EDMONTON — Zack Kassian for four more years with an annual average value of $3.2 million.
Did the Edmonton Oilers pay too much? Well, let’s dig into that:
Kassian is a pending unrestricted free agent, right-shot, right-winger who just turned 29 on Jan. 24. So he’ll be 33 years old when he’s closing out this deal. The risk that stands out for Edmonton is term length, the most common issue with UFA, or pending UFA deals.
Does Edmonton general manager Ken Holland worry about signing a 29-year-old player to a four-year term?
“I guess if you do, then you never sign anybody,” Holland said over the phone from the Oilers scouting meetings in Palm Springs.
There are a myriad of factors, which we’ll explore in this piece, when signing a player. But as a pending UFA, the team cedes some control over the process to the player. As opposed to a deal for restricted free agent Darnell Nurse, which is likely to be left for the summer.
“There are risks for the player, and there are risks for the club. Ultimately, if you want to get people signed you’ve got to make decisions,” Holland said. “In Detroit I did lots of good contracts, but I’ve got some bad contracts. If you just want to focus in on the bad ones, I guess you can. Ultimately, if you don’t want to be criticized (as a GM), you can just sit and do nothing.”
So, let’s talk comparables for Kassian.
Anecdotally, you could say that Kassian is Tom Wilson Lite, a big (six-foot-three, 211 pounds) physical player who can trade pucks with a superstar like Connor McDavid — to the extent that McDavid could well win an Art Ross Trophy and have a career offensive season while playing nearly all of his even strength minutes with Kassian on his right flank.
In July 2018, Wilson (RW) signed a six-year, $31 million deal with Washington, with an AAV of $5.16 million — nearly twice what Kassian will earn. Wilson was 24 when he signed that contract, but this season he has 12 even strength goals and 29 even strength points in 50 games, while Kassian has 13 even strength goals and 28 points in 44 games at 5-on-5.
(We’ll compare Kassian at 5-on-5, as he averages just 24 seconds of power-play time per game, and two seconds shorthanded.)
Last season, when Kassian split the year on and off McDavid’s wing, he had 14 goals and 25 points at even strength, compared to 17 goals and 33 points for Wilson.
Another comparable is left-winger Micheal Ferland, who last summer signed a four-year, $14 million deal with Vancouver, at age 27 — two years younger than Kassian. Ferland’s AAV is $3.5 million, compared to $3.2 for Kassian.
While Kassian has played 79, 74 and 79 games in the past three seasons, in the three seasons before signing Ferland had also played 76, 77 and 71 games. It is only this season where Ferland’s concussion issues have limited his action, playing just 14 games for the Canucks thus far.
Production-wise, in the three seasons prior to signing their deals, Ferland averaged 13 goals and 28 points at even strength — exactly what Kassian has compiled through roughly half a season (44 games) on Edmonton’s top line this season. Again, the McDavid factor kicks in, and it’s difficult to gauge how a McDavid winger should be paid.
Remember, Pat Maroon had a career year (24 goals, 36 points at even strength) playing next to McDavid in 2016-17, but when he became a UFA in 2018 the market was not kind to Maroon, who signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with St. Louis. Even after winning a Stanley Cup with the Blues, he had to wait until August to get a one-year, $900,000 deal with Tampa Bay last summer.
The difference in the Maroon comparable is Kassian’s foot speed, which is major currency in today’s game.
Kassian can skate as well as any big man in the league, and has the hands to augment McDavid’s game. Rather than a slowing Milan Lucic, who constantly lost the puck or missed his passes — both receiving and delivering — depriving McDavid of valuable possession time.
Sidney Crosby has taught us that it’s not easy to play with, and augment the game of, a superstar player. And the fact Kassian is still ‘scary tough,’ is not lost on McDavid, who believes there is still much value in having a modern day Dave Semenko riding shotgun to his Wayne Gretzky.
“Absolutely, yes,” McDavid said. “You need those big, tough guys on your team, and it’s nice to play with one alongside me every night. There are not many bigger and tougher than Zack Kassian.”
One final intangible is the fact that Kassian has whipped the addictions that caused him to waste much of the first half of his career. He is settled in Edmonton and looks forward to raising a family there — and the UFA market is lean on players who would say that.
He’s hungry to recoup lost years (and revenue), and most importantly Kassian shows no signs of losing any foot speed. He has become a leader here, and if Holland were to let him walk, finding a commensurate replacement player would be iffy, and to lure him to Edmonton might well cost what Kassian is being paid.
“He’s got security, and I’ve got the security of knowing he’s going to be on the team,” Holland said. “He’s at a good age. He’s respected in the locker room.”