Evander Kane had yet to break out on the score sheet, putting up just one goal and three points in the Sabres’ opening eight games. But his contributions in nearly every other category were immense.
Kane is Buffalo’s biggest hitter, delivering a team-high 24 checks. He’s among the steadiest offensive threats, taking 28 shots to trail team-leader Tyler Ennis by one. Kane logs 20 minutes, 18 seconds of ice time per game, making him one of only 24 forwards in the NHL to average more than 20 minutes.
So the news that he’ll miss four to six weeks with an injury to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee is a significant blast to a struggling team.
“A lot of the speed and a lot of the tenacity and a lot of our drive, he’s been that for our offense,” Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma said Monday. “Someone else gets a chance to do that now.”
Nicolas Deslauriers, Johan Larsson, Matt Moulson and Marcus Foligno will certainly see increased roles starting Tuesday when the Sabres visit Philadelphia. None possesses the all-around game that Kane has brought.
“It’s big,” center Ryan O’Reilly said. “He adds a lot of speed. The way he shoots the puck and just the way he plays, he’s a physical guy and tough to play against. It’ll be a loss, but as much as it hurts to see a guy go down, we’ve got to step up and we all have to help out.”
Kane, who won’t require surgery, joins the team’s starting goalie (Robin Lehner) and top defenseman (Zach Bogosian) on the sidelines. Kane missed the final three months of last season because of a torn labrum in his shoulder.
“Some of his disappointment right now is just that,” Bylsma said. “Unfortunately, you anticipate some injuries. You know you’re going to have injuries to players. Unfortunately, in the beginning of our process with this team, you’re talking about two guys” in Kane and Lehner “who are starting fresh, starting part of the process from new, and it’s disappointing to see both of them get injured.”
Kane suffered the injury midway through the third period of Saturday’s 4-3 loss to New Jersey. The Devils’ David Schlemko rode Kane into the corner, and the winger’s left leg slammed hard into the boards as Schlemko locked in knee-to-knee.
“When you see on the replay and you see how it unfolded and what happened, it could have been a lot worse,” Bylsma said. “It’s not as bad as it could’ve been.”
Still, it’s not good. Buffalo is averaging just 1.88 goals per game, and Kane figured to be a key to a turnaround for the 2-6 club.
With Kane’s dynamic style absent, the Sabres will look to grind out goals. The talk Monday centered around the goal crease and the team’s need to surround it.
“It’s just sticking there,” Deslauriers said in First Niagara Center. “Sometimes it’s not the second whack, it’s the third whack that’s going to go in. It’s just being strong and staying there and being almost immovable and just whack the puck when it’s around you.
“You’ve got to put it in the goalie’s mind that you’re going to be there all night.”
The Sabres, who are scoring on just 6.2 percent of their shots, hope to increase that number by increasing their rebound attempts.
“Guys are getting boxed out a little too easily around the net,” said Foligno, who is expected to return after missing one game with a leg injury. “Teams are having a little bit easier job pushing us away from the net. I think we’ve got to do a better job of getting second and third forwards in and swarming, just jamming the puck.
“The first shot’s there, and it just seems to be batted away by their players. Second and third forwards getting there after the shot is key.”
The bulky Foligno and Deslauriers should have the best chances of planting themselves near the net. Deslauriers practiced on the top line with O’Reilly and right wing Tyler Ennis, giving the duo someone who can occupy a defenseman if Deslauriers is carrying out the game plan. The 24-year-old will be used sparingly on the top line, so it’s likely Bylsma will double-shift Moulson at times to get an offensive threat at the top of the lineup.
“I had a couple shifts with O’Reilly last game, and it went pretty good,” Deslauriers said. “It’s just to take this as a chance to prove myself more. I’m pretty happy. I think those two players are incredible players, and I need to stick to my game and give them a little more space on the ice.”