Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian is an undeniable commodity. His skill and size are a perfect fit alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the top line. Kassian’s far from worth his weight in gold though, in case the Oilers get any ill-advised ideas.
Kassian Finds a Home
It’s an especially topical subject, as Kassian approaches unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, as he seeks a raise from his current $2 million salary. And he has not disappointed in his contract season, making it a career one to boot.
Nevertheless, none of this means Kassian is a top-liner. A quick glance at his stats would reveal just that, how, if this were a chicken-and-the-egg argument, there would be no actual debate: Not only has Kassian never been a legitimate top-six forward, but McDavid and Draisaitl make Kassian one and certainly not the other way around.
Think of it more as a chicken-and-the-peacock situation. Similar to with apples and oranges, the Oilers can’t con themselves into thinking they’ve got something they haven’t, can’t get distracted by what they see at first glance.
For example, Kassian is already just three points off the career-high 29 points he scored in all of 2013-14 with the Vancouver Canucks. He is just three goals away from setting a new career high in goals, after netting 15 last year. While it is impressive that Kassian is theoretically on pace for a 50-point season, anything can happen over the second half.
Kassian vs. Chiasson
Remember Alex Chiasson? He also reached new career highs playing largely with McDavid last season, scoring 22 goals and 38 points. He also went cold around this time last season. He notched 16 goals in his first 30 games… over a 40-goal pace. With four goals so far in 2019-20, he’ll be lucky to reach a quarter of that amount, as he plays on a separate line.
Chiasson remains a success story for the simple reason that he parlayed an initial professional tryout agreement with the Oilers into a two-year deal worth $2.15 million per season. Kassian must look at Chiasson the same way and consider accepting an extension with a similar framework if he wants to stay.
Circumstances are actually more alike than Kassian might care to admit. He’s producing at a similar rate (26 points) playing in the same spot (Chiasson had 22 points in his first 38 games last season). They each also add an element of size and supposed grit to the line in question, complementing the playmaking and scoring ability of both McDavid and Draisaitl. Kassian is listed at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, while Chiasson is 6-foot-4, 208 pounds. For what it’s worth though, Kassian is regularly among the league leaders in hits.
Furthemore, Kassian and Chiasson are the same age, each taken in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Kassian may have more of an impressive pedigree (13th overall), but they’re very much producing at around the same pace in their careers (0.36 points per game for Chiasson vs. 0.34 for Kassian).
Neither is magically going to turn into a point-per-game player when typical age curves suggest they should be exiting their primes about now. The Oilers knew enough not to give Chiasson big money. They should know not to overpay Kassian either. Even if you’re operating under the assumption Kassian brings some extra physicality to the table and deserves more, you can get someone cheaper via free agency. Someone who would be overjoyed to get a chance to play with two of the best players in the league.
Kassian vs. Maroon
Consider the case of Patrick Maroon, who, himself enjoyed a career 27-goal season playing with McDavid. Maroon signed for just $1.75 million two summers ago, when he was just a year older than Kassian is now, only to bring a Stanley Cup to his hometown of St. Louis.
With the Blues, Maroon ended up scoring 10 goals and 28 points as a depth forward, production you would generally hope you could get out of Kassian in a similar role, only to sign a one-year deal with Tampa Bay this past summer for just $900,000. That’s admittedly a bit of an underpay, but sometimes you take a cut to take advantage of a good situation, like what Kassian is enjoying now, for a shot at a Stanley Cup. That’s the dream.
If Kassian wants to stay, he’ll realize the Oilers are in a precarious cap position. Granted, a lot of players are coming off the books, but they’ll still have early $33 million devoted to four players (McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal). That’s over 40% of the current $81.5 million ceiling. So, the remaining 19 players? They should average approximately $2.5 million in salary (or less to give Oilers management a cushion).
Kassian vs. Nurse
That’s admittedly below the league average, but about what you would expect for a team as top-heavy as the Oilers. The 2020 free-agency period presents a chance to start remedying the situation, with so many contracts coming due. Chief among them isn’t Kassian’s, but those of restricted free-agent-defensemen Darnell Nurse, Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones. With regard to the former, as Jim Parsons argues, defensemen like Nurse don’t really grow on trees.
The same can’t necessarily be said of forwards like Kassian. Yes, he’s proven to be a good fit and the trade for goalie Ben Scrivens that brought him here has proven to be an unadulterated success. What the Oilers can’t lose sight of is they still have a lack of good wingers.
After Kassian and Neal, who has predictably slowed down and only has three points in his last 10 games, the highest-scoring winger the Oilers have is Chiasson. He ranks No. 9. It’s great how, after the Oilers have had a defenseman problem for the longest time, three fall in between, but, (still) without a bona-fide No. 1 rearguard, it hasn’t been fixed. And, if it hasn’t been fixed, that just means the lack of wingers is an even bigger issue. So, pursuing the likes of Taylor Hall or Mikael Granlund should be a priority after Nurse.
Obviously discarding a guy who’s proven capable of contributing like Kassian would be a mistake. However, it’s an even bigger one for everyone to assume he’s irreplaceable or that, after bouncing around between four different teams for a decade in the NHL, Kassian is suddenly something he’s clearly not. What Kassian is, is a good complement, nothing more. Like sugar, a commodity in its own right. It’s a nice-to-have, but only in moderation.