There was a time it was easy to side with Zack Kassian. He was playing extremely well as a member of the Edmonton Oilers top line alongside Connor McDavid and he was having a career year, bouncing back from a period where he was almost out of the NHL for good. In short, he was (is) a huge part of the Oilers success. Those positive attributes got him a new four-year deal just a few weeks ago.
Since the second that contract was signed, things have gone down hill for Kassian in a hurry.
This is not to suggest his shiny new deal and his recent play/poor decision-making are interconnected. No, this is more a reflection of awful timing on the part of a player who often plays on the edge and crossed over it on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Cernak Skate Incident
No doubt, Kassian is likely to be suspended. Five or six games seems to be the consensus around Edmonton and as I write this, fans are waiting on a ruling from the NHL Player Safety Committee — the same committee that recently suspended Kassian earlier this season for rag-dolling an unwilling combatant in Matthew Tkachuk.
At the time of his last suspension, most people sided with Kassian when it came to one of the most talked-about altercations in hockey. Even Tkachuk answered the bell in the following game between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. This skate incident — one that saw Kassian try to kick defenseman Erik Cernak with his blade — isn’t as excusable. I’m fact, anyone trying to write-off the play should give their head a shake.
Sure, the move might have been more reactionary than premeditated. Again, Kassian plays on the edge and he claims he was simply trying to shake loose. Still, the decision to kick someone with a skate isn’t the right one. It’s dangerous and bonehead and it effectively destroys most of the goodwill Kassian earned over the course of this NHL season.
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Kassian Speaks on the Play
When Kassian spoke to the media after the game, he called the decision to kick Cernak not really a decision at all. It was a reaction in an attempt to shake free. He said:
“That play he was holding my leg and it was just reactionary. I just tried to get loose. I was laying there awhile and I was trying to get my leg out and get moving.”
Unfortunately, the footage suggests otherwise and his decision to downplay things probably makes it worse. When he acted as though he was surprised the incident was getting as much attention as it is, he went all-in on the Houston Astros-style PR strategy of making an obviously bad situation worse.
One could argue how much contact was actually made but that’s not really the point. Kassian’s foot was already free of the pile when he did what he did. He can’t use the excuse he was trying to free his leg. And, it’s not like anyone would effectively believe him anyways.
Some fans are arguing Cernak’s elbow on Matt Benning should also be looked at by the league. Fair enough. That said, the two incidents can’t and shouldn’t be connected. If one were to do so, it only proves Kassian knew what he was doing and was looking for retribution. That doesn’t help his case nor should he ever say as much to George Parros who will be the one who hands down Kassian’s punishment.
Kassian will be much better served keeping his mouth closed and taking his lumps.
How Bad This Hurts the Oilers
What also won’t help is the hole Kassian has effectively placed his team in. Needing every able body for their potential playoff run, he’s taken himself out of the lineup for what could be five games or more. His coach and GM can’t be happy.
Kassian was already in the doghouse over the past few games and had been shoved down the lineup. He wasn’t playing well. Again, terrible timing. Now, after his GM gave him a new deal — one many argue is an over-payment — Kassian says thank you in a less-than-ideal fashion.
Perhaps Kassian doesn’t know how valued he is to the team. He’s also likely not thinking about that when he reacts in unfavourable ways. He needs to start.
What’s a Fair Punishment?
Do I personally think Kassian should be suspended for the rest of the season like many are calling for? No. Do I think he and the Oilers are going to suffer for a poor decision, one in which he absolutely should have known better? Yes. At the least, I suspect six games (otherwise why call for an in-person hearing?)
The worst part is, a lot of people will quickly forget all the good Kassian has done this season. They’ll forget that Tkachuk is the league’s biggest pest and probably deserved what he had coming to him. People will connect the situations and Kassian will go from a good guy to the ultimate bad guy.
And, while that might not be fair, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
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