When the Edmonton Oilers acquired Zack Kassian in 2015 from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for goaltender Ben Scrivens, many expected the former first-round draft pick to fizzle out of the NHL for good. However, since the Oilers gave him the opportunity to steer his career back on track, Kassian has exceeded all expectations by being 100% sober and he has carved out a unique role for himself on the roster.
Given Kassian’s troubled history, general manager Peter Chiarelli would have immediately shot down the thought of him being the missing piece to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s trio. But today, this unfathomable line has evolved into reality and Oilers fans are expecting Kassian to be riding shotgun with the dynamic duo in the 2019-20 NHL season.
Zack’s Got the Whole Pack!
As Edmonton’s “Swiss Army Knife,” the 6-foot-3 right winger has not only demonstrated his ability to bring an element of nastiness and grit to the Oilers’ game, but he has shown that he possesses the speed, skills, and hockey IQ to consistently keep up with the team’s most talented players. In today’s NHL, it is rare to find a unique player like Kassian who can do it all: score, kill penalties, fight, and play a fast game all together. Though many fans believe he is not worthy of playing first line minutes, it’s worth looking back to when he played for the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL (recording 77 points in the 2010-11 season) and when he played alongside McDavid and Draisaitl for the majority of last season’s final month.
Kassian brings more speed than his league-wide comparables (e.g. Wayne Simmonds, Micheal Ferland, and Matt Calvert) and has the ability to ruffle the feathers of opponents like no other. The only reason why he has not put up numbers like theirs is because he is trapped in the trenches of the Oilers’ bottom six playing along AHL-calibre players.
Kassian was unjustly slotted onto the fourth line at the beginning of the 2018-19 season, which ultimately contributed to him being a healthy scratch for three games and finding himself in trade rumours. He is much more talented and faster than players like Kyle Brodziak and Tobias Rieder, who lack the offensive hockey IQ to match Kassian’s style of play. He was frustrated with the underwhelming play of his linemates on the fourth line which resulted in regular trips to the penalty box at crucial points in games, preventing the team from getting within one or two goals of the opponent’s lead.
Kassian Deserves More Credit
Fans can harp on Kassian for not keeping his emotions in check, but in general, he deserves more credit. No one can deny his knack for using his size and speed to carry the puck into the dirty areas and work tirelessly until he scores. He also excels at forechecking and cycling. He consistently makes the most of his chances by picking up the rebounds McDavid and Draisaitl throw on net, because he is so hard to remove from the slot (an element so many Oilers forwards were lacking lastseason). He is also able to get to open spaces using his unprecedented speed, most notably joining odd-man rushes and freeing himself up for tap-in goals.
Additionally, Kassian’s relentless will to score has been on display throughout his tenure with the Oilers, no matter what line he plays on. On the third and fourth lines, he has been the player to increase his linemates’ tempo. Most notably, he had chemistry with former Oiler Mark Letestu, a cerebral veteran centre who skated as though he was a few years younger and faster when paired with Kassian. Since Letestu’s departure, Kassian has struggled to find a consistent centre to play with who possesses similar skill and hockey IQ to find him in open areas, that is, until he was inserted alongside the dynamic duo.
Put Him Where He Belongs!
In my opinion, Kassian is a unique complimentary player who needs to be playing alongside like-minded, talented players in order for him to maximize his production. People must not forget that he was drafted 13th overall by the Buffalo Sabres for a reason. The rugged, 211 lb winger cannot carry and drive his own line as he was expected to do throughout his career, but he is better off consistently playing with McDavid and Draisaitl where he can create more opportunities using his size and skills along the boards and off the rush. Kassian showed promise flanking the two superstars especially in the month of March when he put up six of his 15 goals last season and went a four-game point streak.
Yes, all players play exceptional with these superstars, but Kassian provides this line with a more effective cycle dimension, allowing the superstars to rely less on off-the-rush scoring. Kassian and Draisaitl have shown their abilities to work well on the boards together, generating loose puck recoveries for McDavid to sustain longer offensive pressure. With these two big bodies tiring out the other team’s defence below the goal line, McDavid will get more open looks at the top of the slot. Not only will the cycle be more dangerous, but odd-man rushes will be even more lethal with all three of these players crossing the blue line together night in and night out, with Kassian setting up shop right in the goalie’s crease to deposit the rare save that is made on a McDavid-Draisatil rush.
With an expiring contract heading into this season, Kassian will be motivated to have a career year with the Oilers in hopes of cashing in on a big deal at the end of the season. By playing on McDavid and Draisatil’s wing on a more consistent basis, Kassian should reap the benefits of being on a line with two of the best players in the NHL, but he will also prove to Oilers fans just how valuable he is to the team come playoff time (if the Oilers do make the playoffs).
Kassian’s intangibles and “playoff hockey” style make him a desirable asset and I am confident that he will not only help get the Oilers to the postseason with a career year, but he will help McDavid and Draisaitl soar to new heights by playing on their line for the majority of the upcoming season.