There’s no cheering in the press box, but as reclamation projects and feel-good stories go, they don’t get much better than the one Zack Kassian is spinning when you look at where he’s been, where he is and the potential of days still to come as a member of the Edmonton Oilers.
Not only is Kassian, 28, coming up on four years of sobriety – the most important aspect of his story — after almost drinking himself out of the NHL, he has harmony in his personal life after becoming a father for the first time last March. His professional life is better than it’s ever been since he broke into the league in 2011-12 and it could get better still.
After being promoted to the Oilers’ top-six and then going on a heater on a line with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl late in the season on the way to scoring a career-high 15 goals, it sounds like the gap-toothed ruffian with the mean streak and great wheels is looking at an encore with McDavid and Draisaitl as he enters the final year of a three-year contract.
New coach Dave Tippett, talking to reporters at Mark Spector’s golf tournament Wednesday, intends on giving Kassian another look on the top line this coming season after he showed he was capable of more than just being spotted in alongside the team’s most talented players. Kassian will get the first shot with McDavid and Draisaitl. The rest is up to him.
“I think Kassian is going to be a very motivated player,” Tippett said. “He’s an unrestricted agent after this year. How would you like to be right-winger, that those guys like playing with, and coming into your final year?”
Motivated? You think? Kassian, of course, had the opportunity to play with top-end guys in Daniel and Henrik Sedin in 2013 and against in 2015 during his days with the Vancouver Canucks, but he never managed to stick with them. Kassian was a rounder back then, and his off-ice issues played into things before he hit rock-bottom in Montreal. Clean and sober, not to mention more mature now, this is Kassian’s big shot.
Kassian’s ability to skate, good hands and his ability to process the game gives him the opportunity to play alongside elite players like McDavid and Draisaitl. Consistency, production like he showed last season – 14 of his 15 goals were even-strength – and staying on the rails in terms of physical play without stepping over the line into haywire, is what will keep him there.
“I know what I am, and I know I’m not a super star,” Kassian told Jason Gregor last March. “For me to be successful I have to be the worker. Every game I need to be physical and play hard. As soon as I play just a skill game, there are a million others who can play on that line. I have to do something that separates myself from other people, and that’s my tenaciousness, being hard on people, being physical, holding on to pucks . . .”
THERE FOR THE TAKING
Until Kassian proves he can play first-line minutes, or at least top-six minutes, over the long run rather than just now and then, there’ll be questions about his ability to stick with McDavid and Draisaitl. It’s also fair game to point out the Oilers are woefully lacking in proven depth and scoring on the wings, even allowing that James Neal will be more productive than Milan Lucic was. That plays into Kassian getting this shot.
For Kassian, it doesn’t matter how or why this opportunity awaits him as he faces becoming a UFA, only that it does. Not everybody who travels the troubled road Kassian has gets that kind of chance, but here it is and here he is. I hope Kassian takes it and runs with it. I’m guessing that the Oilers feel the same way.