Dave Tippett only had 12 forwards on the ice for main practice today, and Zack Kassian was one of them. He skated on a line with Ryan McLeod and James Neal. Meanwhile, Slater Koekkoek was paired with Ethan Bear for the second consecutive day and it sounds like they will be a pair tomorrow night v. the Winnipeg Jets.
Kassian played the first 13 games before breaking his hand/wrist in a fight Eric Gudbranson on February 8th. He missed five weeks. He scored in his first game back on March 17th against Calgary, and skated in 14 games before getting injured in his first shift against Montreal on April 21st.
He hasn’t played since. Kassian produced 2-3-5 in his 27 games and on too many nights he wasn’t as engaged as you’d like. The playoffs are a new start. The past doesn’t matter when the puck drops in game one, and Kassian has a chance to be an impact player.
He doesn’t need to score a lot, but he needs to be physical, use his speed to create chaos on the forecheck and make good decisions in his own end. He has a skillset unlike any winger on the team — big, fast, physical, and when he is on he has shown an ability to contribute offensively. The problem is he hasn’t done that as often as he or the Oilers would have liked the past 16 months.
Can he unlock the player he was in 2019? I don’t expect him to score at a 50-point pace over 82 games like he did in 2019, but he needs to be more involved than he was in 2020 and 2021. When he returned from his first injury he played well in the first six games. He was physical. He created some chances and he chipped in with a few points. But it didn’t last long enough.
The Oilers need Kassian to be emotionally invested in the series, and if he is, then he, along with McLeod and Neal, have the potential to be a dangerous line. Kassian and McLeod can fly, while Neal has excellent hands and is a proven playoff performer. And all three are big men.
Koekkoek dressed in 17 of the Oilers first 20 games, before breaking his collarbone against the Calgary Flames on February 20th. He didn’t play again until the final regular season game this past Saturday. Koekkoek’s underlying numbers were not great. In his first 17 games before the injury, he was outscored 12-4 while on the ice, with a 44.73 XGF%. He was outshot 110-82. It isn’t solely on him, as he isn’t one to generate a lot of offence. I believe the main reason he is in ahead of Caleb Jones is because they feel he is a more consistent, reliable defender. Ethan Bear is the puck mover of the pairing, so they wanted a bigger body on the left side. Koekkoek was very good for Chicago against the Oilers last season and that is also likely a factor.
Defenders like Koekkoek are more valuable in the playoffs than in the regular season — defenders who aren’t flashy, but reliable defensively, engage in battles and can eat minutes. That is how Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair view Koekkoek and that is why he is ahead of Caleb Jones to start the playoffs.
Some new lines in the bottom six with the return of Kassian. The McLeod line is very intriguing with the combination of speed, size and Neal’s ability to score goals. Neal has 24 goals in his last 82 regular season games and he has 33 playoff goals in 108 games. His scoring doesn’t dip in the playoffs. That line needs to chip in with a goal or two this series.
The Oilers had specific drills yesterday focused on net front battles. We see way more of those in the playoffs and the Oilers blueliners will need to win more of those this postseason than they did last year.
First goal playoffs, next up: Mission Stanley. Grab your #MISSIONSTANLEY tee here.
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