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.

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.

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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Previous year-end reviews:

  • Kassian is a key part of the new Oilers culture–high energy, toughness, speed, and skill. No matter which lineup they have on the ice, either Maroon, Lucic, Kassian, Khaira, Larsson, or Nurse will be there to police opponents, and often more than one. There is no room for an opponent to get chippy when the Dream Police are on the ice.

  • Ryan Jones Is Still My Hero

    The Oilers should create a Kassian section in the stands next year. Dress code is mutton chops or something else ridiculous. They could turn it into the Edmonton version of the Black Hole in Oakland.

  • Connor'sGotHart,Ross,Lindsay!

    Guys like Kassian are the guys that always play a role on championship teams.
    That one game in the playoffs where he dominated was the highlight of the playoff run this past spring.

    • 1983 and This Year

      Yes, “he thrives when things turn nasty” is quite an understatement. His crazy eyes light up like a kid in a candy store when things turn nasty! The OEL boarding in response to the Hendricks boarding and then chucking his gloves off while waiting for the cavalry to arrive (to an immediate face punch) is still the funniest moment of the regular season!

  • ubermiguel

    I never understand why people forget Kassian has some skill; he was a #13 pick in the draft, and was nearly a point-per-game player in the CHL and AHL.

  • ScottV

    I’ve been a Kassian supporter since the rumours that he may be coming here. Thought that was an excellent PC gamble on the kind of player we needed more of. What surprised me for the positive – even more, was how smart a player that he is on the ice. He plays with purpose. Scans the ice – all around him, constantly looking for and getting to the best places possible in offence, defence and transition. One of our best guys on the wall in our own end and in winger d zone coverage.

    I thought McL could have used him way more effectively in his first year and even the second, to some degree.

    For example – he would be an even better possession player if McL implemented a little more team o zone possession tactics and little less volume shooting tactics. Rather than shooting the puck from wherever – whenever, take it low – cycle it, work it, use the points, get it inside and then get some shooting in. With the right guys doing this, you would see a big uptick in Kassian’s possession numbers.

  • Oiler Al

    The guy can wheel.Gets a bit excited on the finish. Played quite a few games with the Sisters. Insecure Todd, has him a 4 th liner at best.I would send him,Lucic and Dri after Getzlafs line.

  • godot10

    Overpay Lucic. Overpay Russell. Overpay Kassian. Pay McDavid a fair but record salary. And the Oilers ask Draisaitl to pay for it all by accepting a below market contract.

  • themightypeace

    In the entire league, Kassian reminds me most of a young Lucic… not many guys have the right blend of nastiness and a scoring touch. Add Maroon to the mix, and its great to have a physical scorer on each of the top three lines. It sounds crazy, but I have a feeling that in the long run, Kassian might be the best of the three… Lucic is probably the best career player, but going forward he is only getting older. Maroon looks good with the 27 goals last season, but I think Maroon is to McDavid like Warren Young was to Mario Lemieux. Kassian is learning how to play hockey the right way and could be a real force to reckon with. For years past Lucic WAS my most favorite NHLer and I did cartwheels when he signed with the Oilers … but going forward Kassian might be the man.

  • FISTO Siltanen

    For the record I recall an Article on this site – maybe a JW one? – where he said 2 yesrs max for an extension.

    I’ll wager by January we will wish it would’ve been a 4 year deal. This kid has sick skills.

  • Bills Bills

    If you need all those numbers to see that Kassian has an important role to play and is an effective hockey player, you’re probably not a very good analyst.

  • foureyedmike

    He got paid more than 4th line money because he’s more than a 4th-liner. He can score 15 goals a season while penalty-killing, fighting, skating well and shutting down opponents.

    I think 1.95 is a sweetheart deal for the Oil.

  • O.C.

    Now there is a reach here where the 5 on 5 / 60 were very close between Eberle and Kassian. That takes out a big piece of the puzzle.

    There is no way that we can expect the high intensity with an average of 15 m a game at even strenght for Eberle versus Kassian’s 4th line time 5 on 5 time of perhaps half of that. Don’t forget there are special teams and for every minute Eberle played PP, Kassian probably equaled that in PK time… all from a player who averages perhaps half the ice time of the other.

  • acg5151

    As a Canucks fan, I remember telling Oilers fans that they would love him if he was an Oiler and not a Canuck. I was mad when Vancouver traded him, I felt like he was one of the more fun players to watch in the lineup. He was progressing, he was basically giving us solid third line production and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Kr55

    Kassian has much more to give. Another good summer of training after getting his life back on track, I bet we see him even better next year.

    And, nice picture of Getzlaf. He’s either diving, whining to the refs, or both.

  • PimpTaco

    Seeing Matt Martin getting 10 million over 4 years for being a 4th line player who has absolutely reached his ceiling makes me happy that PC was able to get Zack locked down with this contract.

    Zack owes PC to a degree for taking a flyer on him and hopefully when these 3 years are up Kassian will still be doing what he does best, skating, hitting, deterring, killing penalties, and yapping, all while contributing to the swagger of this team.

    Best of luck Zack, Edmonton has your back.