EDMONTON — It was baseball that gave us the mythical “five-tool player,” a reference to that rare prospect who grades out above average in each of the sport’s primary tools: speed, arm strength, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power.
It’s the rare cat – or (Mike) Trout — who possesses each of those tools in baseball. But what about hockey?
Wayne Gretzky, for instance, was an average skater with an average shot and average size, who did not play a physical game. Yet, he is the greatest ever to lace up a pair of skates.
How many tools would that perfect hockey player would have to possess? And perhaps he wouldn’t be the ultimate superstar, but instead, just that near perfect conglomeration of hockey skills, all wrapped up into a package that helps you win games — however they are played.
Meet Evander Kane, hockey’s version of a five-tool player.
There is a big difference in playing against this Edmonton Oilers team, when the six-foot-two, 210-pound Kane is patrolling the left wing. And his teammates know it.
“(We’re) just more physical,” said Connor McDavid. “Bigger, faster. All the things that his game is all about.”
“He’s a big body. He’s physical. He’s intimidating,” begins the Oilers’ well-spoken winger Zach Hyman. “He’s not afraid. He gets in on the forecheck. He can fight. He can score. Not many guys have that combination of skill and grit these days and he’s somebody who has both.”
Kane is an above-average skater and shooter of the puck. He can pass it well enough to trade pucks with the likes of McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, though admittedly, Kane is more finisher than set-up man. He plays physical and is willing to fight, a dying art in today’s game.
“He plays with a lot of pace,” McDavid assessed. “He’s a big, strong guy who gets in on the forecheck hard. I wouldn’t want to be a D and go back to retrieve pucks with him (bearing down on you).”
Kane scores at an above-average rate, 13 times in 15 playoff games last season, and 15 in an interrupted 35 games this season, including the winner in Thursday’s 2-0 victory over Los Angeles. He also led that game with eight hits.
It’s been a long year, between having his wrist stepped on by Pat Maroon in November (missed 31 games), and breaking a rib shortly after he returned (missed nine more).
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in and out (of the lineup) as much,” Kane said in an interview this week. “Either you’re out for the year with an injury, or it’s at the beginning or it’s at the end. Not constant throughout the year.”
Kane is just one piece of general manager Ken Holland’s fine work in surrounding his two All-Star centres with commensurate players who can either augment McDavid and Draisaitl, or produce on the odd occasion when those two do not.
Holland took a chance on Kane, who tied Nathan MacKinnon for the NHL lead in playoff goals (13) last spring, despite playing five fewer games. Then Holland re-signed Kane to a four-year, $21-million deal — a bargain price for a player who is a lock for 35 goals and 65 points on this team, with these centremen.
Today, Kane finds himself is in a race against time. He is that injured player who is trying to hop on the moving train that is the NHL in late March, a game that is at its fastest level, short only of playoff speed and intensity.
He has six goals in 11 games since coming back from his rib injury, but has scored in two straight games.
“He’s always been known as a big-game player, and these last two games he’s shown the level that he can play at,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “The good news is, there are not a lot of miles on that chassis this year. He’s just kind of rounding into form at the right time of year, and we need him.”
We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who just never manage to get up to speed after an injury-plagued season. But the playoffs are Kane’s wheelhouse, and Edmonton is counting on the guy who scored at a four-goals-per-round clip last spring.
“As the games become more meaningful, more impactful, you want to continue to build and know that you’re going to be at your best come playoff time,” Kane said. “But there’s a fine balance between rested and feeling 100 per cent, and being up and running.
“You know, everybody talks about flicking the switch — that you can’t do it. But I think when the playoffs happen, switches have to get flicked. Davo (McDavid)? I think he flicks a switch, too. It’s just the nature of the beast.
“Whether you’re ready or not, you’re ready.”