News came down on Monday that the NHL was suspending Evander Kane 21 games for violating league COVID protocols by submitting a fake COVID-19 vaccination card. It will stand as one of the more costly suspensions in league history, with Kane forfeiting roughly $1.68 million in salary until he is eligible to return on Nov. 30.
And even though Kane led the Sharks in goals (22) and points (49) last season, it isn't clear where the player and team go from here. Kane has been the focus of several investigations (the NHL also noted that a concurrent investigation into allegations of domestic abuse made against Kane by his estranged wife could not be substantiated) and there were reports from local media that some Sharks players didn't want Kane back after last season.
Kane didn't join the team during training camp as these investigations were ongoing and the team won its first game of the season Saturday without him. Captain Logan Couture said Tuesday that he has not talked to Kane about the suspension and wasn't aware of any other player who had.
"Obviously disappointing, but out of my control out of our control in the dressing room. It's an individual decision so nothing we can do," Couture said.
"We've had individual meetings and meetings with the leadership group and discussed it just briefly. But our focus is on our room, on Montreal tonight and starting off a hard road trip...that'll work itself out. In that room it's hockey."
Added coach Bob Bougher: "We're all disappointed in how he handled that. The organization is disappointed. It's something that's happened, we can't change it. We gotta move on...
"We do have a pretty strong leadership group in there. We knew something was coming down the line and we knew investigations were going on and we've just chosen to, as a group, to put that out of our radar and we just have so much work to do here...I don't think it's going to be a detriment not bringing it up, not talking about it."
Kane's $7 million cap hit doesn't count during his suspension, but will return to the books when his suspension ends in late November. It's at that point we might get an idea of how the Sharks organization wants to proceed, or if Kane has a future with the team.
The problem is that any break up wouldn't be so easy. Kane has another three years beyond this one left on his contract and he can't be bought out until the summer. According to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, the league hasn't explored the idea of terminating the player's contract either. It would be hard to trade such a lucrative contract right now as well, considering more than half the league is already using LTIR and the flat cap pressing almost everyone.
“We’ve got a while to deal with this," Boughner said. "I think this is going to be a decision that is first made by management and ownership. After that, I think it trickles down. We haven’t even brought that up."
Marc-Edouard Vlasic was asked if Kane would be welcomed back into the dressing room when his suspension expires.
"We'll see once the suspension is over. I'm not in a position to say if there is or isn't. My job is to help the team on the ice."
How the team proceeds from here is a massive question for a variety of reasons, not least of which is how any decision will impact Tomas Hertl's next contract. The 27-year-old, and the team's second-highest scorer a season ago, is set to become a UFA next summer and if the off-ice situation doesn't improve, there is reason to believe he could walk or be traded beforehand.
Kane's absence has also opened up opportunities for some younger players in San Jose's system. Johnathan Dahlen (no points), William Eklund (one assist) and Jasper Weatherby (one goal, one assist) are all under-24 players who cracked the opening lineup and bring new life and energy into a veteran room. If Kane returns, it'll provide one less opportunity.
"From a coaching perspective you want to have your best lineup on the ice every night and [Kane] did have a great year last year," Boughner said. "He was one of our best players. But it's providing an opportunity for some other guys. You look at what's happened in training camp, we've had guys step up, we've had young guys come in and force our hand and make the team and those things may not happen [if Kane situation doesn't allow it]."
Sharks GM Doug Wilson has yet to comment and the team statement indicated the organization would not be addressing the situation before the end of Kane's suspension.
The Sharks play 20 more games until Kane is eligible to return -- whether or not he actually will play for the Sharks at that point, or how the team handles it from there, remains a mystery.