Oilers’ Kassian Experiment Could Help Kane Turn Things Around

Within the past week, there have been talks that the Edmonton Oilers are frontrunners to sign Evander Kane. There’s no questioning his on-ice talents, but his off-ice issues are worrisome. The thought of signing a player with as much baggage as him has caused a stir among the fanbase.

General manager Ken Holland said in his media availability last Tuesday that “he believes in second chances.” This struck a chord with the Oilers’ faithful, because why should someone with such a bad history be given one more chance? Yet, if there are doubts whether a player can change their bad behavior, look no further than Zack Kassian, who was given a final chance to turn his career around with the Oilers, and has never looked back. If Kane wants to stay in the NHL, Kassian’s story should serve as a great motivator.

A History of Kassian’s Troubled Past

Originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres 13th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft, the former Windsor Spitfire was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for Cody Hodgson and additional pieces in 2012, where he spent four years within the Canucks organization. Ironically, at one point in time, he was public enemy number one in Oil Country. In 2013 he was suspended for three preseason games, and five regular-season games when he viciously swung his stick at former Oiler Sam Gagner. The Oilers’ centre lost four teeth and needed six screws and a plate to put his mouth back into place and ultimately missed four weeks of playing time (from “Zack Kassian Finds Sobriety, Gets Career and Life on Track With Edmonton Oilers,” The National Post, 4/17/17).

Zack Kassian
Zack Kassian, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks (Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE)

Kassian’s play was too inconsistent with the Canucks. He had looks playing on a line with the Sedin twins, but there were also segments where he was demoted to the fourth line. It was also well known that the rugged winger battled off-ice issues, in which he struggled with alcoholism. On July 1, 2015, the Canucks traded Kassian and a fifth-round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Brandon Prust.

The Canadiens organization was fully aware of Kassian’s problems off the ice, and he was given only one chance. On Oct. 4, 2015, he struck out— he suffered a broken nose and a broken left foot when he was a passenger in a car accident. The Ford F-350 that was loaned to him by a car dealership slammed into a tree in the early morning— days before the start of the regular season. The driver of the vehicle, Alison De Courcy, was eventually acquitted of drunk driving, but during the trial, Kassian testified that he had consumed cocaine and alcohol at his condo and that he was very intoxicated, although, he never drove the vehicle. In the end, there wasn’t sufficient evidence of impairment to find the driver guilty of impaired driving (from “Woman Acquitted of Driving Drunk With Ex-Hab Zack Kassian,” Montreal Gazette, 7/19/21).

The following day, then Canadien’s general manager, Marc Bergevin said Kassian “showed a lack of character”, and the 24-year-old (at the time) was placed in the NHL’s Substance Abuse Program. He spent two months in rehabilitation, and when the NHL announced that he was reinstated to play, Montreal promptly placed him on waivers.

The Oilers Gave Kassian His Final Chance at an NHL Career

The Windsor, Ontario native was traded before playing a single regular-season game for the Canadiens. In a shocking move, then Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli acquired the once hated Kassian on Dec. 28, 2015 for Ben Scrivens. It was a risky wager bringing in a player with a troubled past into a locker room with youngsters Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. At the same time, the team needed more toughness to complement their skilled players. They saw the need for size and someone who can provide a physical edge, and took the gamble on the former first-rounder.

It was 100% Kassian’s last chance to turn his career around and he took the ball and ran with it. He later spoke about his ordeal on a podcast with former Canuck’s teammates, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa, saying:

“I struck out with Buffalo, Vancouver didn’t want me, my last chance was in Montreal and I screwed that one up before the season even started. That was really a turning point and right then and there I knew something was wrong and I had to get better and I surrendered. That day changed my life.”

He recorded eight points and 114 penalty minutes in 36 games that season with the Oilers, but his coming-out party was the next season when Edmonton made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. In 13 playoff games, he scored three goals and threw timely and thunderous hits that ignited the crowd at Rogers Place.

In Game 2 against the San Jose Sharks, the hard-hitting winger played the best game of his career. He scored the game-winner on a short-handed breakaway that sent the crowd into a frenzy. He laid heavy hits on Logan Couture and Brent Burns and finished the game with six hits in total, all while being named the first star of the game. His ferocity that playoff run endeared him to Oilers fans, and also earned him a three-year contract the following summer, worth $5.85 million.

In 2019-2020 he showed elements that made him a former-first round pick, when he showcased more of his skills with the puck. He recorded a career-high in points (34) and played his way onto a line with superstars McDavid and Draisaitl, while creating space and bringing the sandpaper on the line. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a new contract on Jan. 29, 2020, inking a four-year extension worth $3.2 million a year.

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

He understood his chance with the Oilers was likely his last in the NHL. He identified himself as an alcoholic and made the commitment to turn his career around. Kassian is now 30 years old, married, and has a daughter. He’s battled injuries over the last couple of years, and his play has trailed off from the rambunctious rough style from the 2017 playoffs, but you need to give credit where credit is due. This was a man who was inches away from being out of the league, but he’s now seven years sober and has become an effective NHL player.

Kane Can Learn From Kassian’s Past

Kassian and Kane have similarities— both have a troubled past with off-ice problems. They’re big men, weighing over 200 pounds, they’re skilled and tough as nails. Having said that, the former San Jose Shark is a more proven goal scorer with 264 goals under his belt, but also comes with a lot more baggage.

Kane’s list of deviant behaviour is lengthy, with previous assault and harassment charges, in which he was cleared of any criminal conduct. He has allegations of domestic abuse,  gambling on hockey games, in addition to a lawsuit against him from the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which was also dropped. There’s also the 21-game suspension he received this season for producing a fake COVID vaccination card. As the Hockey Writer’s Jim Parsons reports, the NHL is also investigating the matter that he traveled while testing positive for COVID— which may delay teams from signing the problematic winger.

Does Kane deserve a second chance? Well technically, it might be his third or fourth chance— the answer is subjective, but there’s no denying his on-ice skill, despite his off-ice troubles. If signed to the Oilers, Parsons also reported that the Oilers captain, McDavid, would be in favour of bringing Kane aboard, saying, “I think Evander is a great player and can help us a lot on the ice and that’s first and foremost”. Simply put, the Oilers or any NHL team would benefit from Kane’s ability to provide toughness and goal-scoring, the question is whether he’ll smarten up enough to continue an NHL career.

Related: Signing Evander Kane is Worth a Shot for the Oilers

There’s no guarantee that Kane will realize this is his last shot to stay in the NHL with Edmonton or any other team, but If there’s any doubt whether a player is able to change their problematic behaviour, Kassian is the perfect example. He’s battled his demons and seems to be a changed man. He had one strike left, and since 2015, he’s signed on the dotted line for a sum of $18.5 million worth of NHL contracts. Safe to say he’s hit a home run.

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