Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian won over Oil Country in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs by delivering big hits and sending opposing players flying, using his 6-foot-3 and 200-pound frame.
He’d continue an upward trend in performance in the following years, and he was rewarded with a four-year $12.8 million deal. Injuries and inconsistency followed after signing the contract, and he’s been often criticized for the lack of unmotivated play since then. He was protected in the expansion draft last offseason, which was concerning to some, but the narrative was that the Oilers kept him around because he’s the prototypical “playoff-type of player.”
He took a high-stick to the face in the second last game of the season, which left him with a black eye. Meaning that he already looked the part of a playoff warrior heading into the postseason, but the question was whether his play would complement the look? So far, “Playoff Kassian” appears to be back.
Kassian Has Been a Physical Force This Postseason
Admittedly, I wrote articles throughout the season about Kassian, criticizing his play and how he would be an ideal candidate to be traded in the offseason. However, I also made a prediction before the season started that he would have a bounce-back season. The rugged forward is an emotional player that feeds off the energy of the crowd. With no fans in the stands for parts of the last two years, there’s a possibility it could’ve impacted his play. Although he started the regular season off on the right track with five points in his first five games, his play would start to fade — that’s happened many times since he signed his $12.8 million deal.
Yet, through three postseason games, he’s found his “wrecking ball” form that made him so highly effective in 2017. He’s thrown 15 hits — and we’re not talking little bumps. The majority of his hits have been punishing, and he looks like a freight train when he’s barreling down on Los Angeles Kings players. He’s creating energy for his team, especially in Game 1 and Game 2 at Rogers Place, when he sent Oilers fans into a frenzy.
He played his best game in years in Game 2 in the win against the Kings. He threw glass rattling hits and sent Kings players flying, and he’s doing so in a smart manner by not taking himself completely out of the play.
He also chipped in on the scoresheet with an assist. In the second period, he received a pass from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, entered the zone, and used a power move to take the puck strong to the net. That play led to sustained pressure by their line; he eventually dropped the puck to Evan Bouchard, who hammered the puck from the blue line, which resulted in a Ryan McLeod tip-in goal.
Moreover, despite his rambunctious playing style, he’s playing a well-disciplined game. He’s playing whistle to whistle and chirping afterward, but he’s not doing anything extra that would risk his team being down a man. Kings’ pest Brendan Lemieux has tried stirring things up with him to create energy for his team, but Kassian hasn’t taken the bait with unnecessary penalties.
He repeated his aggressive play in Game 3, heavy hits, protected the puck well, and he’s making the most of his 9:06 of ice time. One noticeable trait is that his feet are always moving — something that’s lacked when he’s in one of his unmotivated phases.
Is Kassian Worth Keeping Around?
Kassian finding his form this postseason is exciting if you’re an Oilers fan. But it begs the question, where was this player in the regular season? It’s understandable that a player at 31 years old cannot play a “wrecking ball” style night in and night out. But if that’s the case, and he’s only good until the playoffs come around, is this player worth keeping around, for 3.2 million AAV, after the playoffs?
One thing Kassian does consistently well throughout the regular season is teasing with his play. He’ll play lights out one game — hitting everything in sight, exchanging words with the opposition, and getting under their skin when he flashes that menacing grin. Oil Country gets tricked into thinking that the Kassian from 2017 is back, only for his play to fizzle away for the next few games.
Do the Oilers benefit by having a player that only shows up (hopefully) around playoff time? It’s debatable. But The Hockey Writers’ Rob Couch wrote an article stating it benefits the team if Kassian has a big playoff performance. If the Oilers feel he’s expendable, he can boost his trade value, and general manager Ken Holland can pitch him to a team that’s knocked out in the first round this postseason and who would want to beef up their lineup.
Related: Oilers’ Trade Candidates Barrie & Kassian Can Boost Value in Playoffs
Despite if the Oilers are successful or not this postseason, they have important decisions to make in the offseason. Ryan McLeod, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Kailer Yamamoto are the notable players that need to be re-signed, and that’s still not including Evander Kane, who has five goals and one assist in three postseason games. The more Kane produces, the more I’m convinced this is a player the Oilers have to try to retain, within reason, in Connor McDavid’s prime years and moving a player like Kassian would be the logical place to shed salary.
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But in the here and now, the Oilers are coming off two impressive postseason wins. They’re the first team in NHL history to lose the first game of a playoff series but win the next two by six goals each. They’re receiving big contributions from their big guns, but the role players, like Kassian, are playing to their strengths that are contributing to the team’s success so far.