Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Zack Kassian Conundrum

About half-way through last season, the struggling Oilers moved Zack Kassian up to the top line in what seemed to be a classic pump-and-dump move. Kassian clicked with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and his value certainly got pumped, but now, there’s no desire to dump him.

It was just a little over a year ago that Kassian reportedly asked for a trade out of Edmonton. He was stapled mostly on the Oilers’ Identity Line with Milan Lucic and Kyle Brodziak in the early going and managed to score just one goal in 22 games before the turn of the new year. In the second year of his three-year deal worth $1.95 million annually, Kassian appeared to be yet another contract the Oilers would need to find a way to dump.

But since being promoted up the lineup, Kassian has gone from being a player with a contract to get rid of to a key contributor to the team’s success. In 57 games after he was moved to the top line, Kassian produced 14 goals and 25 points. His 15 goals in 2018-19 represented a career-high and his 26 points were the most he had produced since the 2013-14 season with the Canucks.

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Given the Oilers’ lack of depth on the wings, dumping Kassian’s contract for a draft pick or a prospect didn’t make sense. Instead, he rolled into 2019-20 pencilled in as the third guy riding shotgun alongside McDavid and Draisaitl. It’s safe to say Kassian has picked up exactly where he left off. Through 23 games this season, he has eight goals and 16 points, putting him on pace to shatter his career-high in both categories.

With Kassian’s success comes a difficult decision. Is he part of the team’s core long-term?

After putting up seven goals and 24 points along with three more goals in the playoffs in 2017, Kassian earned himself a three-year deal worth $5,850,000. It was a nice vote of faith for a player who, just a couple years earlier, looked like he might not play in the league again. This summer, Kassian, who turns 29 years old in January, will be able to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. If Kassian continues producing as he is, he’ll be able to command a pretty big raise on his current salary.

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At the high end of Kassian’s possible comparables from last summer is Micheal Ferland. In 71 games with the Hurricanes, Ferland scored 17 goals and 40 points, representing the second year in a row the rugged winger hit the 40-point plateau. That was enough to earn him a four-year deal worth $16 million from the Canucks.

At the lower end of comparables from last summer, we have Garnet Hathaway and Alex Chiasson. Hathaway, a solid depth forward known for his penalty killing, turned an 11-goal season with the Flames into a four-year deal worth $1,500,000 annually. Chiasson, of course, turned a PTO with the Oilers into a 22-goal season that netted him a two-year deal worth $2,150,000 annually.

I think Ferland is the closest comparable to Kassian given their style of play. That said, since Ferland was younger when he hit free agency and he has a larger track record of success, Kassian won’t command as much as he did. I figure that he’ll be able to net a contract in between what Ferland and Chiasson got. Something like three years at $3,500,000 would be my guess.

Last year, Keith Gretzky and the front-office-by-committee group decided it was best to keep Kassian around rather than dumping him after they pumped his value, and it paid off. Now Ken Holland has to decide if Kassian is a part of this group long-term or not.

It’s easy to look at Kassian’s breakout from a distance and suggest that he’s just the benefactor of playing alongside the best duo in hockey. There’s no doubt that McDavid and Draisaitl are a huge part of Kassian’s breakout, but he also deserves some credit himself.

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Many forget that Kassian was a first-round draft pick who was billed to become a much-coveted big, scary power forward who could chip in with offence. When the Canucks drafted him 13th overall back in 2009, they likely had something along the lines of Todd Bertuzzi in mind for their top pick. While he’s spent virtually all of his career in the bottom-six as an enforcer, Kassian has always had the skill to contribute in the top-six. He skates well, he has fine hands, and he goes to the net. It’s a perfect complement to McDavid and Draisaitl.

Last week, Kassian had what I thought was a banner game for representing what he brings to the table. After the Oilers dropped an ugly game in San Jose, they returned home and hosted the Colorado Avalanche looking to get back in the win column. Right off the hop, Kassian absolutely crushed Nathan MacKinnon and immediately answered the bell by dropping the gloves with Matt Calvert.

Though his fight off-set a two-on-one opportunity and Colorado opened the scoring, the Oilers carried momentum through the first period. They never kept their foot off the gas after that big hit and fight and ultimately exploded for four goals in the first period, one of which Kassian scored himself. MacKinnon was also quiet all game. He didn’t score a goal and had just three shots in 20 minutes of play.

There’s no doubt that Kassian demolishing him right off the hop was key for the way that the game went. There aren’t many players out there who bring to the table what Kassian does anymore. Not only does he bring nastiness and grit to the ice, but he can also nicely complement Edmonton’s top players with some speed and skill.

Somebody is going to give Kassian a raise this summer. Though there’s certainly risk attached to it, I have a hard time imagining that it won’t be the Oilers who do so.