What Should Oilers Do With Feisty Forward Kassian?

If you’ve watched enough Edmonton Oilers games, you’ll realize, there are two versions of Zack Kassian fans have come to know. There’s the Kassian who changed the game in a matter of minutes during Thursday’s Oilers win over the Colorado Avalanche and there’s the Kassian who seems disinterested and ineffective more times than not.

No doubt, Kassian’s game-changing hit on star forward Nathan McKinnon set the tone early in Thursday’s 6-2 victory and the Oilers took the energy created from that hit and spanked the Avs. Seconds later, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combined for a couple of their 11 points on the night and minutes later, Kassian scored a goal as well. His play to open the first period was reminiscent of how Kassian played when the Oilers last made the postseason and he was dominant in the series versus the San Jose Sharks. Perhaps more than any other Oilers forward, during that series, Kassian was a difference-maker.

But, Thursday’s game and the San Jose series aside, what Kassian has showed recently is not always what the Oilers can expect to get.

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What is Kassian?

This season, Kassian has been a revelation. While he’s not getting the credit a star like McDavid or Draisaitl will get, even as much fanfare as James Neal has received after coming over from the Calgary Flames, Kassian is not-so quietly proving himself as an integral part of this Oilers’ roster moving forward.

Zack Kassian Edmonton Oilers
Zack Kassian, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

You might not know it behind the performances of the Oilers two megastars, but Kassian is on pace for 58 points and 27 goals this season. He’s been slotted on the Oilers top line and he’s not left it since opening night. He’s gritty, he’s engaged and he’s an inexpensive compliment to a pairing that has wowed fans throughout the NHL.

But, is this what Kassian is?

In 79 games last season, Kassian scored 26 points. In 74 games the season before, 19. Over the course of his entire NHL career, he’s never once broken 30 points in a single season. He’ll crush those numbers in 2019-20 but should the Oilers extend him based on this season or every other season that came before it?

Kassian to Hit Free Agency

Herein lies the dilemma for the Oilers and general manager Ken Holland. Kassian currently makes $1.95 million per season. That runs out at the end of the 2019-20 campaign. At his current pace, he’ll be a winger that falls around twice that amount on the open market. Is that where the Oilers want to go?

Edmonton Oilers Zack Kassian, Darnell Nurse, Jujhar Khaira Leon Draisaitl
Edmonton Oilers Zack Kassian, Darnell Nurse, Jujhar Khaira and Leon Draisaitl (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Amber Bracken)

There are two key factors to consider here. First, it’s always best to sell high. While still early, the Oilers are seemingly headed straight for the postseason. Kassian has proven he’s the kind of guy you want to go to war with in playoff time. But, what if the Oilers have a quick conversation with him and he lets it be known he’s going to test the open market or want $3.5 – $4 million on an extension? If he scores 58 points, some will argue he’s worth it. And, who could blame him should he ask? Players like Kassian don’t get too many opportunities to cash in during their NHL careers.

That said, if history has shown that Kassian might not be able to produce similar numbers again, is it wise for the Oilers to even remotely consider re-signing him at those kinds of figures? Remember, Edmonton has Darnell Nurse, Ethan Bear, and other, arguably more important contracts to take care of this off-season.

So too, what if the Oilers slip? With the season far from over, there is a chance things go sideways and if they do, the Oilers aren’t in a position to add, but sell and the first to go would have to be Kassian who any playoff contender would likely deem invaluable.

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The Oilers Need Forwards

For now, let’s assume the Oilers continue on their winning ways and make the playoffs. It’s obvious, an issue for them is lack of depth at the forward position. Yes, players beyond McDavid and Draisaitl are starting to chip in, Kassian among them. Can Edmonton really afford to send away a forward who is contributing on a nightly basis?

Fans can only hope that Kassian realizes what kind of situation he’s currently in. Firmly entrenched on that top line, he’s not going to get opportunities like this on any other NHL team. And, if the Oilers are actualy as good as their current record indicates, wouldn’t you want to be part of a team that has a chance to win every night?

Maybe that’s worth more than hitting a free agency home run. Maybe that’s worth $2.5 million over three years instead of $3.5- $4 million over one or two?

To say the least, Kassian’s story will be an interesting one to watch as the season rolls along.

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