Zack Kassian sat in his stall with a huge grin talking about his baby daughter Ellery. He also spoke with much pride in regards to how much work his wife Cassandra has had to do compared to him since Ellery arrived on March 10th. Kassian’s life on and off the ice in 2019 is so much better compared to earlier in his NHL career.
He is sober, happily married and now a father. He is very content.
His family life couldn’t be better, and, maybe fittingly, he also happens to be playing the best hockey of his NHL career.
On January 2nd, Kassian was promoted into the Oilers top-six, and for the past six weeks he has been a regular on the Oilers top line beside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
He’s made the most of his opportunity, scoring 13 goals — 12 of them at 5×5 and one shorthanded — since January 2nd. His 5×5 goal production has him tied for 26th in the entire NHL over that span, and third on the Oilers behind McDavid (15) and Draisaitl (14).
“He has really good hockey sense,” said Draisaitl. “I didn’t know how good it was until I started playing with him. He reads the play well, he knows where to go to get open and he’s really good at retrieving pucks.”
“He has offence,” said McDavid. “He has it in his game, and he has that work ethic as well. He hits, fights and he has added a lot to our line. He is an easy guy to play with because he is predictable. You know where he will go.”
Playing with superstar players isn’t easy.
Early in his career Kassian had an opportunity to play with two elite teammates in Vancouver: Daniel and Henrik Sedin. During the 2013 lockout season Kassian got promoted up to their line and played about 12 games with them. He produced four goals, but his stint on the line didn’t last. The next season he played mainly with Brad Richardson and David Booth, and that’s when he scored 14 goals and set a career high in points with 29. He got to play with the Sedins again in 2015, for exactly the same 122 5×5 minutes, ironically enough, and again scored four goals. According to Kassian he wasn’t experienced enough to fully grasp the opportunity.
Is he more prepared now to be top-six forward?
“Without a doubt,” he smiled. “When I was 21 in Vancouver, you think you know it all on and off the ice, but really you don’t know anything. I got put into a situation there, that you look back on now and you’re like, ‘that was a pretty good opportunity that you kind of let slip.’ Obviously my off-ice issues and things that were going on were a factor. I definitely feel with everything I’ve been through in the last five years, I’m more knowledgeable now, I’m more open to things, and I have a different look on a lot of things so it’s definitely night and day from when I was in Vancouver.”
Kassian is better equipped to handle the pressure, but also more mature and comfortable to recognize who he is as a person and a player.
He won’t change his off-season routine just because he finished the season on the top line.
“Every summer, honestly, I work on my skill. With my strength coach we always preach speed, because we feel if I can keep my speed up I can play this game for a long time. I’m always working on my skill, and then you just get put into a role and try to do the best in that role. I’ve been around long enough to see people play with good players, and their mindset kind of changes. That’s not going to change with me.
“I know what I am, and I know I’m not a super star. For me to be successful I have to be the worker. Every game I need to be physical and play hard. As soon as I play just a skill game, there are a million others who can play on that line. I have to do something that separates myself from other people, and that’s my tenaciousness, being hard on people, being physical, holding on to pucks. Going into the summer my mindset is not going to change one bit. I know I have been given a good opportunity here to play with these two, but I know it can be taken away at any second,” said Kassian.
He knows all to well the feeling of almost losing everything. He almost lost his NHL career to addiction. But he went to rehab late in 2015 and has been sober ever since. “The temptation will always be there, but I have a great support system and I’m much happier now. Life is so much better for me now,” he said last month.
Kassian is not embarrassed of his past. In fact I sense he is proud of how he has overcome his addiction. And he should be. He has never been afraid to talk about it. It is part of who he is. He won’t let it define his life and that way of thinking is very empowering.
Kassian wants to stay on the top line, and you can see his confidence growing. He is making more plays with the puck and his goal, like this one against Los Angeles was a goal-scorers goal.
THINGS CHANGE FAST…
The interesting aspect of this season was Kassian had barely any offensive success in the first half. He felt he was playing well, but he wasn’t scoring and like any player who isn’t producing he felt some frustration. He had one goal in 29 games prior to getting promoted to the top-six. He picked up three assists in his first six games playing with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but then scored a pair of goals on January 14th. His confidence had been building prior to those goals, but since January 14th he has looked like a much different player offensively.
“Definitely. When you play with better players, and are getting more minutes, you’re getting more confident,” said Kassian. “This league is all about confidence, there are a lot of good players in this game and sometimes it’s just a matter of the mindset and the confidence. I’ve been given a little more of an opportunity, been able to produce a little more, and with that comes a little more puck patience. You start to slow the game down, and start to feel it, get into a little bit of a rhythm.
“At the beginning of the year you’re playing a little less minutes, your role is a little different. It’s more about skating, being physical, dumping it in, cycling it, but with these guys (McDavid and Draisaitl) it’s more of a possession game. There’s no doubt that the way I’m thinking now is a lot different than the way I was at the beginning of the year, but that just comes with confidence and playing with good players like those two.”
Confidence does wonders for any player. In the past 32 games Kassian has 13 goals; tied for 27th most in the NHL. Draisaitl leads with 24 and six players are tied for second with 18. Since he was given a role in the top-six he has produced like a top-six forward.
Could he be to the Oilers what Tom Wilson is to the Washington Capitals? Wilson was the 16th overall pick in 2012. Kassian was the 14th pick in 2009.
In 450 NHL games, Wilson has scored 57-86-143 while in 461 games Kassian has 67-75-142. After sitting out his 18-game suspension to start the season, Wilson has played 65% of his 5×5 icetime with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetzov, and another 26% with Nick Backstrom and Jacub Vrana. He has been a top-six player all year. Kassian has been in that role since January.
The one difference is Wilson gets second unit PP time, but their 5×5 production is quite similar. Wilson has 15-13-28, while Kassian has 12-10-22.
“I can definitely see the similarities,” said McDavid. “They are big, strong guys who play a mean game. Hard hitting, hard checking and have offence in their game. Those players are hard to find and when you have one you keep them around.”
McDavid knows a thing or two about offence, and Kassian has not only shown he can finish, but he has the skating prowess to play on the Oilers top line.
But he admitted it was a big adjustment, both mentally and physically.
“When you’re watching them play from the bench you’re kind of in awe,” Kassian said. “Then you finally get out there with them and, you can’t be in awe anymore. You’ve got to be on the attack, you’ve got to be on your toes. They’re obviously two great players who help me a lot; they’re talking to me a lot. But you’re right about when you play with certain players for an extended amount of time you start to get to know their habits and tendencies.
“With those two, you just get them the puck, set little screens, and buy them a little bit of time, those extra couple seconds, to put the puck in the back of the net. With them, obviously through the neutral zone it’s a little bit tough; it’s a little bit of an adjustment, because they skate so well.”
Kassian has always been a good skater, but it isn’t the skating aspect that is the challenge, it is more so how fast McDavid and Draisaitl play. They attack all the time, and they have the puck more often, so you have to make quicker decisions, especially without the puck. And Kassian has to do this while maintaining his physical style.
“I think the speed aspect is so important playing with them. You back the defence off, and you can get on pucks. For them, the longer and more they have the puck, the more you’re going to be in the offensive zone, the games going to be more fun, the more fun they’re going to have, so it’s important for me, or whoever plays with them to win puck battles and get on the D.
“Obviously, the hitting isn’t the same as it was seven years ago when I first game into the league, but at the same time there is an intimidation factor where you can get D-men looking over their shoulder and if they’re bobbling a couple of extra pucks that’s going to give us a couple extra seconds to get into position and make plays. So going after defensemen and hounding the puck is definitely something you have to do with those two to get them the puck. ”
The other aspect about Kassian is his personality off the ice. He is very vocal. He talks a lot. He likes keeping things light and he has an uncanny ability to get McDavid to relax.
“He is a great guy. He definitely gets me out of my comfort zone,” said McDavid. “He is a really good friend of mine and I’m lucky to have him as a friend, and it is great seeing the success he has had lately.”
For those on the outside it is impossible to accurately track how important a player’s persona is to the success of a team, but if you’ve ever played a team sport you likely know how vital the off-ice interactions are. Every team has those players who keep things light. Or the person who is a calming influence. You need all kinds, but if you have a player who makes the superstar players more relaxed or comfortable that is extremely valuable.
Kassian’s second-half offensive outburst was completely unexpected. He has never been put in this position, for an extended period, previously in his career. In Vancouver he played 122 minutes (5×5) with the Sedins in 2013 and again in 2015, but for only about ten games at a time.
He has now skated 362 minutes with McDavid and 278 with Draisaitl. Some will argue it is a small sample size, but you have to start somewhere. He can play up and down the lineup, but since January 2nd he has proven he can produce in a top-six role. I see no reason not to give him the same opportunity at the start of next season.
Three years ago Kassian’s goal was to stay sober for one day, then a week, then a month and now he has been sober for close to three and a half years.
A new path to success always needs a starting point.
Kassian has maintained sober success off the ice, so maybe we should expect him to continue his newfound on-ice success.