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Evander Kane's conflicting sides pose conundrum for Sabres

The question came quietly to a handful of players.

“What should the Sabres do with Evander Kane?”

In every instance – every one – the response was the same. They raised their eyebrows, tilted their head and took a deep breath.

“That’s a tough one,” they said.

Indeed it is. There’s no easy answer when it comes to Kane because he’s unlike anyone in the NHL. As Buffalo knows, that’s for better and worse.

The left winger will give everything he’s got during the game, but good luck finding him when the clock isn’t running. He carries himself like he’s Sidney Crosby, yet he has the same number of playoff points as Taro Tsujimoto. He’ll treat children to a gift-filled Christmas, then end up on the police blotter. His megawatt smile will charm one person and appear fraudulent to another.

Those are merely a few of the things General Manager Tim Murray has to weigh this offseason. Kane has one year left on his contract that pays $5.25 million, and the Sabres will have to decide whether to put him in their long-term plans or move him for a long-term asset.

“That is something I have thought very, very little about,” Kane said as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers. “I have one more year on my deal. I’m looking forward to next year.”

He should be. Once Kane recovered from the broken ribs suffered in the season opener, he was one of the league’s most feared scorers.

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From Dec. 1 to Sunday’s finale, Kane scored 28 goals to rank ninth in the NHL. The only players to score more included a who’s who of the hockey world: Brad Marchand (32), Auston Matthews and Max Pacioretty (30), Vladimir Tarasenko, Nikita Kucherov, Filip Forsberg, Anders Lee and Crosby himself (29).

“I got off to a tough start getting hurt, came back too early, didn’t feel obviously 100 percent in the first five, six, seven games coming back,” Kane said. “I was able to kind of get out of that funk and start playing the way I know I can play.

“I’m just looking forward to hopefully doing that over an 82-game season for myself and seeing where those totals can be.”

Kane finished as the Sabres’ leading goal scorer with 28 goals in 70 games. He also paced the team in game-winning goals (five), shots (260) and penalty minutes (113). Kane tied for 12th in the league with 25 even-strength goals.

“For a team that didn’t score enough goals, he scored a lot for us,” center Jack Eichel said.

That, too, is part of the rub. If the Sabres move on from Kane, replacing his offense will be a major chore. Buffalo tied for 25th at 2.43 goals per game.

It also had a minus-36 goal differential, and Kane contributed to the discrepancy. He was worst among Buffalo’s forwards with a minus-17 rating.

Asked to sum up Kane’s season, coach Dan Bylsma said: “I just reiterate about our team that we need to show a lot of growth and a lot of maturity in our whole game.”

"I’ve always envisioned myself as a playoff player, but I haven’t had an opportunity to show it," Evander Kane said. (Harry Scull Jr/Buffalo News)

Kane’s practice habits – or lack thereof – haven’t gone unnoticed. If he’s not the first player to the dressing room when Bylsma wraps up, it’s probably because someone got dinged up and left early. It’s the same before games.

“I don’t warm up, like off the ice,” Kane said. “Everybody has their own type of preparation, and from an early age I’ve kind of found what works for me and what doesn’t.

“I’m probably not the typical hockey player in terms of how I prepare, but it’s more mental. It goes back to on-ice performance because at the end of the day that’s what you’re judged on.”

On its own, Kane’s routine is fine with the players. But the organization is trying to establish standards and lift expectations, and Kane’s lack of interest inhibits the players’ ability to come together. “Disconnect” has become the buzzword surrounding the Sabres, and that’s part of it.

Kane turns 26 this summer. It remains to be seen if the forward can change his ways. One thing that might drive him toward that is experiencing another playoff-free spring. Kane has played eight seasons in the NHL, and he’s never made the postseason.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to play in the playoffs, to showcase myself as a player in the playoffs,” he said. “For me, that’s kind of the ultimate goal. I’ve always envisioned myself as a playoff player, but I haven’t had an opportunity to show it. That’s disappointing.”

While Kane likes the Sabres’ skill, especially at forward, he believes a lack of tenacity and meanness contributed to this season’s shortfall.

“That doesn’t mean bringing big, physical guys in,” Kane said. “That just means our skill guys – whether you’re big, whether you’re small – play with a little more bite, a little more grit and being harder to play against.

“We need to be a fast, skilled team, but at the same time, in the playoffs, everybody’s style changes, right? Games go from 5-4 to 2-1, and there’s 80 hits a game. That’s how we have to play throughout the regular season so we can get into the playoffs.

“It’s just having a lot more bite to our game, a little bit more of" an attitude, “a little more swagger, a little more cockiness.”

Kane certainly has those traits. The Sabres have to decide if they outweigh some other ones. Folks inside and outside the locker room are waiting for the answer.

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