Photo Credit: Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

Zack Kassian is so much more than just a physical presence for the Oilers

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 44 RW Zack Kassian

As far as bounce back seasons go, the seven goals and 24 points posted by Zack Kassian in 2016-17 represent decidedly modest offensive output. Yet at the end of his first full season with the Oilers, the now 26-year-old winger has gone from reclamation project to mainstay, and has a new three-year contract to prove it.

That contract, at a cap hit of $1.95 million, is telling. The Oilers clearly felt it was important to keep him for a while, and were willing to pay far more than fourth-line money for a guy who played fourth-line minutes last season. Even with Peter Chiarelli’s Boston history of paying depth guys, that kind of contract says that the Oilers believe Kassian is going to play an increased role moving forward.

I believe it, too.

There are obvious and less obvious reasons to think that Kassian can be a reasonably important member of a successful NHL team.

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The obvious, while valuable, is probably the less important part of the dynamic. Kassian is 6’3”, 210 pounds, and approaches the game with a casual brutality reminiscent of an earlier age. It’s what made him a villain in Edmonton, both for breaking then-Oiler Sam Gagner’s jaw with a stick and then having the temerity to mock the resulting face-shield in a scrum later that same season. It’s also the reason he’s been so readily embraced by Oilers fans, now that he’s bringing that attitude to bear on Edmonton’s opponents.

I describe this as the less important part of the equation because while it obviously matters, it’s nothing on its own. The AHL, and for that matter the ECHL, are well-stocked with all manner of unpleasant citizens who otherwise lack the ability to play the game at a high level. What makes Kassian interesting is his skill level, which is higher than he’s generally given credit for.

The most favourable lens for Kassian is 5-on-5 points/hour, which is useful because it doesn’t penalize players for playing fewer minutes, and it isn’t skewed by power play results.

Among Oilers forwards (min. 300 minutes), Kassian ranked fifth in points/hour narrowly back of Jordan Eberle, the team’s third-leading scorer overall. He had 24 even-strength points overall, just one fewer than Milan Lucic despite playing five fewer hours. While we must grant that neither Eberle nor Lucic had a banner campaign, the fact that Kassian is producing on par with the $6.0 million dollar men is encouraging.

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It isn’t an aberration.

Kassian has a long history of putting up strong numbers at 5-on-5. His scoring rates in 2013-14 and 2014-15 were actually better than he managed this season, and most of that ice-time was spent with lesser lights, players like David Booth and Brad Richardson. He’s always been a better scorer than the typical bottom-six forward. And as good as his numbers were this season, Kassian’s shooting percentage was at a career-low (thanks in no small part to all those disallowed goals). He’s probably a better player offensively than his numbers from 2016-17 would suggest.

His shot metrics aren’t great, but they aren’t terrible either. He was a 49% Fenwick player on a 51% Fenwick team, while the tremendous new website PuckIQ has him (more or less) breaking even with mid-tier guys, winning the battle against opposition depth players and losing it to top opponents. He’s nothing special as a possession guy, but this year (as well as 2013-15) suggests a player who is just fine as a mid-tier forward.

Kassian has also added a new dimension to his game: the penalty kill. He averaged 1:06 per game while shorthanded, and while these numbers need to be taken with a big pinch of salt, the Oilers were about average in terms of both goals and shots against when he was out there. If he can keep that up, it’ll add greatly to his utility as a jack-of-all-trades depth guy.

Kassian hasn’t just reclaimed his status as an NHL player. He has evolved into someone his coach can trust in multiple roles: He can play a skilled game, he can play a defensive game, and he thrives when things turn nasty. That’s why the team wants him around for the long haul.

Bottom line: Kassian earned his new three-year deal by doing a bit of everything. He added more than his share of secondary offence, he killed penalties and he sawed off possession, all while being one of the meanest players on the ice just about every night.

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