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What does Evander Kane’s new contract mean for the Sharks’ future?

There are so many directions this can take.

May 2, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill (15) fights for control of the puck against San Jose Sharks right wing Joonas Donskoi (27) and left wing Evander Kane (9) during the second period in game four of the second round Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

When news of Evander Kane’s new contract broke Wednesday evening, it was received with a mix of bemusement, excitement, and a lot of hand-wringing. While the Sharks had ample amounts of cap space to spare, they also had an equally large amount of tasks to complete, ranging from retaining their pending free agents to making a run at John Tavares, John Carlson, James van Riemsdyk, or trying to trade for Erik Karlsson. Kane’s signing was the first domino to fall in that, as Doug Wilson proceeded to lock up the 26-year-old winger on a 7 year, $49 million deal with a modified NTC.

Tanking has never been an option for the team. Thanks to their horrid TV deal, the Sharks are overly-reliant on gate revenues and are still dependent upon attendance to maintain acceptable income levels. In a market where the Golden State Warriors dominate, the 49ers appear revitalized, and the Giants boast three World Series rings in the last decade, any hint of failure would be (and has been) harshly received by the local fanbase. Since the turn of the century, San Jose has missed the playoffs only twice; both times, attendance has dipped to 90% in the following season. In this context, retaining Kane makes a remarkable amount of sense and gives a sense of security that the team will stay competitive for the foreseeable future.

More concretely, the deal aims to, for the short-term, keep the Sharks contenders for a playoff spot and stay capable of making a deep run, regardless of any other outside acquisitions. The lethal Donskoi-Pavelski-Kane unit revitalized the Sharks’ offense and took them on a 12-5-0 run to finish the regular season, with Kane netting nine goals and 14 points in 17 games. And although he struggled in the playoffs due to a torn MCL and a separated shoulder, the point was already clear: San Jose was already a good team without Kane, but they were borderline elite with him fully firing. Now, add in a healthy Joe Thornton (or a John Tavares) and it’s not too difficult to see the team toppling Vegas and giving Winnipeg a run for their money.

Of course, a key problem with Kane is that he’s never been fully healthy. Whether due to shoulder problems, knee troubles, concussions, or any other issues on a myriad list of injuries, this season was only the fifth in his ten-year-career in which he played over 70 games. Occasionally, injuries can be called freak accidents, but over the course of a career, a trend begins to emerge, and it is that Kane’s bruising physical style does not favor a long and injury-free season. One can only hope that the power forward bucks this trend, but it is difficult to envision this being the case.

However, given that his last two seasons have seen him play 70 and 78 games, respectively, one may believe that he has turned the page, and it is not difficult to see him playing 70-75 games at a borderline-elite level for the first few years of the deal. However, even if this is the case, data suggests that we can expect his production to begin declining after a couple years. Most forwards generally begin to lose their edge as they pass the age of 26 (which, incidentally, is exactly Kane’s age), with the decline becoming markedly sharper as they get further away from 30. Additionally, even-strength scoring tends to be the first to decline, and this is where the vast majority of Kane’s points come — 41 of his 54 points came at even-strength this year. Should those trends hold, San Jose could be looking at an albatross of a contract in the last two years of this deal.

Clearly, this move was then made to extract maximum value out of the first four or five years, before his decline will (likely) kick into high gear. While this is not exactly an uncommon practice in the NHL, it used to be rather unusual for the Sharks, who only ever gave maximums of five-year-deals. Only in the last two years were exceptions made for Norris winning defensemen Brent Burns and franchise cornerstone Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and it is difficult to even construct a coherent argument claiming Kane has been anywhere near those two in value over the course of his career. Kane’s contract screams win-now, and it’s not hard to imagine that this signing was made, in part, to convince other free-agents to come here.

A quick analysis of Wilson’s statement on the signing yields an interesting tidbit, where the long-tenured GM calls it “heartening to have Evander join a trend of elite players who have chosen to remain in San Jose.” Looking at this year’s free-agent crop, the statement practically screams a not-so-cryptic signal at John Tavares. With Kane’s signing having made this team competitive enough to be one kick away from being a Cup favorite (let alone contender), Tavares could instantly come in and be the last piece needed to catapult the franchise to championship glory.

Assuming they can package some draft picks to ship out Mikkel Boedker ($4 million AAV) and Paul Martin ($4.85 million AAV), San Jose can re-sign Tomas Hertl to a five-year contract worth around $5 million per year, Joe Thornton to a one-year deal worth $5 million, and Logan Couture to a five-year contract worth $6.5 million per year, they would have roughly $11 million per year to offer Tavares, assuming a (rather safe) $80 million cap estimate for next year. While this strategy would require the Sharks to wheel and deal a little bit more to create enough room to fill out their depth, it ensures that they have the financial muscle to compete with any team in the Tavares sweepstakes.

At the trade deadline, Wilson alluded to making a run at the top players in this year’s free agent class, and Kane’s signing allows them to be a more attractive location for free-agents to come. With a quiet media market, perfect weather, a competitive team, and a promising immediate future, John Tavares would find San Jose a very good fit, and his acquisition would instantly make the Sharks a Cup favorite (really, what else could you call a team with a lineup of Tavares-Couture-Thornton-Tierney down the middle?).

Kane’s signing ensures that San Jose will stay competitive for the foreseeable future, and if it does help lure in Tavares, it would absolutely be worth it for the on-ice jolt it would provide to the franchise. Moreover, even if Tavares chooses to sign elsewhere, the Sharks still have a core consisting of Kane, Couture, Hertl, Meier, Donskoi, and Labanc, most of whom should only get better over the next three years.

However, even without poaching New York’s cornerstone, San Jose might have close to $40 million tied up in six players for the next five to seven years by the end of this off-season. Given Kane’s injury history and the generally unfavorable aging curve, you can’t shake the feeling that if Tavares doesn’t come and the Sharks don’t get over the hump in the next two to three seasons, the club could be faced with a serious case of buyer’s regret.