The essence of what makes Zack Kassian the player he is at his best is he plays on the edge. He walks a line he occasionally steps over. Having crossed it again with a flick of a skate that took him out of the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup for seven games, Kassian steps back into the fray against the Winnipeg Jets Saturday.
His kick at Erik Cernak duly noted on his somewhat lengthy rap sheet and his suspension served, Kassian can start making amends against the Jets after watching his team manage a 3-2-2 record without him in the heat of a Western Conference playoff race by getting back on that line — without stepping over.
What the Oilers, 33-23-8 for 74 points, need from Kassian in the next 18 games is more of what he provided earlier this season on the way to earning a new four-year contract from GM Ken Holland in late January — smart, tough and productive balls-out hockey. That’s what coach Dave Tippett wants from him.
When Kassian provides that, whether it’s alongside Connor McDavid or lower in the lineup, the Oilers are a considerably better team than they are without him. After seven games as a spectator, Kassian sounds up for that.
GET AFTER IT
“I know you can’t kick people, you can’t use your skate blade, that was my fault and I accepted that,” Kassian said Thursday. “My teammates knew that it was not on purpose and I don’t think I owe them an apology. I think the best way I can show them how I care and show them that I want to be here and help the team here is by playing hard when I come back.
“I feel good, the two weeks feels longer than it was but I’m excited to get back. It’s important for me to have the impact I did at the beginning of the season. I think in the two weeks, I worked really hard, but I’ve obviously got to reset the mind. The final stretch here are important games and I need to be good for us.”
With 14-16-30 in 52 games, which is a career high in points, Kassian was playing the best hockey of his career alongside McDavid, which is hardly a news flash. Points aren’t the whole story with Kassian of course, but he was far less productive in his last 11 games before the suspension with 1-1-2. A “reset,” then, is exactly what Kassian needs, wherever he plays.
“The moves Kenny (Holland) made, watching from afar when the team is on the road, as a player you get very excited,” Kassian said. “We all should be very excited we put ourselves in a position to play meaningful hockey in March. When you can be a buyer at the deadline it’s fun to be a part of.
“I think everybody finds new life, finds extra energy. Now that we’re here in March we made some moves that, hopefully, we can make a playoff push and if we get in the playoffs, we can make some noise. It’s a breath of fresh air and as players that’s all we can ask for.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Banged up as the Oilers are without Oscar Klefbom, Kris Russell, James Neal, Kailer Yamamoto and Joakim Nygard, and trying to fit deadline acquisitions Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis and Mike Green into the mix, the timing is certainly right for Kassian’s return. “I’m excited to be back and fresh and be ready to go and put my best foot forward,” he said.
Interesting choice of words given the incident that put Kassian on the shelf for this last stretch, but you get his drift. The on-the-edge-but-not-over-the-line version of Kassian we saw in the first 40 games can make a difference the rest of the way. That guy is tailor made for the stretch drive to the playoffs. I fully expect we’ll see that player, starting Saturday against the Jets.