Zack Kassian finally realizing dynamic potential in Edmonton

For a moment on Friday, as Zack Kassian created scoring chances and threw hits and killed penalties, it was possible to forget how tumultuous his professional career has been, and remember only the incredible potential that led to him being the 13th overall pick in the 2009 Draft.

Back then, he was a star forward for the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, a physical and offensive presence who promised to add a much-needed combination of size and skill to an undersized Sabres roster. It never really worked out that way, and by the time he joined the Edmonton Oilers (his fourth NHL organization) that early potential had been largely forgotten.

Kassian’s arrival in Edmonton came by way of the Montreal Canadiens. When Habs GM Marc Bergevin has needed to make a trade in recent years, he’s often dealt with the Oilers, and generally he’s done well. The 2015 deadline deal that landed Jeff Petry was a clear win. The more recent Brandon Davidson/David Desharnais swap is trending in that direction as well.  

The exception was trading Kassian for goaltender Ben Scrivens.  

Kassian was available not because of a lack of ability, but rather owing to off-ice issues. In October of that year, before he’d even played a regular season game for the Habs, an automobile crash left him injured and resulted in his entry into the league’s substance abuse program. Bergevin described the incident as reflecting “a lack of character” on Kassian’s part, and shipped him off to Alberta two months later.

After a brief trial run in the minors, Kassian was brought to Edmonton. He’s played reasonably well since, providing a little bit of everything as a third- and fourth-line winger. Friday’s game suggested he has more to offer.

Playing a paltry 14:07, Kassian scored a shorthanded marker, landed six hits and fired 11 pucks at the opposition net. Those are incredible numbers for any third-line forward, let alone one who spent nearly a third of his ice-time killing penalties.

That kind of game can be dangerous, though. It encourages extrapolation, and unrealistic expectations. The Oilers have got themselves into a lot of trouble over the years with exactly that kind of thinking.

Yet surely there’s a middle ground between ridiculous extrapolation and the status quo. Kassian is 26, has several strong indicators in his favour, and hasn’t exactly been blessed with bundles of offensive ice time since his return to the NHL.

Kassian’s a remarkably efficient scorer, something that becomes obvious when we look at his even-strength scoring rates. Points/hour in 5-on-5 situations is a useful statistic because it eliminates the effects of ice-time and power play usage. Kassian fares well in this view:

  • 2013-14: 1.91 points/hour (88th in the NHL, min. 400 minutes)
  • 2014-15: 1.84 points/hour (96th in the NHL)
  • 2015-16: 1.13 points/hour (264th in the NHL)
  • 2016-17: 1.74 points/hour (116th in the NHL)

The important number here is the NHL-wide rank, which is easiest to think of in terms of tiers. The top 90 players score at a first line rate (three per line, multiplied by 30 NHL teams). Players 91-180 score at a second line rate, 181-270 at a third line rate, and 271-360 at a fourth line rate.

Kassian scores like a top-six guy at evens in three of the last four years, with the only exception being the half-season after his arrival in Edmonton. He’s never been a big power play scorer, so his overall point totals won’t reflect it, but on offence he can play a top two line role at 5-on-5.

Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian (44) celebrates a second period short-handed goal against the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

This year’s numbers are especially spectacular considering that he’s a career 11.2 percent shooter who fired at just a 6.4 percent clip this season. He had goals disallowed, pucks go off the post, and even on Friday put a shot wide on a breakaway attempt. He’s due for a reversal of fortune there.

Where Kassian still needs to improve is on his two-way game. In every one of his six NHL seasons, his team saw its shot metrics dip when he was on the ice and rise when he was on the bench. Circumstances play a role in that, to be sure, and Kassian’s presence on Edmonton’s penalty kill shows that coach Todd McLellan believes he can be more reliable in that regard.  

It’s hard to find a 6-foot-3, 220-pound winger who likes to play physically and is capable of both killing penalties and scoring goals. Kassian is that player, and when everything comes together as it did in Game 2, it’s a difficult package for opponents to handle.

Not every night will be that perfect, but sprinkle a few more in with what he’s doing already and Kassian will be a very formidable player and an even greater asset to the Oilers.