Following last night's loss to the Lightning, McLellan was asked what forward Zack Kassian was bringing to the team and what the coach's overall thoughts were regarding his game:
Zack is a pretty honest player. That's something that I've figured out in his three or four games with us. He wants to do things well. He wants to do things right. His power game and his ability to power his way through and play physical is important. Nice to see him get rewarded with a goal tonight. As time goes on here, I can see myself and the coaching staff trusting him more and more. - Todd McLellan (Source: 630 CHED)
Now Kassian has played relatively well in his four games as an Oilers, scoring a goal and an assist so far. Paired with Mark Letestu, Kassian has averaged just over 15 minutes of ice time at even-strength per night and has been a decent possession player (51.45% Corsi For, score adjusted, +0.62 CF Rel). I'm a little surprised that McLellan was musing about trusting him more, so I took a look at the ice time he was getting, who he was going up against, and how he was faring when it came to shot attempts (Source: Natural Stat Trick).
|Game||TOI (Even-strength)||Corsi For-Against||Linemates||Common Opponent|
Doesn't appear to me that Kassian has been sheltered in any way. He's been one of the leaders in ice time at even-strength among wingers, playing the second most against the Panthers. Last night was especially good, as he and Letestu played a lot against the second line and had 7 shot attempts and only allowing one against Kucherov and Killorn. For the most part, Kassian played a smart, physical game, always staying in the play, and really made some smart passes to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone. It's early, and there are players out of the lineup, but he's done well so far.
Another element I like to look at is zone deployment compared to teammates and what proportion of a player's shifts were face-off shifts, and which were on the fly. Here's how Kassian has been deployed compared to his teammates in each of his last four games (Source: Hockey Viz). The left side in red, purple and blue covers zone starts and the right side in pink and green breaks out the type of shift.
Based on these charts, we can see that Kassian hasn't really been sheltered compared to his teammates and has been deployed in different situations. He started shifts in all three zones in all of the games he's played, three of which have been on the road when McLellan didn't have last change. Kassian is also being used a lot for face off shifts compared to his teammates, which is a result of playing with Letestu. So when McLellan talks about trusting Kassian more, I suspect he's contemplating moving Kassian up a line to possibly play with different players, rather than taking on different zone starts.
Taking a look at the current depth chart, the Letestu-Kassian pair could potentially have Jordan Eberle on the right wing, instead of the current rotation of Iiro Pakarinen and Nail Yakupov. Hendricks could then center a line with Benoit Pouliot and Yakupov, which isn't ideal, but given the current lack of center depth, this might be the best fit.
Going forward, if Kassian continuies to play a productive game and is signed to a contract past this season, it should not come at the expense of a top six winger like Pouliot who has been very productive for the club. His 1.73 points per 60 at even strength ranks only behind Draisaitl, Hall, Purcell and McDavid (Source: War on Ice). Instead, the team should be looking to move the contract of Lauri Korpikoski who will be paid $2.5 million next season and has been an absolute black hole in the bottom six this season.
Zack Kassian has taken advantage of the opportunity to play in Hendricks' spot while he was serving a suspension and who is now playing center with RNH out. The bottom six has been pretty terrible all season, so if Kassian can find any semblance of production and consistency between now and April, he should be signed by the club. He was brought in as a low-risk reclamation project to compete for a roster spot. And if he can continue to improve, he should force the Oilers to move a contract. Hopefully, it's Korpikoski's.