Zack Kassian’s 2019-20 season has had its ups and downs.
Its ups included giving hockey fans one of the most exciting rivalries in the league when he and Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk decided to not be friends. The two went back-and-forth all season long, although supposedly the beef has been squashed but I think we all kinda hope that isn’t true.
Kassian’s low point this year was when he was suspended seven games for kicking the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Erik Cernak in the chest.
At 6’3, 211lbs and a team-leading 69 PIM, it’s clear what Kassian’s role on the Oilers is. He’s the latest in a line of skilled enforcers who have been tapped to play on McDavid’s wing, following in the footsteps of Pat Maroon, Milan Lucic and even Alex Chiasson.
Unlike his predecessors, Kassian has decent foot speed and is a capable puck handler. And when your role is to clear space for the best player in the world, those traits are a cherry on top. Just for fun, I compared the stats of Kassian, Lucic, Chiasson and Maroon during the seasons where they primarily played with McDavid.
When you look at this comparison (bless up Hockey Reference), Kassian has the second-highest PPG of the group behind Lucic’ 2016-17 season, and the lowest point share of the four. Sorting by Adjusted Points for an 82 game season, Kassian’s 39 is only above Chiasson. Keep in mind that Kassian saw absolutely no power-play time this season.
The Oilers really like Kassian, signing him for the next four years at $3.2 million per (or 3.93% of the cap). He’ll be 33 when the deal expires, which is okay normally, but for a guy who plays the way Kassian does, there has to be some questions about longevity. While Kassian is hitting his peak later than most players, will he continue to improve? If so, then the deal will only look better. If he stays at the production level he’s currently at, the deal is pretty fair-value, considering how some GM’s have historically overpaid players like Kassian.
The team wants Kassian to be the long-term holder of that first-line-tough-as-nails-winger position beside McDavid, and if so, they got him at a reasonable price. There have been questions about just how much Kassian benefits playing on that top line, and with wingers like Kailer Yamamota and Andreas Athanasiou (who’s an RFA himself) poised to take on bigger roles next season, will he still be the go-to choice to line up beside McDavid? If that happens, Kassian is still a valuable checking forward.
Even if he does end up dropping from the top line into a secondary role, his contract is pretty reasonable for what the value he provides. Holland seems to have learnt from the mistakes of ghosts-of-Oilers’-GMs-past (cough cough Lucic cough cough) when signing Kassian to this extension.
If you look around the league, this upcoming contract is comparable to players like Brett Connolly, Carl Hagelin and Antoine Roussel. Among that group, Kassian has the most points this season and is the only one seeing consistent top line minutes.
Drafted 13th overall in 2009 by Buffalo, Kassian’s path to the Oilers took a few turns in Buffalo, Vancouver and very briefly in Montreal. He’s opened up about the struggles he’s gone through over the years, but during the past five seasons in Edmonton, he’s found his form, putting up 111 points in 327 games while becoming a fan (and locker room) favourite. McDavid has spoken at length about how much he enjoys having Kassian line up with him on the wing.
Kassian spent the vast majority of his even-strength ice-time alongside McDavid on the top line. In 54 games so far this season, the forward’s put up a career high 34 points, tied for fourth on the team. He’s also riding a 15.2% shooting percentage, significantly higher than his career 11.8%.
It doesn’t hurt to play with the best player in the world and the (soon-to-be) Art Ross winner. Kassian lined up with McDavid and Draisaitl in 40 of his 54 games for a total of 442 minutes. The line so far this season has an expected goal differential of 48.8%.
Individually, Kassian put up a 48.9 CF%, and an even 50 xGF%. But one stat that jumped out at me in an unexpected way was the quality of Kassian’s shots on net. On the Oilers, Kassian’s 0.06321 quality per on-ice unblocked shot for sits second behind only Connor McDavid himself (who rocks a 0.06410). In fact, Kassian is actually fourth in the entire Pacific Division in quality per on-ice unblocked shot for, behind only McDavid, Tomas Hertl, Taylor Hall and Ilya Lyubushkin.
Kassian’s toughness and grit will never come into question, they’re such core parts of his character as a player. His offensive production is never going to be the focal point of his game, but playing alongside McDavid, Kassian has become a valuable part of the team, especially if you ask organization or the fans. The question with Kassian is if he’ll be able to provide this same level of value throughout the entirety of his coming contract.