Should Evander Kane Play in the NHL or WHL?

Over on the official boards, the poster blackspace6 highlighted this twitter from Craig Custance of the Sporting News:

Was told the reason Thrashers are holding off on Zherdev is partly because of Kane. Don't want to crowd roster if Kane is ready.

Which suggests that the Thrashers decision on Zherdev is related to their evaluation of Evander Kane. Personally, I think this is a no brainer. I'm going to look at this from three angles: Kane's career and development, the Thrashers immediate needs, and the Thrashers long term interests.

What is in the best interest of Evander Kane's Career?

Let me state at the outset that I am very excited about seeing Evander Kane pull on a Thrashers uniform and become a regular season player at Philips Arena. However, I don't think 2009-2010 should be the year it happens. Let's consider the history of 18 year old Thrashers in the NHL.

  • Patrik Stefan--got hurt and missed 10 games. Probably should not have been in the league, it may have hurt his development.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk--proved he could score as a teenager playing against men, was injured and missed 17 games (only significant injury of his career).
  • Zach Bogosian--suffered a broken leg on seemingly innocent play and missed 35 games. Looked decent early on and then really turned it up in the last 30 games.

The thing that jumps out at me is the injuries. All three of these players were considered exceptionally mature for their age, and yet all three were banged up when playing against men. If Kane is injured playing against men in the NHL that will not enhance his development. On opening night, Evander Kane will be just 2 months removed from still being 17 years old!

Another factor is confidence. Kovalchuk has never lacked confidence, and playing at 18 certainly didn't hurt him in that respect. However, Stefan never displayed the confidence required of NHL players. Perhaps that was entirely due to his personality or injuries--or perhaps it was because he wasn't read for the NHL.

In the case of Evander Kane, he isn't just a sharp shooter who can score from the blueline (Kovalchuk), or a passer who can dish the puck from safe spots on the ice (Stefan). Evander Kane at his best is a power forward. In the WHL, Kane can run over people, steal the loose puck, and go score. If he makes the NHL at 18, he will NOT be able to play that way--and stay healthy, not right now.

So the question is do you want Kane to change his style of game just so he can stay in a NHL lineup at age 18? Or do you want him to wait a year, add more muscle, and keep running over kids in the WHL so when he does reach the NHL at 19, he can come in with confidence and play his own style of game. You want Kane to be monster his rookie season, and in my opinion that is more likely with another year in the W, and another year of getting bigger and stronger.

Will sending Kane back to the Vancouver Giants in the WHL stunt his development? Has Kane accomplished everything that he can in the W? When I talked to the Red Line Report guys they mentioned that one area of concern was his consistency during the 72 game season. At the NHL level you have to be a warrior and be able to contribute every night. Everyone is very excited about Kane right now (as they should be), but 18 year old kids make mistakes. Playing great hockey on a consistent night-in and night-out basis is something that is very hard to do as a teenager.

What is in the best interests of the Thrashers 2009-2010 Season?

Now if you're the GM of the Thrashers and you have one last forward spot and the choice is between a very talented but still skinny 18 year old rookie and a 25 year old NHL veteran who averages 60 points the last two seasons, I think it's pretty clear that the veteran is more likely to have the bigger impact in 2009-10 than the rookie.

On paper the Thrashers are certainly improved over last season, but they are scarcely a shoo-in for the playoffs. Most of the sports media are still picking them to be in the basement (I think they're wrong on that). I see the Thrashers as one of 4 teams in a battle for the last two playoffs spots in the Eastern Conference. Frankly the team has little margin for error. If confronted with a choice between Zherdev and Kane for the upcoming season, I think Zherdev does more to help the team reach the post-season.

What is in the Thrashers long term interest?

This last summer I wrote an entire series on "how to build a contender on a budget" and one of the key aspects is getting the biggest bang for your payroll buck. The Thrashers have signed Evander Kane to a standard NHL Entry Level Contract (ELC) which will pay him a base salary just over $1 million for his first three NHL seasons.

Here is the key part--during those three seasons Evander Kane is likely to be a huge bargain for the Thrashers. Consider Bryan Little who scored 31 goals for the low low price of $1 million last season. The Atlanta Thrashers need to contend on a budget and young players on ELCs are a great way to get the most for your payroll dollar.

If you're the GM of the Thrashers and you're going to get Evander Kane for a bargain price for three seasons, which three season do you want? If he makes the NHL this season you get his age 18, 19, and 20 seasons, but if he waits a year you get his 19, 20, and 21 seasons for the same amount of money. You will get three cheap seasons. Which is likely to be more valuable to the franchise, his age 18 season or his age 21 season? Given normal player development, the age 21 season will be far more valuable. (Kane is also more likely to earn additional bonus money at age 21. But if he puts up a season like Little just did he will still be a bargain.)

Conclusion

Evander Kane is a very special talent and a very special person by all accounts. However, I'm not sure that playing in the NHL at age 18 against 30 year old men is the best development path for an aspiring power forward. For the Atlanta Thrashers organization, signing Zherdev for one year and returning Kane to the WHL is probably the best option in both the short run and the long run.

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