The curious case of Patrick Kane's 2023 free agency

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Sunday, July 16, 2023

It wasn't supposed to be this way for Patrick Kane.

He expected to wear only one uniform in his NHL career, having been drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 and becoming a Stanley Cup-winning franchise icon over the next 16 seasons. But a rebuild, and a desire to break from the past, meant "Showtime" ended in Chi-Town last season with a trade deadline move to the New York Rangers.

"Him and Johnny [Toews] wanted to retire as Hawks. But unfortunately, things worked out differently," Kane's agent, Pat Brisson, told ESPN last week.

Kane, 34, entered uncharted territory this summer. He's no longer a Blackhawk and is officially an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career after his eight-year, $84 million deal ended.

In another offseason, Kane's availability would have produced weeks of intense speculation before a massive contract announcement on July 1. He's fourth among active players in points (1,237) and sixth in goals (451). Even past his peak, he's an explosive offensive talent on the wing.

But Patrick Kane remains a free agent midway through July. The NHL's flat salary cap for 2023-24 is one factor. Kane's decision to undergo major hip surgery a month before free agency opened, which will keep him out of action for four to six months, is the primary factor.

It's one of the most unorthodox approaches for a superstar free agent in recent memory. Kane isn't looking to commit to a team in the summer. He'll take his time to recover -- with early returns promising -- while keeping an eye on the standings during the opening weeks of the season. When he's ready to return, and Brisson says he believes he'll be ready to roll by December, Kane will select the suitor he feels is the best fit and with the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

But this approach has its drawbacks. Kane can't control how general managers will manage their rosters. A desirable team might not have the same cap flexibility in-season that they could have now for Kane.

"There are certainly teams who would take him on board now, start paying him and then provide the rehab services so that he can have that. Or he can wait and see," one NHL general manager said. "The problem with waiting and seeing is the cap."

Brisson said teams have called with interest in Kane. Those that want to be contenders have the cap space to offer him something substantial right now. But some that are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders have precious little space.

The agent said he's not concerned with playing the waiting game.

"There's no rush. This is one I'm very comfortable with. I'm very calm," Brisson said. "You could offer me a one-year deal or a two-year deal right now at $7 million or so. I don't even know if I want to entertain it, because it's not what he needs. We'll see, at the right time, how he feels, where he's at, and then we'll take it from there."

Besides, making a choice now would mean taking a chance on a team that might or might not manifest as a contender. "Signing in the summer, you'd trade off the value of knowing what is going to happen in the future," one general manager said.

What's going to happen with Kane in the future is another issue: Can Patrick Kane be "Showtime" again after hip-surfacing surgery in his mid-30s?

"I know I'm turning 35 next [season], but it's not like I feel old. I still feel pretty young," Kane said this offseason. "I feel like the passion is still there. I still know that I can be a top player if my focus is solely on hockey instead of how I feel."

KANE IS TWO SEASONS removed from 92 points in 78 games on a team that finished seventh in the Central Division.

On the ice, it was Chicago's worst season since 2005-06. Off the ice, it was perhaps the lowest point of the franchise's existence. An independent report released in Oct. 2021 detailed how the team reacted to sexual assault allegations made by former player Kyle Beach against Brad Aldrich, who was the team's video coach during their 2010 Stanley Cup victory, the first of Kane's career.

General manager Stan Bowman resigned. Kyle Davidson took over the job on an interim basis, before being hired as the general manager in March 2022.

Toews and Kane were both entering the final year of their contract in the 2022-23 season. Davidson was clear about the direction of the team: Breaking free of their dynastic years by going into a rebuild.

Kane, meanwhile, wasn't playing at a 92-point pace anymore. He was clearly laboring with an injured hip, but still managed 45 points in 54 games -- including 16 goals.

Kane was advised by many before the trade deadline to get the surgery that he needed to mend that hip. But he had been playing through the injury for about a year and a half, and decided to continue to push through it in order to join the Rangers -- a presumed Stanley Cup contender and his preferred trade destination.

He made his Madison Square Garden debut on March 2. The buzz was palpable. Adult-sized Kane jerseys sold out inside the arena nearly an hour before puck drop. Fans gasped whenever those flashes of vintage Kane happened on the ice, like when he was stickhandling through Ottawa Senators defenders.

But it wasn't a vintage Kane performance: In his first game since Feb. 22, Kane didn't register a point and was on the ice for three Senators goals. The Rangers' power play, where Kane was expected to excel, went 0-for-4, including a five-minute major in the first period.

"It's a special place to play. It's an Original Six franchise," Kane said after the game. "Playing in MSG and you get a reception like that? It's something I'll never forget."

Kane managed five goals and seven assists in 19 games for the Rangers, with another goal and five assists in the playoffs. His explosive skating wasn't there. The "Showtime" was missing. New York lost to the rival New Jersey Devils in seven games.

"Personally, I look at that series and I know if I felt a little bit better, I can help us win that series," Kane said. "So it's a little disappointing and depressing in a way."

Kane credited the Rangers' training staff with getting him in the best shape his hip would allow.

"They did a really good job of getting me to feel as good as I possibly could. So when the game starts, you think about hockey, you think about playing," he said. "But before that, it's just a lot of maintenance and thinking about how you're going to get yourself to feel the best as possible to play."

He knew something had to be done about his hip in the offseason. Kane and his team dove deep into potential surgeries. They opted for a hip resurfacing.

Hip resurfacing is an alternative to hip replacement. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, "the femoral head is not removed, but is instead trimmed and capped with a smooth metal covering" in hip resurfacing.

On June 1, Kane had the surgery under Dr. Edwin Su, a New York-based surgeon. The prognosis was four to six months of recovery. He would be a month removed from major surgery when NHL free agency opened, with months of rehab left.

While there's data about the aftereffects of hip resurfacing on other athletes, there isn't much about how it impacts hockey players.

Florida Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski had the surgery in 2014, and would play only 37 more career games at 37 years old. Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler didn't play again after his hip resurfacing. But 35-year-old Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals had the procedure last season and returned to score 21 points in 39 games in 2022-23.

Dr. Benjamin Domb, founder and medical director of the American Hip Institute in Illinois, said hip resurfacing is an uncommon procedure in general, and even less common in athletes. But he cited tennis star Andy Murray as a success story and that Rafael Nadal hopes to do the same.

"The first key to successful rehabilitation is how the surgery is done. At American Hip Institute, we have developed a technique for minimally invasive hip resurfacing with computer guidance," Domb said. "This technique allows for a faster recovery, ensures extremely accurate implant placement, and is designed to get professional athletes back to highly competitive sports."

The second key, he said, is the rehabilitation period.

"It is critical that their therapy be supervised by expert physical therapists," Domb said. "Too early a return to play can doom the recovery, so careful assessment of their progress and timing of progression is key."

Brisson is hopeful that the timing for Kane's return is on target and perhaps even ahead of schedule.

"He's already ahead in his recovery right now. I do believe he'll be 'the Patrick Kane,'" Brisson said. "I'm always cautiously optimistic, but I'm extremely confident as well."

BRISSON SAID HE HAS NEVER experienced a situation like this with a free agent of Kane's magnitude. The closest proxy was Mats Sundin in 2008, who was represented by J.P. Barry and Brisson -- but Sundin wasn't coming off major offseason surgery.

The Hall of Fame center was 37 years old. He had a stellar season with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2007-08: 78 points in 74 games, including 32 goals. He famously wielded his no-movement clause to remain with the Leafs, despite having decided not to take part in their rebuild. He became a free agent and sought to sign with a Cup contender.

The Vancouver Canucks offered him a two-year contract on July 1 that would have made him the league's highest-paid player. But Sundin, a free agent for the first time in his career, was content to wait all the way to December, when he signed a one-year, bonus-laden contract with Vancouver on Dec. 18.

At the time of his signing, the Canucks were tied for first place in their division. They'd end up losing in the conference semifinals -- to Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks.

Besides the surgery, there's another significant difference between Sundin in 2008 and Kane in 2023. The Canucks didn't pay any of Sundin's salary through performance bonuses. That's likely not going to be the case with whoever signs Patrick Kane next season.

Kane turns 35 on Nov. 19, meaning his next contract can have performance bonuses to bring down his cap number. Performance bonuses count against the salary cap, but a team can exceed the salary cap for performance bonuses by a maximum cushion of 7.5% of the upper limit.

These contracts have been utilized for other star veterans on contending teams. The Boston Bruins signed Patrice Bergeron last summer to a 35-plus contract worth $5 million. Since $2.5 million was in performance bonuses, the cap number was just $2.5 million in the regular season. All Bergeron had to do was play 10 games to earn his full salary.

It's a significant advantage for Kane and his ability to fit it under a contender's salary cap.

"If he becomes available at the time and you can try to make room, you do it," one NHL general manager said.

Brisson said the expectation is that Kane would sign for the rest of the season with a contender, rather than ink a multiyear deal when he's healthy. Then it'll be back to the unrestricted free agent pool in summer 2024: a year older, a lot healthier and with a salary cap that's going to significantly rise for the first time in years.

But for now, the focus is on getting Kane back on the ice and then getting him another chance at raising the Stanley Cup next season.

"Let's make sure he is 100 percent and that he feels great. Then we can decide where he's going to go," Brisson said. "There's going to be plenty of teams doing good, plenty of teams doing bad. There are going to be teams using [long-term injured reserve].

"We'll pick where we want to go. I don't think too many teams will turn him down."