People like yours truly tend to complain whenever there’s a
weak spot on an NHL team’s depth chart. For actual NHL players with their eyes
on moving up the lineup, though, any weak spot represents a golden opportunity.
This fall, the opportunity at right wing is one that Nail
Yakupov and Jesse Puljujarvi will seek to exploit, but they won’t be the only
ones. Zack Kassian’s major-league career cannot have gone the way he had
planned, but he can change the narrative in a substantial way if he starts off
well this season.
Of course, he’ll have to change the mind of his coach first.
“I don’t see him as a big scorer. I don’t see him as a
30-goal scorer and doing that kind of stuff,” McLellan said
back in March. “I see him grunting it out in the corners and filling that
role in a bottom-six position more than a top-six.”
McLellan made those comments on March 18, prior to a game
against Vancouver. In the nine games that followed prior to the end of the
season, Kassian picked up just a single assist. Over the same span, he did
throw 29 hits. None of that is likely to shift the head coach’s stated opinion.
Yet we know that Kassian can contribute more offensively.
Kassian has never really been used a lot on the power play.
Over his Vancouver career he spent roughly two and half hours on the man
advantage, and didn’t
really impress. That might change with a different situation or more
ice-time, but there’s no NHL track record of big power play numbers and we
probably shouldn’t expect that to change.
What he can do is generate more offence at five-on-five.
Kassian’s first full NHL season was 2012-13; here’s what his 5-on-5 scoring numbers
look like in the seasons since:
- 2012-13 (age 22): 1.04 points/hour, ranking 330th of the 420
most-used NHL forwards that year (fourth line)
- 2013-14 (age 23): 1.91 points/hour, ranking 95th of the 420 most-used
NHL forwards that year (second line)
- 2014-15 (age 24): 1.84 points/hour, ranking 101st of the 420
most-used NHL forwards that year (second line)
- 2015-16 (age 25): 1.13 points/hour, ranking 282nd of the 420
most-used NHL forward (fourth line)
The above comes from stats.hockeyanlaysis.com, and I picked
420 players as my number because that equates to 14 per team (the amount that most clubs carry). Kassian had two very good five-on-five years in Vancouver,
and at the age of 25 he shouldn’t be anywhere near the downswing of his career.
It’s not hard to imagine why 2015-16 might have been a bad year for him –
between trade, injury and off-ice concerns it would have been a surprise had he
not trended downward. He should, however, be capable of getting back to the
level he was at with the Canucks, where he was a capable five-on-five scorer.
There are those who will raise an eyebrow at how good
Kassian’s 5-on-5 scoring numbers look, noting that in 2013-14 he only had 29
actual points over 73 games. Well, 28 of those points came at even-strength, tying
him with people like Shane Doan and Rick Nash, and only one back of Daniel
Sedin. He also had more even-strength points that year then people like Loui
Eriksson, Derick Brassard and Lee Stempniak.
General manager Peter Chiarelli certainly seems to have
expected more last season. Asked in April about contract talks with Kassian and
Eric Gryba, he offered
I’m not going to get into details on negotiations. Those
are two big guys and you’ve heard my comments on size. I think Grybs played
quite well up until getting hurt and I like the addition of Zack. He’s been a
model citizen. His production hasn’t been as good as I thought it would be but
he’s in terrific shape, he’s skating well, he’s doing a lot of the things we
want him to do. Him and Grybs have been two good components for our team.
It has been suggested that Kassian benefited while in
Vancouver from playing with the Sedin twins, and while there’s an element of
truth to that, he spent so little time with the Sedins that they weren’t really
able to give him a big bump. Look at his numbers with
and without Daniel Sedin over his two big seasons:
- with Sedin: 183 minutes, seven points (2.30 points/hour)
- without Sedin: 1,188 minutes, 36 points (1.82 points/hour)
So while Kassian scored more frequently when playing with
the Sedins, he spent the vast majority of his time with people like Brad Richardson
and David Booth and actually scored really well. Chiarelli was reasonable to expect more than Kassian delivered in 2015-16; it’s also reasonable to expect improvement in 2016-17.
I wouldn’t project Kassian to jump back up to 1.8
points/hour automatically, but it’s within the realm of possibility and would
solve a bunch of problems for the Oilers if it happened. He couldn’t really ask
for a much better opportunity.