Maple Leafs Should Not Gamble With Ondrej Kase’s Health

The Ondrej Kase story to this point was almost a nice “feel-good” story. The 26-year-old from Kadan, Czech Republic, was drafted 205th overall in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks.

Kase’s Long History with Concussions

In 2015, in Kase’s third game in North America, playing for the San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League, he took what appeared to be a glancing blow to the head by Karl Stollery of the San Jose Barracuda. There was not even a penalty called on the play. The result of that hit was the first of many concussions Kase would experience in his hockey career.

Ondrej Kase Ducks
Ondrej Kase, when he was with the Anaheim Ducks, Oct. 24, 2017
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After missing four months with that concussion, Kase came back to finish the 2015-16 season with the Gulls, scoring eight goals and fourteen points in 25 regular-season games and adding a goal and four points in nine playoff games.

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The following season, after scoring six goals and twelve points in fourteen games with the Gulls, Kase was called up to the Ducks. He would go on to score five goals and fifteen points in 53 regular-season games and added two goals in nine playoff games. 

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: New Signings Ritchie, Kase & Gogolev

That earned him a starting job the following season with the Ducks. Kase didn’t disappoint in his sophomore season scoring 20 goals and 38 points in 66 games for the Ducks that season. 

Kase followed that up with 11 goals and 20 points in 30 games in the 2018-19 season before suffering a shoulder injury in January of 2019. As a result of that injury, he was forced to have season-ending surgery on the shoulder. It was later reported that Kase had also suffered a concussion during the play. 

When Kase Moved to the Bruins, His Career Almost Ended There

Kase came back the following season and scored seven goals and 23 points in 49 games for the Ducks before being traded to the Boston Bruins on February 21st, 2020, for David Backes, a first-round pick in the 2020 draft, and prospect Axel Andersson.

Ondrej Kase Boston Bruins
Ondrej Kase, in one of his few games with the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kase would play six regular-season games for the Bruins before play in the NHL was halted due to the pandemic. He would come back in the bubble and play eleven games for the Bruins in the postseason scoring four assists.

Kase’s 2020-21 season lasted less than one game and five minutes before he suffered yet another concussion. That head injury put him out for four months. On May 10th, 2021, Kase returned. However, this time he only lasted 6:49 before he either suffered another concussion or aggravated the previous concussion. 

Kase Signs with the Maple Leafs

The Bruins did not offer Kase a qualifying offer at the end of the 2020-21 season allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. In stepped Kyle Dubas of the Maple Leafs who offered Kase a one-year $1,250,000 contract, which was signed on July 30th, 2021.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Kase Getting Career Back on Track with Early Season Success

It was no coincidence that David Kampf, Kase’s childhood friend and former teammate from the Czech Republic, had just signed a two-year $1,500,000 per season deal with the Maple Leafs two days previously on July 28th. Kase later noted that, given his difficult seasons prior, he wanted to be with a friend while he tried to make a career comeback.

Kase Always Plays on the Edge, That’s Not Good for His Situation

We frankly knew nothing of Kase prior to Dubas signing him. Once we saw Kase’s concussion history we expressed our worry about a player with his history continuing to play hockey. When we saw the way he played the game it made us worry even more. Wayne Simmonds once stated that Kase “was like a Kamikaze fighter out there.”

While Kase caused us undue stress with his cringe-worthy style of play and his reckless abandonment, he soon captured our hockey-fan hearts, and we came to appreciate not only his skills but his overall play without the puck as well as with it. 

Offensively Kase started the season slowly, only scoring two assists in his first thirteen games. He then scored goals in three consecutive games and went on to score a total of 14 goals and add 13 assists (for 27 points) in 50 games. In one stretch (from February 6 to March 17) he scored four goals and six points in six games.

For Kase, Concussions Simply Seem Inevitable

Two days after this run, in his next game the seemingly inevitable happened. Kase was rocked by an elbow to the head by Nashville’s Matt Duschene and lay motionless on the ice before being helped off the ice. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Ondrej Kase Is at a Career Crossroads

Surprisingly Kase returned to the ice for the start of the first playoff round against the Tampa Bay Lightning and had a great game in his first game back, scoring two assists in the Maple Leafs’ 5-0 game number one win. 

As the series went on it was obvious that Kase was not 100 percent. His ice time went from 13:29 in game one to an average of eight minutes a game for the last three games. His five-on-five stats for the series were nowhere near his regular season’s numbers. Kase was on the ice for 45.6 percent of the shot attempts, 46.4 percent of the shots, 43.4 percent of the scoring chances, and 44.8 percent of the expected goals. 

Why Are the Maple Leafs and Kase Working on a New Deal?

Fast forward to this past week. Elliotte Friedman in his 32 Thoughts reported that the Maple Leafs and Kase’s agent had started contract talks and that he felt confident they would work something out.

We had started to write about how complicated those talks could get with Kase being a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, which means the final contract amount could be out of the team’s control. When we had time to really think about it we couldn’t help but feel the Maple Leafs should not even attempt to re-sign Kase for two reasons.

Ondrej Kase Toronto Maple Leafs
Ondrej Kase, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Reason number one is a business reason. Under LTIR rules if Kase gets hurt the Maple Leafs would get full credit for his cap hit and can use that to cap room to replace him. But, does it benefit the team to have a roster spot taken up by a player whose odds of getting hurt are extremely high.  

Although Kase was not the same player he was before this last concussion the Maple Leafs obviously felt he was their best option. They could easily find themselves in the same position next season. We realize there are no guarantees; however, it might be better to search for a replacement player now that would have a better chance of staying healthy throughout the whole season and stronger contributor in the playoffs. 

Sadly, It’s Probably Time Kase Quits Playing NHL Hockey

While we hate to play the morality clause, reason number two is exactly that. When is it time to tell a player enough is enough, that he’s putting his future in danger by continuing to play? We aren’t medical experts or experts on head injuries, but it’s well-documented that the more concussions a person suffers the more chances that person has of becoming seriously injured to the point of dying or being injured for life.  

We can’t help but think there must be someone in Kase’s life who is telling him exactly that. 

Related: 1967 NHL Expansion

Ondrej Kase has gone from being five picks away from never being drafted into the NHL to the point where he has earned $11,000,000 in seven seasons in the league. If he were reasonably smart with his money, he should be set for life. 

We would hate to see him suffering a permanent injury, or worse, playing a game.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]