The Mag: Evander Kane is NEXT

Kane has Thrashers fans hoping for a trip to the playoffs. Alan Clarke for ESPN The Magazine

In the moments after Evander Kane knocked out Penguins provocateur Matt Cooke last spring, one thing was readily apparent to anyone watching: The kid was a hockey player. Prior to that, all anyone knew was that he could play hockey. Drafted No. 4 overall by the Thrashers in 2009, Kane scored 14 goals in 66 games as an 18-year-old rookie. But he unleashed his biggest shot in the final game of the season, when Atlanta hosted Pittsburgh on April 10. After Kane dared to lay a stiff check into Sidney Crosby, Cooke came looking for retribution. The 6'2", 195-pound Kane responded by clocking Cooke with a right hand worthy of the man he was named after, former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield. (Kane's father, Perry, was an amateur Vancouver-area fighter, and Evander's cousin, Kirk Johnson, boxed for Canada in the 1992 Olympics.)

Crosby-like finesse and Cooke-like antagonism often overshadow Kane-like grit, but hockey purists have long embraced the likes of Gordie Howe, Mark Messier and Peter Forsberg -- skill guys who scrap. And while no one is ready to anoint Kane the Next Mr. Hockey, he is NEXT for a number of reasons, not least because anything can happen when he's on the ice. "Evander is one of those unique guys who can play in any situation," says NHL Network analyst Craig Button, the former Flames GM. "Whether you need a goal or a hit or a defensive play, it's in his repertoire." Adds Islanders director of scouting Ken Morrow: "In my reports, I don't often write 'total package.' I'd write it about Kane."

Kane's powerful shot and soft touch have him on pace for 26 goals and 50 points this season, and his improved play, along with the success of the guys around him, has Thrashers fans hoping for their team's first playoff appearance since 2006-07. But Kane's potential extends beyond the rink. Although he is one of only 18 black players in the NHL, blacks comprise about 61 percent of Atlanta's population, which means Kane is positioned to reach new fans in a way that hasn't been possible for a guy like Flames veteran wing Jarome Iginla (as blacks make up only 2 percent of Calgary's population). The fact that Kane has three black teammates -- Dustin Byfuglien, who won the Stanley Cup with Chicago last season, Anthony Stewart and Johnny Oduya -- gives the Thrashers a distinctive look.

"I've thought about having the ability to help bring the game to people who've never seen it before," says Kane, the highest-drafted black player in NHL history. "I want to be a part of that." He's already noticing a little hockey fever among Atlantans. "I see more people in our jerseys at the mall and stuff. It's a start."

And Kane likes to finish what he starts.

E.J. Hradek is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.