The Edmonton Oilers have hit a bit of turbulence lately.
Loser of four in a row and five of their past six, Edmonton has quickly gone from one of the best early-season stories into an “uh oh, here we go again” feel. On Dec. 16, the Oilers are still in a playoff spot, sitting third in the Pacific, but are trending in the wrong direction.
In a bid to try and course correct, head coach Dave Tippett has split up Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as the two superstars now centre their own lines. But the best version of the Oilers is when those two are playing alongside each other, which is why in a close late-game situation Tippett will quickly reunite them.
The third piece of their line has also been a fantastic story in 2019-20, though he’s not putting up the same eye-popping numbers of course. Zack Kassian has found a home on Edmonton’s No. 1 forward unit, just a couple of years after he was battling just to stay in the league.
And now he’s due for a new contract.
On Hockey Night in Canada’s Headlines segment this past Saturday, Elliotte Friedman reported Kassian and Oilers brass will soon begin discussion on an extension.
“He’s happy there, the Oilers are happy with him and I believe that the Oilers and Kassian are going to sit down in the near future to see if they can get an extension done,” Friedman said.
Through 32 games, Kassian has 11 goals and 22 points, which already has him very close to his career-high totals (15 goals, 29 points). Making $1.95 million against the cap on his expiring three-year deal, we can all agree the 28-year-old (he turns 29 in January) has earned a raise.
The question, though, is how much?
Alex Chiasson: Let’s start with a current teammate of Kassian’s who himself posted career-best numbers just last season when he was in a contract year. Chiasson managed 22 goals on a 17.9 shooting percentage that clearly wasn’t going to be duplicated, and leveraged it into the first multi-year contract in his career — a two-year pact with a $2.15 million cap hit. From the start of last season until today, Kassian and Chiasson have the same number of goals and Chiasson has one more point in eight fewer games played. And if you compare Chiasson’s points-per-game rate in the two years leading up to his latest signing with Kassian’s points-per-game rate the past two years, they again compare very well — 0.43 for Kassian, 0.42 for Chiasson.
Given the salary cap is expected to rise, that will also bring up cap hits across the board. At the time of Chiasson’s signing last summer, his deal accounted for 2.64 per cent of the cap. If the NHL’s cap rises from the current $81.5 million to $83 million next season, a 2.64 per-cent hit for Kassian would equal approximately a $2.21 million cap hit.
The biggest difference between the two? Chiasson averaged more power-play time last season than Kassian is getting in 2019-20 and his even-strength ice time was lower. So Chiasson’s stats benefitted by being on the man advantage, while Kassian has gotten here more due to 5-on-5 time, making it easy to argue he should get paid even more than that above Chiasson.
Colton Sissons: Over the past two seasons, the Nashville forward has five fewer goals and six fewer points than Kassian in five fewer games played. Sissons also doesn’t benefit from playing a role on Nashville’s power play, but he is on the team’s top penalty-kill unit — a valuable spot in any NHL lineup. Because of that, Sissons’s value as a rounded player may be may be a little higher than Kassian’s.
Sissons signed long-term with the Predators last summer, a seven-year extension that comes with a $2.857 million cap hit. He’s 26 years old, so two years younger than the Oiler — and we’d be willing to wager Edmonton wouldn’t be seeking such a long term on Kassian.
So when we hold up Sissons’s deal to a potential extension for Kassian, how do we measure these AAVs? Yes Sissons’s value is bumped by playing key shorthanded minutes, but Kassian deserves some credit for being a productive member of Edmonton’s top line, and not just being a warm body. And given Sissons’s contract was for so long, it likely kept his AAV down a little. You could weigh these things in similar fashion, meaning Kassian’s value could be comparable to the nearly $3 million Sissons got. And, again, a rising salary cap would bump that up some.
Brandon Tanev: Here’s where things get tricky. Remember, Kassian can be a UFA this summer so that’s the leverage he has in negotiations. Yes, McDavid and Draisaitl drive that line when together and no one is arguing Kassian makes or breaks the trio. But it works, so the risk Edmonton would take on by not returning Kassian is that it’s not so easy to find a replacement who is as good of a fit. Remember, capable top-six NHL wingers is the team’s most pressing need right now. It’s not as though they have a lineup of guys just waiting for a chance.
Tanev did get to unrestricted free agency last summer and signed a six-year deal in Pittsburgh for a $3.5 million cap hit that many reacted to as one of those wild July 1 deals that will unfavourably be looked back on. Still — it’s a comparable value if you just look at their offensive output. Tanev, like Sissons, is used differently than Kassian in that he’s a bottom-six player also deployed in a key penalty-kill role. But his production is comparable — combining this season and last, Kassian has just seven more goals and four more points than Tanev.
But of course, Kassian isn’t the same player and wouldn’t be a key PK player for anyone. And no other team is likely to use Kassian the same way Edmonton does, sheltered by two of the world’s best players. So Tanev’s AAV seems like it’d be more towards an extreme (and unlikely) high end.
It would seem that the best projection for what Kassian’s next cap hit might fall somewhere around $3 million. Any other suitor would have to soften their offensive expectations and Edmonton would be unwise to pay up for it just to keep him around.
Kassian’s desire is going to play the biggest factor here. After struggling to just stay in the league not that long ago, would he take even less than Sissons (say, $2.5 million for three years) just to stay in a favourable roster spot, with some term, on a team that’s hoping to make some considerable gains in the near future?