Last October Zack Kassian was placed in Stage Two of the Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program (SABH) of the NHL and NHLPA. He went to rehab for two months and on December 15th he was cleared to return to active status. Then he entered the follow-up care phase of the substance abuse and behavioural health program.
The Montreal Canadiens placed him on waivers and he went to the American Hockey League. On December 28th, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli acquired him in exchange for goalie Ben Scrivens. Kassian reported to the Oilers AHL affiliate in Bakersfield. On January 13th, after seven games in the minors, the Oilers recalled Kassian.
He played 36 games for the Oilers, and yesterday he signed a one-year contract for $1.5 million. I spoke with the 13th overall pick in 2009 about returning to the Oilers, what he wants to improve and where he fits in next season.
Many were skeptical when Chiarelli acquired Kassian. Could he stay sober? Would he be a distraction?
Kassian understood the concern, and when we spoke in January he was grateful for the opportunity. “I don’t want to let Peter or my family down,” he said sitting in his stall.
Four months later, Kassian has a new one-year contract, but his mindset hasn’t changed. From his standpoint, the contract negotiation was very easy.
“It wasn’t too difficult. I
knew Peter Chiarelli gave me a good opportunity with Edmonton last year. I
know that I still have a lot to prove to him and to a lot of people in the
organization. I was just really happy to hear that they wanted me back. Money wasn’t a big thing with me. I’m just really excited to get the
opportunity to come back and to play with Edmonton starting with a full season,” he said.
Kassian hadn’t played an NHL game in ten months when he stepped on the ice with the Oilers on January 14th. His last game was March 14th, 2015 with the Vancouver Canucks. He was sober and extremely excited to be back in the NHL.
Chiarelli told him he’d have a clean slate in Edmonton, but there would be no second chances. He needed to stay clean. Kassian knew this was his last opportunity.
Staying sober in rehab is much easier than doing it when you are on the road and around your teammates. He went out to team dinners and fit in quite well according to his teammates. When they had their rookie party on the road, Kassian stayed at dinner, but politely excused himself when some of the boys went out on the town.
Was it difficult trying to fit in?
“It wasn’t too bad, Kassian said. “Obviously there were changes made so coming to Edmonton there was a lot of
things I had to go through, but the team was very supportive and it’s a
good group of guys there. They were very welcoming and supportive of my situation. It’s a group that wants to win and it’s exciting to
be a part of it moving forward, but all in all the off-ice stuff was something
that I took one day at a time. I’m really excited I got to experience the changes off ice last year, and now I can have a good off-season and hit the ground running next year.”
He knows where he stands with his head coach. Todd Mclellan wants to use him on the penalty kill next year, and he told Kassian he sees him as more of a bottom-six forward. Kassian welcomed McLellan’s honesty and clarity.
“It’s nice. I think Todd and I have a great understanding. He’s a great communicator along with all of
the other great coaches we have in Edmonton. It was nice to have a sit
down meeting with him and go through a process of where I fit moving
forward. I have no problem being that fourth line guy who can move up and
down the lineup.
“If you look at the teams that are
still playing hockey right now, they are deep and deep teams are going
to win. With all of the skill level that we have in Edmonton, I
think I fit in perfectly in that bottom six roll,” said Kassian.
With his new found sobriety away from the rink, Kassian believe he can improve as a player.
“I think that there’s a lot
of areas I can improve. I’ve had talks with Todd and I think I can give more. I
think coming into Edmonton halfway through the season there were a lot of
things I had to learn on the fly.
I feel with
the lifestyle changes I’ve made I’m more immune to them now and I’m getting
used to this lifestyle. Honestly my things are all kind of taken care of off
of the ice. I’m in a good place. It’s easy to just go out and play hockey,” Kassian explained.
I was curious, what more can he give to the team?
“Well, I think there were spurts,
obviously there were times where I played hard. But to cross that line I need to do a better job of staying composed. I had a few altercations
with the refs and that’s something that I don’t need in my game. I’m a player who can take people off of their game, but I can’t have the refs take me off
That’s something I can improve on and help the penalty kill. I haven’t done much penalty killing, but I’ve watched a lot and
I’ve learned a lot, especially during the last fifteen games or so. Being on the PK is something I want to succeed at and help solidify and become a good penalty killer for this team.
Learning to PK at the NHL level won’t be easy. Kassian did it sparingly in junior, but hasn’t done much of it in the NHL. However, he’s confident he can be effective.
“Penalty killing is about hard work and a willingness to pay a price. I
think that I have those attributes in my game. It’s a matter of just learning
the team systems, the backchecks, the forechecks and the positions we
run on in zones. Over time it’s one of those
things you just react to.
“Repetition in practice is key, and then getting into a game, and obviously watching
film – which we do a lot of in Edmonton. But I think more so the
repetition of getting in and doing reps in the practice is how I’m going to improve and that’s when it becomes more reactive,” he explained.
Kassian is excited about expanding his game, but he’s focused on helping the Oilers win. He hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2013, and he is confident his style of play could help the Oilers in the postseason.
“If you look at the playoff series, it’s a lot about wearing the defence down,
wearing the other team down, chipping pucks in and being strong on the cycle. It’s in-your-face hockey. They let a lot more go in the playoffs
than they do in the regular season, and I think that fits my game perfectly.
Now it’s just a matter of us getting into the playoffs and showing what I can do,” he said.
The Oilers haven’t been close to the playoffs since Kassian was drafted. He is well aware of the organization’s struggles, and shared his views on what he believes needs to happen for them to return to the postseason.
“Talking with a few of the players, we need to be a group that
comes in hungry. If you look at the teams that get off to a good start, there are going to be ups and downs, but if you can get a good first
ten games under your belt, with a lot of wins, those bad bumps don’t seem so
“It’s very important for us to come in great shape, be ready to compete
in training camp, but then follow that through and be ready opening night. I
think that’s something our team needs to focus on, especially with the new
rink being built. There’s going to be a big buzz around the
city, the fans are going to be passionate and it’s time that we give them
something to really cheer about,” Kassian said.
Kassian sounded like a man grateful for the opportunity to continue his NHL career. He realizes addiction never goes away, but he’s adjusting to his new lifestyle and feels more comfortable every day.
He’ll train in California this summer. “It’s tough to complain right now. I’m enjoying the sun and working out in West Hollywood,” he said.
He’s also going to try to overcome one of his fears this summer.
“I want to learn how to surf, however,
I’m scared of sharks, but I want to learn, ” he laughed. “I’ve got to
get over my fear of sharks and get into the water. So I’m looking forward to
Kassian is defeating his addiction, and I’ll bet when we talk to him in the fall, he’ll have conquered his fear of Sharks and learned how to surf.
It’s just more thing he wants to prove.
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