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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

What to expect from Zack Kassian this summer

What to expect from Zack Kassian during the playoffs? Besides one of the most recognizable playoff beards in recent memory, in one word: Toughness.

Kassian spent this year playing on Connor McDavid’s wing, a move that helped the 29-year-old to a career-highs in points (34), assists (19) and tie a career-high in goals with 15.

Of course, it helps that Kassian played with the best player in the world in McDavid and current MVP nominee Leon Draisaitl for the first half of the season. He also threw 157 hits, the third-highest on the team this year.

In 59 games this season, Kassian seems to have solidified his spot on the top line as what I’m sure the Oilers hope is the end of the rotating cast of enforcers that have played besides the Oilers captain (i.e. Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Alex Chiasson).

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At his best, Kassian is a combination of the classic old-school hockey with a nice touch of skating and stick-handling that are good enough to play with McDavid without hurting him offensively.

He was also suspended for seven games in February for kicking Erik Cernak of the Tampa Bay Lightning. A month before that, he was suspended two games for punching an unwilling combatant in Calgary Flames star agitator Matthew Tkachuk. He managed to come out of that seven-game suspension and finish the shortened season strong, adding 4 points in the team’s final six games.

In Kassian’s first playoff run with the Oilers in 2017, he put on a show, hitting anything that moved including a pretty incredible game against the San Jose Sharks.

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So going into these playoffs, the Oilers need Kassian to be able to handle the dirty work on that top line without crossing any.

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Against Chicago

Considering who Kassian’s centre is, he’ll likely be lining up against the Jonathan Toews line. Using PuckIQ, we can see that Kassian struggled against elite players compared to his linemates. The Blackhawks aren’t the dynasty they were in the mid-2010s, but Toews and Kane shouldn’t be underestimated. Kassian is going to double down on his strengths or shore up his weaknesses, namely his defensive play.

Kassian isn’t a great defensive player, but the Oilers probably aren’t planning on deploying him in that role anyway. During the season, he started 56% of his shifts in the offensive zone. It’s difficult to discuss any player that skates on the same line as Connor McDavid without analyzing how they help or hurt him. Kassian has shown that he can compliment McDavid well, but if he can improve in any regard defensively against Chicago, he’ll be giving McDavid even more time and space.

I’ve heard some discussion that Kassian could be switched off the top line for Tyler Ennis or Andreas Athanasiou, but as of now, it seems likely that the team will stick with Kassian. So far this training camp, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looks like he’ll be joining Kassian on McDavid’s wings, which should be an interesting trio.

Chicago’s defence is pretty rough, and this is where Kassian’s heavy play will be the most useful. Kassian will need to forecheck the absolute hell out of every Blackhawk defender that plays the puck. In a 5-game series, there is no room for error, and the usual fatigue we see in those Game 7 situations won’t even be a possibility during this play-in round. That means that Kassian will need to work to hit, bump and bruise the Blackhawks every chance he gets. The more tired the Blackhawks are defensively, the more McDavid and Draisaitl can take advantage.

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In the playoffs

Should Edmonton beat Chicago and go on a deep playoff run, Kassian’s role is unlikely to change unless his production dips, or if he stops providing value as a top-line option. If he sticks with McDavid, no matter who the team is, Kassian is going to have to play as hard as he can within the rulebook.

Any type of questionable hit or play could see him get slapped with a massive suspension. Kassian is exactly the type of “playoff performer” that old-school hockey analysts and fans rave on about endlessly. If he can stay out of the box, play heavy hockey and continue his offensive contributions, those ravings will ring true.

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So, to make a long story short, Oilers fans can expect Kassian to hit, shoot, stand in front of the net, make life hell for anyone in his way. Most importantly though, the mutton chops are back, and in these unprecedented times, that’s pretty cool.