WINNIPEG -- This prairie city of 750,000 knows a goal scorer when it sees one.
Bobby Hull put the Winnipeg Jets on the pro hockey map and on an instant path to credibility more than 40 years ago. Then Dale Hawerchuk powered the original Jets in the 1980s in their annual Smythe Division battle to keep pace with the Edmonton Oilers, and a 76-goal 1992-93 rookie season still affords Teemu Selanne rock-star status.
Now Jets left wing Evander Kane is motoring past some initial hurdles in a quest to become the next great sniper in Winnipeg hockey history. All members of the NHL's 500-goal club, Hull used his slap shot, Hawerchuk utilized hockey sense and Selanne's hands make him one of the NHL's all-time pure scorers.
Kane scores his goals in his own fashion, an approach that he brings to many areas of his life. The 21-year-old forward possesses a combination of speed and sheer power that scouts foresaw when the Atlanta Thrashers made the Vancouver native the fourth pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. Kane possesses excellent speed and hands, and he is as apt to crash opposing nets as he is to unleash one of the NHL's most dangerous wrist shots.
Kane's numbers this season reflect his style. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound player ranks third among the Jets with 12 goals in his first 30 games. His 129 shots entering play Wednesday top all NHL shooters, and his team-leading 95 hits place him 12th in the League.
"I want to be one of the best players in the League and be recognized as one of the best players in the League," Kane said. "My goal is to continue to be more dominant each and every year and continue to prove that. There are different opportunities that come along that you're maybe able to showcase that, and be a part of winning some championships and winning some different things down the road.
"I think I've established myself as a player in this League. I just want to continue to get better each and every year, and be more dominant, more productive, and I've done that since I've come into the League. I've taken steps toward becoming that player throughout my short career in this League, and I want to continue to do that."
Kane debuted with the Thrashers two months after turning 18 and collected 33 goals over his first two NHL seasons. But it was Kane's first season in Winnipeg after the franchise relocated to Canada that moved him into the League's upper echelon of elite scorers, when he ran up a career-high 30 goals and 57 points, making him the NHL's youngest player to reach the 30-goal milepost. Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff saw enough to offer Kane a six-year contract that the player accepted.
"Looking back, it was a good decision," said Kane, who was seeking stability after so much upheaval early in his career. "I'm excited to help this team win."
But Kane's introduction to Winnipeg has had its rocky moments. Kane had spent his entire playing career in large markets, debuting as a 15-year-old with the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants in his hometown before moving to Atlanta after parts of three WHL seasons. Kane established solid roots in Atlanta, a city with a metropolitan area seven times the size of Winnipeg's population.
"To be honest, I really enjoyed my time in Atlanta," Kane said. "It was a great place to live, and it was a good place to play. I definitely miss it and definitely feel sorry for the fans that supported us every night.
"The uncertainty was kind of wearing on guys' minds, whether we were going back to Atlanta or coming to Winnipeg. I think it was more of a relief, looking back, just knowing where we were going to play."
Leaving Atlanta capped an uneasy period of uncertainty for a dressing room seeking stability, but it introduced a new set of challenges to a young roster. The Thrashers-turned-Jets faced life in a hockey-mad market in a new country, a new general manager and a new coach. As one of their marquee names, Kane came under considerable scrutiny in a market that offers much of the same spotlight Montreal and Toronto present, but inside a much smaller bubble.
What did Kane know of Winnipeg?
"Nothing," Kane admitted. "I had never been here before."
Kane would soon learn a lot about his new home, however, and the learning curve needed time.
"It's different," Kane explained. "I like the big-market cities. I like the big-time show."
"Different cities have different mentalities," he continued. "I think Winnipeg, not having an [NHL] team for a long time, it kind of took some time for both the fans and the players to get used to it a little bit and set some boundaries. But they've been great and very supportive of us. You listen to them every night in the building and it just shows how passionate they are about the game. I've enjoyed my time here so far."
Kane also had a new boss to whom he had to answer daily after playing under mild-mannered Craig Ramsay. Kane and Jets coach Claude Noel have forged a peace now. But the pair possess strong, opinionated personalities, and clashed at times during their first season together after Noel stepped behind the Jets' bench in June 2011.
"It's good, for the most part," Kane said of the player-coach relationship. "He is a different personality, a character in his own right. I think he wants to win, and we share that common goal.
"He [was] trying to get to know us as much as we [were] trying to get to know him. Obviously last year was a unique year and a unique situation. I think that everybody took a little bit of time, but now we kind of know what to expect."
Adding to the uncertainty in Kane's hockey life has been the challenge of finding him a home on an established line. The Jets' top unit of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler has left Kane the anchor of a line where the coaching staff has endeavored to surround him with compatible linemates. Though Kane has demonstrated an ability to play with a wide range of skill levels and styles, the Jets have yet to find the play-making mix that suits him best.
"I've been all over the place playing with different players," said Kane, who is now on a line with Finnish veterans Olli Jokinen and Antti Miettinen. "I think for the most part, you get used to it. I'm pretty comfortable playing with anybody. It doesn't really matter who I play with."
Now firmly ensconced in Winnipeg, the Jets' next challenge is pushing the organization into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007. The Thrashers' lone playoff appearance ended abruptly in a first-round sweep by the New York Rangers that spring, and five seasons without playoff hockey have followed.
Kane joins a young core of Jets looking to sample the NHL postseason for the first time. Defenseman Zach Bogosian is in his fifth season and has yet to see playoff action. Workhorse goaltender Ondrej Pavelec won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup in 2008, but does not have a minute of NHL playoff hockey to his name.
To that end, the Jets have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the League, rolling off a 6-1-1 run that has pushed them into the Southeast Division lead with 18 games remaining. Poor road play, special-teams woes and inconsistency plagued the Jets during their first season in Winnipeg and carried over into 2012-13, but Noel and his coaching staff may finally have implemented their game plan with a group that had gone so long without experiencing winning.
"We've just realized that we can't be satisfied when we win a couple of games," Kane said. "Good teams put winning streaks together, and they win three, four, five games in a row. Then maybe they lose one, and then win three, four, five games in a row again.
"It [would] be my first time in the playoffs. So, that's the goal. Every season you come in, you want to make the playoffs. My first few years in Atlanta and Winnipeg, we haven't had that opportunity. The playoffs are the big stage, and that is the stage I want to play on."
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