Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Paying Zack Kassian should be low on Oilers’ priorities

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Zack Kassian’s agent was pushing for his client to either be traded or reinserted into the lineup. Kassian eventually drew back in and even spent time with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, leading to a career-high 15 goals. Draisaitl, McDavid, and Kassian worked, so they started the season together as well.

Kassian’s performed admirably in a complimentary role alongside the Oilers’ dynamic duo. Kassian is also an unrestricted free agent this summer.

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The Oilers don’t need to worry about breaking the bank for the guy that rides shotgun with McDavid and Draisaitl. A poor season in 2017-18 prevented the Oilers from keeping Patrick Maroon, perhaps as their ‘own rental’ or with an extension to continue playing alongside McDavid. In fact, I wrote about that very decision and said it’d be wise to simply find someone with decent hands and feet and plant them beside McDavid instead of paying Maroon market value.

The Oilers didn’t keep Maroon. They traded him to the New Jersey Devils for a third-round draft pick in 2018. Maroon was productive down the stretch with the Devil’s. He finished with 43 points split between Edmonton and New Jersey, and took a cheap one-year deal with St. Louis after his agent potentially overvalued his client.

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Maroon went on to score 10 goals and 28 points for the Blues en route to a Stanley Cup victory.

The Oilers opted to give a couple depth guys, Ty Rattie and Alex Chiasson, a look instead. Rattie couldn’t replicate his 2017-18 success with McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Chiasson, however, had a career season, though most of it on the power play where he played the net-front position.

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Like with Maroon, I advocated against signing Chiasson and instead continue bringing in a line of cheap forwards who could score and leave if they didn’t sign bargain deals. Chiasson’s $2.15-million cap hit is far from the Oilers’ biggest problems, but the well-travelled forward is on pace for just four goals and 20 points. Maybe Ken Holland wanted to give some stability to a player who performed well in a trying season, but Chiasson probably wasn’t scoring 22 goals again.

The Oilers made the right decision with Maroon and probably could have let Chiasson walk but that contract won’t kill them.  Kassian’s 28-goal 58-point pace easily surpasses any season in his career to date. For the most part, Kassian’s been a fourth-line, occasionally third-line, player in his Oilers career.

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What might entice the Oilers to extend Kassian is his physical presence on a team that’s recently sent away Maroon and Milan Lucic. Maybe Holland values toughness far less than Peter Chiarelli, but he did hand out a huge contract to Justin Abdelkader in Detroit, who spent a bunch of time with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

Regardless who has been general manager, the Oilers have always loved big players who can hit and fight. Walking away from one who can score, at least alongside McDavid, as well would be surprising, although Chiarelli did as much with Maroon. McDavid’s always had a hulking winger by in each season he’s played in the NHL. In his rookie season, he was with Maroon after his arrival at the trade deadline. The following season both Maroon and Lucic played big minutes with McDavid. Maroon and Lucic moonlighted on the McDavid line until their respective Oilers departure, but Kassian’s assumed the role for the past season and a half.

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Since game 39 of the 2018-19 season, Kassian has scored 21 goals and 18 assists for 39 points in 66 games. That’s a 26-goal and 48-point pace over a full 82-game season.

This isn’t a slight to Kassian. The Oilers should be a shrewd as possible to round out their roster when they have players who can turn a fourth-line guy into a legitimate scoring forward.

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Teams haven’t been keen to reward players for scoring beside Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl. Maroon didn’t get his big payday in 2018. Chiasson waited until July 1st before signing a two-year deal.

Holland doesn’t need to give Kassian much more than his current $1.95-million cap hit.

There’s an infamous Glen Sather quote about a fire hydrant could score 40 goals playing with Wayne Gretzky, in reference to Blair MacDonald’s time with the Great One. Sather was right, though. MacDonald never came close to those numbers without Gretzky.

McDavid isn’t Gretzky and Kassian isn’t a fire hydrant. But there’s plenty players who could score 20-plus goals if given the chance with McDavid and Draisaitl. Holland should use that to his advantage.