pro tryout.

EDMONTON — Evander Kane arrived in Edmonton last January, and sat down in the same hot seat that Jake Virtanen inhabited on Monday. "Why," he was asked numerous times and in various different ways, "should the Edmonton Oilers give you a second chance?"

"I think everyone in this room has probably made a lot of mistakes," Kane said that day. "They’re just not documented. They’re just not publicly recorded. They’re not questioned."

"It was," we wrote in our column, "like Joey Chestnut saying, 'Hey, we’ve all had the odd hot dog…'"

Kane promised that day that he was not the guy being portrayed out there, and that he’d prove it by being a good teammate and productive player. And you’ve got to admit, he fulfilled both of those promises — the second one in spades. He delivered 22 goals in 43 regular season games, and 13 more in 15 playoff games.

By all accounts Kane was a model teammate. According to general manager Ken Holland, in the exit interviews all of his core players recommended Kane be re-signed, a reuniting that seemed impossible between a cash-strapped club and a player who had just scored 35 goals in 58 games.

There was no way the Oilers could sign Kane, we thought more than once.

"You’re right," said Kane on Wednesday, the opening day of training camps across the National Hockey League. He left Edmonton last spring thinking the same thing — there’s no way he’s coming back.

But then Duncan Keith retired, and that freed up more than $5 million in cap space. Then Zack Kassian was traded, and suddenly the Oilers had space and Kane’s phone was ringing.

"The cap is a shitty thing for a player. Especially a good one," Kane said. "But now it's like, this is a great opportunity. This group, this organization. You know, from the top down with Kenny (Holland) and Jay (Woodcroft), Connor (McDavid) and (Leon Draisaitl) and those guys. It was hard to pass up and having an opportunity to truly compete for a Stanley Cup and hopefully hoist one here on a Canadian team.

"Those are all things that, as a kid, you always wanted to do. I had an opportunity this off-season to hopefully start that. I wanted to be a part of it."

The only comparison between Kane and Virtanen is that they've both had to deal with legal issues away from the game, and even those are not entirely similar. As players, Kane is a Rembrandt to Virtanen’s paint-by-numbers.

Kane is swift enough to skate alongside McDavid, with the mitts to bury pucks at a 0.6 goals per game rate last season. And his bite? It’s still sharp enough to intimidate, keeping the flies off of McDavid the way we once thought Milan Lucic might.

"I’ve embedded myself in this team. I’m happy to be here," said Kane, who signed a four-year deal worth $20.5 million to play in Edmonton through his 35th birthday, and promptly bought a house here. "Honestly, ever since I landed at the airport back in January, everybody's treated me really well. The fans, the community have been great, and that only continued to rise as time went on. It was no different coming back for the opening of the season."

Full disclosure: I wrote last January that the mistake wasn’t signing Kane to a half-season contract. The mistake, I said, was to give him a free agent contract in July, because his M.O. is that he gets comfortable and then goes off the rails.

So, let’s see who’s right, and who is wrong. So far I’m feeling wrong, but the book on Kane’s time in Edmonton is still being written.

Kane walks into this season as the guy holding down the most sought-after winger position in the NHL: He’ll start the season and could play 82 games next to McDavid.

Now that he has settled his contract grievance with the San Joe Sharks, his focus can now be back on the ice.

"Happy it's over and done with," he said when asked. "I won't get into too much, but it’ll probably be in the Netflix doc when I'm done."

So we asked him about Virtanen, and what he might instruct his younger teammate on, as Virtanen tries to re-start his NHL career on a try-out with the Oilers. Virtanen stood trial in B.C. Supreme Court in July on a count of sexual assault, stemming from a 2017 incident in Vancouver. Virtanen claimed in court that the encounter was consensual and a jury of his peers found him not guilty on July 26.

Some guys would take offence to the question, but not Kane. He dug in on Virtanen, using his personal experience as a guide.

"He prevailed in court," began Kane. "You know, when you're dealing with tough situations, there are a lot of things that people like to speculate about. That people like to pretend they know about. People like to pretend to have insight, and a lot of that is BS sometimes."

"It’s funny how time and letting things play out, how attitudes and views change," he continued. "How time allows attitudes and opinions to change, but at the same time, everybody has their opinion. I could donate $5 million to charity today, and somebody will find something wrong with it. That’s just the way social media, specifically, and the age we live in today.

"So with regards to Jake, you know, he knows what he did. He knows what he didn't do. And that’s left with him to deal with."

What we do know is how Kane performed on the ice last season. He was the best transaction in the NHL.

What lies ahead?

On the ice, I think I know.

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