If you’ve written or said, “Zack Kassian was wrong, but . . .” since the Edmonton Oilers’ forward kicked Erik Cernak of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the chest during the first period of Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Bolts, you’ve lost the plot. What Kassian did was wrong, period. Can there be any real debate about that?
There is no acceptable “but,” no mitigating circumstances that make what Kassian did remotely acceptable. That’s obvious, or should be, and none of the many what-about-isms that have been hatched since change that. Even so, we’re hearing stuff like, “What about the cross-check by Zdeno Chara?” We’re hearing about how inconsistent the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is in handing out supplementary discipline – which is true.
It doesn’t matter. When it comes to absolute taboos in the NHL, kicking at a player with a razor-sharp metal blade attached to a boot on your foot is right at the top of the list. We know Kassian will be suspended after his telephone hearing today, as he should be. The only question is for how many games. I say it’s worth eight games. Then again, who knows with the way Parros and Company conduct their business?
All the above aside, my biggest takeaway from Kassian kicking at Cernak is how selfish a play it was – heat of the battle or not. With the ink barely dry on a new four-year contract with an AAV of $3.2 million a season and the Oilers already without Connor McDavid, James Neal and Joakim Nygard in the stretch drive of a playoff push, Kassian went me-first with that kick at Cernak. I’m not sure GM Ken Holland signed up for that back on Jan. 29.
Playing on the edge is part of what makes Kassian an intriguing player. He can skate. He can score some. He can think the game well enough to play alongside a guy like McDavid. He can play up and down the line-up. All this we know. It’s what makes him more than just a top-nine guy making third-liner money. Occasionally, a guy like Kassian will step over the line, like he did when he broke Sam Gagner’s jaw several years ago. It comes with the territory.
When Kassian snapped and went off on Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and pummeled him, earning a two-game suspension, his teammates and the entire Oilers’ fanbase had his back. That bit of nastiness kick-started the Battle of Alberta. What we saw Thursday with the kick at Cernak was not that. Not even close. Then, to compound things, Kassian offered up a lame explanation rather going the mea culpa route.
“It felt like we were there a lifetime. We were down there for a while,” Kassian said straight-faced. “He was holding my leg, it was reactionary. I was just trying to get him off me, kick him off me. I was just trying to get my foot loose.”
That’s not going to fly with Parros and DOPS today. Over the years, there’s been a wide range of suspensions handed out for kicking incidents or those involving skates as weapons. Back in 2007, Chris Simon got 30 games for stomping Jarkko Ruutu. In 2012, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner was suspended for two games for kicking at Scott Nichol of St. Louis.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Among his other attributes, the Oilers are paying Kassian handsomely to provide leadership, to walk the line players like him must navigate. Like I said earlier, getting the most out of Kassian comes with the understanding there will be the occasional over-step, like we saw with the Tkachuk incident. He sent a message. He paid the price. Kicking at Cernak while emerging from a heap on the ice with Josh Archibald doesn’t qualify as that. There is no message.
It was a stupid, selfish, unnecessary play by Kassian with the Oilers already short their captain and best player at forward going into a stretch of games where every point matters. I thought Kassian had grown beyond that at this stage of his career, and I bet Holland did too. Obviously, that’s not the case.