Oilers notebook: Is Kassian resurgence key to solving secondary scoring woes?

Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

EDMONTON -- The good news? How about winning your first two pre-season games by an aggregate score of 10-0 — while using four different goalies?

Then, of course, the bad news: A 5-1 beatdown by a veteran Winnipeg Jets lineup, when your top line featured Zack Kassian and Warren Foegele flanking Ryan McLeod.

The Edmonton Oilers came back down to earth Wednesday, not an unexpected occurrence in the pre-season given the disparity of lineups we tend to see. How long does the experimenting last for head coach Dave Tippett?

“(Until) Saturday,” he said. “We play Friday night and Saturday afternoon, and we’ll be down close to our team by Sunday.”

The team did make these roster moves on Thursday, though.

Assigned to Bakersfield Condors (AHL):
Devin Brosseau (F)
Matteo Gennaro (F)
Yanni Kaldis (D)
Dino Kambeitz (F)
Raphael Lavoie (F)
Kirill Maksimov (F)
Ostap Safin (F)
Tim Soderlund (F)

Returned to Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL):
Xavier Bourgault (F)

That leaves three pre-season games for hopefuls like Tyler Benson, Brendan Perlini, Colton Sceviour, William Lagesson and, yes, Josh Archibald to do whatever they have to do to make this team.

Some thoughts on that:

•••

Archibald is in the strangest of places, the only unvaccinated Oilers player who still has not skated with the team at this training camp. Now we find out he is in ill health.

He does not have Covid 19 — Tippett said that Archibald has “tested negative every day” — but he is not healthy enough to take part in training camp either.

“He skated and he just wasn’t feeling right,” said Tippett, who added that doctors were doing some blood work, hoping to diagnose the problem. “There is some concern there, and they just want to get to the bottom of it before they start pushing him any harder.”

Then there is the issue of being the only unvaccinated player on the roster. With quarantine issues involved in travelling to and from the United States, a non-vaccinated player on a Canadian NHL team could be forced to miss nearly half the season (without pay) due to mandatory government quarantines.

Will Archibald take the jab?

“Right now we’re worried about his health,” said Tippett. “As it stands, I don’t think he would be eligible to get a vaccination. They want to make sure he’s healthy (first).”

We’ll stand by our prediction that the Oilers won’t keep an unvaccinated Archibald on their roster, despite the fact he is a useful player. They’ll have to get to the bottom of his health concerns, then the decision to roll up his sleeve in Edmonton or catch a plane to Bakersfield will be up to the player.

•••

Speaking of drama, there was a time when Zack Kassian was awash in it.

Buffalo’s first-round draft pick was swapped for failed Vancouver first-rounder Cody Hodgson, and then he flamed out in Montreal before getting his life and career back on track in Edmonton in 2015.

Now, after an injury-plagued and ineffective season in 2020-21, Kassian is an elder statesman on this team and a family man. This is his seventh season in Edmonton, and the 30-year-old spoke this week about the different view he has on the game as he enters his 30s.

“As you get older in the league, you realize what a privilege it is to (play in the league). As you get older, with family, kids, you try not to take it for granted. I want to win a Stanley Cup,” he said. “I know people are getting impatient, but it’s a process. And I think we’re well on our way to being contenders.

“You can’t play in this league forever. You try to do everything you possibly can to bring a Cup back to Edmonton.”

There is so much hockey player here, it’s easy to see why Tippett has him book-ended with Foegele on Edmonton’s third line. If Kassian can bring it, with his size, speed and decent hands, that line — likely with centre Derek Ryan — could go a long ways to solving Edmonton’s support scoring issues.

“He’s going to step back and really have a good year,” Tippett predicted. “He’s a big piece of our team, a leader. We need him to play well. We think him and Foegele on the third line can give us some heavy hard minutes.

“He can play a heavy, mean game, but he skates well and has good skill. You can play with top player, or on a heavy line.”

Kassian can’t just be a passenger, not at $3.2 million per season. We’ll watch with interest to see if the bruising winger can find some consistency in an up-and-down career that has landed him, he says, in a place where he thinks he can win.

“When I came here, you had Connor McDavid, you get Leon Draisaitl, you get Darnell Nurse,” he began. “To see these players grow and to be with an organization that long is pretty cool. When you’re in a market like this, they want to win. Trust me: We want to win just as much.

“You’re not really hoping for it. You know it’s there if we put in the work,” he said. “We might have something special here.”

•••

Speaking of something special, McDavid between wingers Zach Hyman and Jesse Puljujarvi could turn out to be one of the National Hockey League’s most dominant lines, if the chemistry falls into place.

We see Hyman winning pucks that McDavid’s former left wingers seldom won, and getting the puck to the Oilers captain. Hyman’s a battler who draws defencemen in, while everyone is aware of McDavid at all times. That leaves Puljujarvi to find the quiet places to be a target for McDavid’s first pass.

How many one-timer opportunities from inside the dots could he have this season?

Puljujarvi has been a slow developer. That makes me believe he still has much room to improve. He is only 23 and hasn’t even played 200 NHL games yet (194).

The six-foot-four Finn found his NHL legs last season. This season, a comfortable-looking Puljujarvi on a line with the best offensive player in the game and a steady, solid left winger — plus some powerplay time — will score 25 goals. Maybe more.

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