Oilers’ Kassian is Excelling at Agitating Without the Fighting

It took Zack Kassian 27 games to register five points last season, and in 2021-22, he achieved that feat in 22 fewer games. He, along with Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan, has solidified the Edmonton Oilers’ third line, forechecking hard, throwing hits and contributing on the scoreboard.

Aside from the best offensive start of his NHL career, Kassian has 29 hits through six games, and he’s playing with a disciplined edge. He’s had 39 fights in his NHL career, but this season, he’s shied away from unnecessarily dropping the gloves. He’s not baiting others to fight as often, and he’s accepting fewer fights from opponents. Because of that, other aspects of his game have improved. He seems more focused, and he’s become more effective, averaging 13:04 of ice time per game.

Kassian’s Last Two Fights Went Wrong

No stranger to fisticuffs, Kassian’s last two fights cost him games. In the preseason, No. 44 got into a scary tilt with former Vancouver Canucks forward Zack MacEwen. The fight was staged from the drop of the puck. The two squared off, and unfortunately, Kassian lost his helmet, hit his head on the ice and briefly lost consciousness. He lay motionless on the ice but eventually only missed the first regular-season game.

Zack Kassian
Edmonton Oilers’ Zack Kassian celebrates a goal with the bench. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

His fight on Feb. 8, 2021, cost him 17 games. He duelled with former Ottawa Senator Erik Gudbranson in a spirited affair and broke his hand.

Kassian’s Becoming a Pest & Frustrating Opponents

This season, we’ve seen Kassian decline fights but continue to agitate his opponents by flashing a big grin and skating away. In the first Battle of Alberta — the first in front of a crowd in almost 19 months — Kassian threw a big hit on Calgary Flames forward Sean Monahan. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov chased him down, poking and prodding him. With an energetic crowd, we’ve seen Kassian oblige. But not in this case. 

Instead, Kassian skated off, pulled Monahan’s stick out of his hands and headed to the bench. Zadorov went after him, shoved him towards the Flames bench, but no fight ensued. The cameras showed Kassian smiling and blowing a kiss to the Flames bench, playing the role of a pest to perfection.

On Saturday night, the Oilers played the Canucks, and in the first period, Kassian threw two glass rattling hits. Canucks defenseman Luke Schenn, who engaged in a heavy fight a few nights before, took exception to No. 44’s hits and tried to engage Kassian.

At one point, Kassian stood in front of the net, causing a disturbance and again, Schenn tried to engage him, but Kassian didn’t bite. He continued to play his game and nearly scored on a partial breakaway in the third period.

Kassian Creates Energy for the Oilers in Different Ways

Some argue that dropping the gloves can spark and energize a team. While that may be true, Kassian has been injured in his last two fights, and it’s in his best interest to be selective when it comes to fighting. He already creates energy and momentum when his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame closes in on an opponent to deliver a big hit. Choosing not to fight also keeps him out of the penalty box, allowing head coach Dave Tippett to continue rolling his effective third line.

Related: Edmonton Oilers 2021-2022 Season Preview Section

It’s a bonus that Kassian’s decision to agitate and not engage in a fight frustrates his opponents even more and can goad them into taking an undisciplined penalty which, in turn, allows the Oilers’ top-ranked power play to go to work.

Kassian’s Picking His Battles

Kassian is a proven battler, and while he’s agitating with discipline right now, that doesn’t mean he’ll shy away from fisticuffs when push comes to shove. He’s an emotional player, and when he sees the need to stand up for a teammate, it’s in his nature to step up:

“For me personally, it should always be in the game. I don’t think there’s a place for staged fighting, that’s been weeded out drastically, but standing up for your teammates, it’s an emotional game and things boil over”

(from “Kassian Still Willing to Drop the Gloves Despite Scare in Fight,” Edmonton Sun, 10/16/21).

Fighting is an element of Kassian’s game that shouldn’t be eliminated. However, he should continue to pick his battles and not drop the gloves just because an opponent requests it. Skating away, smiling, or even pulling a stick from the opposition’s gloves fills the agitator role for the Oilers perfectly. He’s putting up points; he’s creating momentum, and, by not fighting, he’s staying out of the box, which allows the team to continue rolling their top-nine in succession.

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