On a night when the spotlight was supposed to be on Zack Kassian for all reasons pugilistic – he did exact a measure of revenge on Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk by way of some first-period fisticuffs – it turned out the biggest moment Wednesday night for the Edmonton Oilers winger was when he used his paws not for pummelling an opponent but instead for putting pen to paper on a four-year, $12.8-million contract extension.
Kassian’s new pact, of course, wasn’t some out-of-left-field signing. Rather, it’s one that has been expected for some time, particularly with the Oilers in the thick of the Western Conference wild-card race and in the hunt for a Pacific Division playoff berth. A pending unrestricted free agent in the midst of the best offensive campaign of his career, Kassian was among Oilers GM Ken Holland’s top priorities with the trade deadline in the offing, and Edmonton was able to get the deal done by handing Kassian a sizeable $1.25-million raise from the $1.95-million he’s earned annually across his current three-year pact.
For Kassian, the new contract says a few things. It says the Oilers have faith that his 22-goal, 48-point pace this campaign isn’t some one-off, flash-in-the-pan output, that Edmonton believes he can continue to put up 15-plus goals and in the neighborhood of 35 points for the next few campaigns. It says that the Oilers see him as part of the solution, that he can be a fixture of the lineup as the franchise attempts to rise from Western Conference also-ran to powerhouse. But most importantly, it says Kassian’s journey back from a turbulent period in his career is all but complete. It was less than five years ago Kassian entered a substance abuse program after an off-season car crash in Montreal. He has gotten his life and career back on track.
But as far as the Oilers are concerned, there’s a million-dollar question – or the $3.2-million question, in this instance – associated with the signing: is the money spent on Kassian money that could have been better allocated elsewhere?
Though it’s not the concern at the moment with the playoff dream still alive, Edmonton now projects to have in the neighborhood of $19-million in cap space come the off-season. True as it may be that it’s enough for the Oilers to take care of their most pressing cap concerns, which are new pacts for restricted free agent defensemen Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear, the money spent on Kassian does limit what Edmonton will have available when it comes time to explore the open market. And rest assured that the Oilers do have some work to do when it comes to adding elsewhere.
As of this writing, with Kassian locked in, the Oilers have eight of their current NHL forwards signed to deals for next season, and the six roster players who aren’t under contract aren’t under team control for the 2020-21 campaign at this point, either. That means there are plenty of holes to fill in the summer, some of which will surely be plugged by players on entry-level deals or league-minimum contracts.
But what Edmonton needs as much as anything isn’t cheap, hole-plugging players. They need offensive drivers who can take some of the onus off of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who have shouldered the scoring load largely by themselves for the past two seasons. As much as Edmonton might believe Kassian can be one of those players, or even a complementary piece, the truth is that there’s little evidence he is. In fact, almost all of his production this season has been the direct result of playing alongside McDavid and/or Draisaitl. Case in point, Kassian has been on the ice for 47 Oilers goals. Only five of those markers have come away from McDavid, and the Oilers superstar has directly factored in on 17 of Kassian’s 29 points. Additionally, only four of Kassian’s points have come on scoring plays that didn’t include either McDavid or Draisaitl.
And the problem there is that the $3.2 million spent on Kassian – who, again, can be useful but doesn’t by himself drive offense – is that it adds to an already hefty spend on players of a similar offensive value. Combined with James Neal and Alex Chiasson, the Oilers presently have $10.1 million tied up in 30-point producers for next season. Even saving a fraction of that to use on a summer spend for a player with greater offensive upside would have made sense. And make no mistake, those players exist. Brett Connolly and Joonas Donskoi are among those who signed similar deals this past off-season and are putting up totals in line with Kassian’s current production and doing so alongside centers who are not McDavid. There’s an upcoming crop who could have similar upside, too, including Tyler Toffoli, Josh Leivo and Erik Haula.
None of this is to mention, either, that ensuring there’s additional money available to make a big spend or two could go a long way. The Oilers will need to address their goaltending situation this summer and find a capable second-stringer. Edmonton’s blueline concerns persist, and adding a middle-pairing piece could go a long way. And if the Oilers wanted to make a splash up front, Mike Hoffman and Jean-Gabriel Pageau remain unsigned for next season. Both could be impact pieces in the middle of the lineup in Edmonton, which is exactly what the Oilers lack.
Rest assured, Kassian likely would have been able to get the same kind of money and the same kind of term had he punted negotiations with the Oilers and eschewed signing in Edmonton for a shot at the open market. He’s established himself as a rough-and-tumble middle-six player and it’s not as though the price tag or term is exorbitant. It’s commensurate with what other players of his type hitting the open market have received. But that doesn’t mean it was the right signing at the right time for an Edmonton team that has an unquestionable need for better pieces, not the same pieces they already have.