Oilers’ Kassian Has “Killer Instinct” Leafs Need

Both the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs had shorter postseasons than they were expecting. Edmonton played four games, managing zero wins, against a team they’d dominated in the regular season, while Toronto, who spent most of the 56-game regular season atop the Scotiabank North Division standings, got an early series lead on their opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, only to suffer yet another first-round exit. Both teams wanted more, and both fanbases are naturally upset.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
This is an important offseason for both the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

In Edmonton, salary cap breathing room has finally arrived, and while it won’t last long, general manager Ken Holland has more than $20 million in available salary to fix a flawed roster that boasts some of the world’s best players and yet can’t find its way in the postseason. Out east, the Leafs have fewer holes, but look likely to lose several players in supporting roles during the summer free agency period. In addition, both clubs will lose a roster player to the incoming Seattle Kraken during the Expansion Draft. Could there be a potential deal that would work for, and even possibly improve, both clubs?

Zack Kassian Can Help the Leafs

The ups and downs of Zack Kassian’s career are well documented. Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres at No. 13 overall in 2009, he saw action in 27 National Hockey League games before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks. There he had some early success, even seeing time on the top line with the Sedin twins before his personal troubles got the best of him. His NHL story might have ended there, as many other similar tales do, but somewhere along the way, as he was shuffled first to the Canadiens and then to the Oilers, Kassian reinvented himself. The player who arrived in Edmonton wasn’t perfect, but he was focused on his career once again, and it showed in the effort he put in on a nightly basis.

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

Kassian is a dogged forechecker, his speed constantly surprising opposing defenders as he makes contact while they think they still have time for a quick shoulder check or turn. He has decent hands for a big player and, combined with his speed and nasty temper, is the sort that can fit anywhere in your lineup. His production varies, but he has proven he can keep up with elite talent like Connor McDavid, contributing points and hits at the same time. The Leafs’ speedy forward group could use the size and ferocity Kassian brings, and be comfortable in the knowledge that he’ll also put up points in that offence.

A Playoff Difference Maker

In 2016-17, Kassian single-handedly won a playoff game for the Oilers against the San Jose Sharks. He was a man possessed, striking fear and worry into the other bench, who didn’t know if he’d steamroll them or deke them out of their skates, often doing both within a shift. The series turned then and there, and Edmonton continued on, almost making it to the Western Conference Final, losing to the Anaheim Ducks in a long, tight series. There was no similar breakout game in this playoffs, but Kassian ended the regular season with a slight injury, whose lingering effects kept him from being the same force of nature this time around.

The Edmonton Oilers’ Zack Kassian tired of the antics of Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames and took things into his own hands.

Kassian can skate, fight, and hit, all without looking out of place alongside elite talent. Toronto’s “Big Four” have talent to burn, but questions have been raised, rightly or wrongly, about their ability to finish off the competition. Losses in the first round were an understandable part of the growing process in the early years of this particular player group, but now, with all their top talent paid like the stars they have developed into, those excuses hold little water. Toronto was the class of the all-Canadian division and most felt they’d be the team facing off against the Vegas Golden Knights for a chance to play for the Cup.

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While Nazem Kadri’s performance and following suspension with the Colorado Avalanche show that Toronto was likely right to move on from him, many would agree that his departure left a hole in the Toronto roster – a player that makes others uncomfortable, who can be looked to for support when things get a bit ugly on the ice. Kassian is similarly hot-tempered, but has shown that when the Stanley Cup is on the line, he knows how to play on the edge without going over and hurting his team.

Ryan Callahan, Nazem Kadri
Former Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri has continued to make poor decisions in the playoffs. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The cost to obtain Kassian wouldn’t be huge. Edmonton is sorely lacking draft picks this summer, due to bets made a year ago by Holland, and with the Oilers’ GM now looking to go big-game hunting with his sizeable cap space, it might not even cost the Leafs a roster player. With three years remaining on a deal that pays him $3.2 million per season, Kassian is affordable in a top-six role, which is arguably where he would slot in with Toronto. A player who will do anything for his teammates, Kassian would change the dynamic of the Maple Leaf roster and could be the piece that completes their long and frustrating postseason performance puzzle.

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