Oilers’ Mistake of Overpaying Zack Kassian Proved to Be Costly

The Edmonton Oilers and Zack Kassian’s relationship came to an on June 7 when the team traded him to the Arizona Coyotes. The Oilers needed to clear cap space and Kassian, who mostly underperformed the last couple of seasons, was one of the most likely candidates to be moved to free up an additional $3.2 million in average annual value (AAV).

Ken Holland has made some good moves as general manager (GM) of the Oilers, like the Cody Ceci and Zach Hyman acquisitions last summer. At the same time, he’s had some misses and mistakes, and one of the most glaring ones was his mismanagement of Kassian. In the end, he had to overpay in a trade, just to move him off the roster.

The Oilers Re-Signed Kassian for Too Much Money

The Oilers acquired Kassian on Dec. 28, 2015, when then-Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli traded goaltender Ben Scrivens for the rugged forward. He ran into trouble with the Montreal Canadiens, and it was his last shot to stay in the NHL. It was a risky wager bringing in a player with a troubled past into a locker room with youngsters Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but 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.

Kassian recorded eight points and 114 penalty minutes in 36 games in his first season with the Oilers, but his coming-out party was the year after when Edmonton made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. In 13 playoff games, he scored three goals, but it was his physicality that postseason that he’ll be remembered for most with the Oilers’ fanbase. His ferocity and timely hits during that playoff run endeared him to Oilers fans, and also earned him a three-year contract the following summer, worth $5.85 million.

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

In 2019-20 he recorded a career-high 34 points and played his way onto the top line with McDavid and Draisaitl. For his efforts, GM Holland rewarded him on Jan. 29, 2020, with a four-year contract extension worth $3.2 million AAV. The contract was very rich, and The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman described it as one of Holland’s biggest mistakes in his three seasons in charge. He stated that it was too long and for too much money (from ‘Oilers Trade Zack Kassian to Coyotes for Draft Picks,’ The Athletic, 7/8/22).

At the time, and still, now, it seemed too generous of a contract to a depth player for only one season’s worth of decent production (34 points).

Oilers Shouldn’t Have Protected Kassian in the Expansion Draft

When Kassian was at the top of his game, he was an effective player, as he could chip in on the scoresheet, hit, agitate, and drop the gloves — like his main event tilts with Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk, which helped ignite the feud in the Battle of Alberta. However, after signing his lucrative contract, his play struggled, as he was inconsistent and in and out of the lineup due to injury.

Kassian was removed off McDavid’s wing 10 games into the shortened 2020-21 season. He also missed 17 games when he fought former Ottawa Senator Erik Gudbranson, breaking his hand in the process, and was placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) in April of that year, missing 29 games in total.

Yet, in the following offseason, Holland had a chance to potentially get the forward’s contract off the books at the expansion draft. They could’ve left him unprotected and exposed him for the Seattle Kraken to pluck and insert in their lineup, but that wasn’t the case. The Oilers protected him, while the Kraken selected Adam Larsson. Who knows if Seattle would’ve selected him, but it seemed like a miss on Holland’s part to not give them the option to do so.

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Kassian and more importantly his $3.2 million AAV cap hit remained with the team. This past season he tallied 19 points, but also missed 24 games due to injuries and healthy scratches. He had a decent outing in the postseason, tallying four points and 53 hits in 16 games, but despite the type of performance he gave in the playoffs, it was all but guaranteed he’d be moved in the offseason.

Fast forward to June 7 and Holland was forced to fix his mismanagement by trading Kassian to the Arizona Coyotes, by enticing them with pick No. 29, a second-round pick in 2024, and a third-round pick in 2025, in exchange for the No. 32 pick, which the Oilers used to select Reid Schaefer.

Related: Oilers Trade Kassian and Picks to Coyotes

There’s only a 15% chance that the second-round pick the Oilers gave up turns into an impact player, even less for a third-rounder. That said, the picks that were traded to free up the $3.2 million AAV in cap space were an overpay and instead of using them for pieces that can help them win now, they were used to help remedy his mistakes. All in all, the 3.2 million AAV contract shouldn’t have been offered in the first place, and it was a missed opportunity by the Oilers by protecting Kassian in the expansion draft when they potentially could’ve gotten rid of him for free.

Kassian was past his expiry date with the Oilers, and it was time to move on. That said, although his inconsistencies and expensive contract will be highlighted in the latter half of his time in Edmonton, he does deserve credit where credit is due. He turned his life around in his last shot to stay in the NHL and during his seven seasons in Oil Country, he scored timely goals, delivered big hits, and helped reignite the Battle of Alberta. Best of luck to him in Arizona.