What Kind of Player is Zack Kassian?

Zack Kassian has been re-appearing in the news lately as
possible trade bait for the Boston Bruins. 
Many people, fans and team management alike, seem to have this idea in
their head that Zack Kassian is supposed to be a power forward type
player, based on his imposing size and innate nastiness.  But, as ThomasDrance wrote about two years ago, a true power forward is a rare and
mythical beast.  

Many people seem to have misconceptions of Zack Kassian’s
style of play, so continue past the jump as we dive into his usage and what kind of player he is.

Background

To set the stage, we have to go back to 2008 when the Canucks
selected Cody Hodgson with their 10th overall pick.  He was quite a promising young forward,
scoring at 0.5 PPG in his first full season in the NHL, but was considering a
defensive liability.  When Hodgson no
longer wanted to be part of the team Mike Gillis made arguably one of his most shrewd
moves in purposely sheltering
Hodgson
to increase his scoring, hide his two-way deficiencies, and boost his trade value.

The Buffalo Sabres selected Zack Kassian 13th overall the year after Hodgson in the 2009 NHL Entry draft.  In his draft year, Kassian had scored 63 points in 61 games – a modest total for a high 1st round pick and a fairly good indicator that he did not possess future 1st line NHL talent, but no where near indicating he would be a bust.  The next year, Kassian saw a bit of regression, while his final year of junior saw him jump to 77 points in 56 games.  He had plenty of experience in international play and even won the Memorial Cup.  So far in his short NHL career, his high water mark for points in a season was 29 in 73 games, set in 2013-2014.

In a surprise deal at the trade deadline of the 2011-2012 season, Gillis traded Hodgson for Zack
Kassian, one of six trade targets Gillis was aiming for.  Gillis et al. were looking for a big “power
forward” type player as part of their “Boston Model” style re-tool after their Stanley-Cup Final loss to the Bruins.  Four of the other players we know Gillis targeted were Brandon Sutter, John Carlson, Erik Gudbranson, and Kyle
Clifford.

Kassian at the point of the trade had not yet played a full
season in the NHL, and given his current age of 23, we have good reason to think that Kassian has yet to even
hit his peak.  Trading him now without
knowing who he is as a player or how to maximize his strengths seems like a bad idea. So let’s take a closer look at the type of player Kassian is.

Stats

kassian ppg

In his first two shortened seasons, Zack Kassian didn’t exactly set the world on fire.  Last year, in his first full
season, he saw a rise in his production, thanks to a high personal shooting
percentage which was offset by a low PDO.  This
year, Kassian has taken a definite step back in terms of production after being a top-6 quality rate scorer under John Tortorella.  Part of this can be
explained by his low shooting percentage, while also a small sample of data
doesn’t help him look good either. 

But this does not paint the full picture, so we need to
look further into his underlying stats.  I went back
and grabbed a bunch of different individual stats for Kassian; as some people
love to think Kassian is a power forward I included goal-scoring statistics
such as Points/60, Goals/60, Shots/60 CF/60 and iCorsi/60.  There’s also a vocal minority that has
pointed out that Kassian is more of a passer / play-maker so I also included
Cf%, Assists/60 and First Assists/60 (all at 5v5).  All data can be seen below:

kassian stats

Kassian has developed from a 4th
line / replacement level player in his first two seasons to a 2nd/3rd
line player by ES Points/60 since 2013, but low shooting percentages have hurt his case this season.

There’s no clear distinction between his raw goal scoring statistics and
his playmaking statistics, although Kassian has generally ranked higher in terms of goals than he has in assists.  What’s been important to note though is that while his on-ice CorsiFor/60 has steadily been increasing, Kassian’s individual shot attempt numbers have remained relatively low.

This indicates that even though he hasn’t been producing assists, his linemates are the ones shooting the puck more frequently than he is.  In other words, his preference from passing hasn’t yet manifested itself in tangible output.  His goal scoring has been driven largely by a high personal shooting percentage, meaning he’s either very lucky, very opportunistic, or a bit of both.

After looking like he took a step forward last season, his numbers this year are a bit worrying.  Has he regressed back to what he was, or is he just slumping under a new coach? We need to look at his usage and deployment to try and provide an answer.

Usage

kassian usage

Kassian’s usage has not changed much this season compared to last. If anything, it seems that he’s been put in slightly more difficult situations to have success this year than the unfavourable role he played for John Tortorella. 
He’s playing in a defensive role with teammates that aren’t helping
him drive play and don’t traditionally help rack up points.  That certainly won’t help his
production this year, nor did it help last year.

kassian linemates

His most line mates this year are Brad Richardson and Shawn
Matthias.  Last year was the same story, except
that Matthias has replaced David Booth. 
It’s good to see that Kassian is driving possession WOWYs for his most
common linemates this and last year, but when you are playing with Brad
Richardson in the defensive zone, there’s only so much production you can
generate.

In short, Kassian has been placed in a very difficult position to score points.  He’s not getting offensive minutes, and he’s not getting linemates that will help him put the puck in the net at even strength, nor is he getting time on the powerplay.  He is making his teammates better though, but if the Canucks are hoping for offense, they should be aware that they’ve put him in an exceedingly tough situation.

Conclusion

We only have one full season to judge Zack Kassian on, so it’s hard to
know exactly what we have on our hands.  It’s
unlikely Kassian truly is the goal scoring power forward that many
fans (and team management) seem to think he is or want him to be.  He’s not a scorer like Cody Hodgson, and based on the data here, he appears to be a play-driving middle-6 forward with some upside still to give.  Although he’s scored more goals than assists relative to other players in the NHL, his very low personal shot and shot attempt rates seem to suggest he’s more likely to be a passer and play maker.  If he’s playing with better players, who are
shooting a lot more than he is, he’s likely to see his production
increase. 

Zack Kassian does have value as a hockey player. 
Every team needs good third liners, but their value does not always come
from point production, and Kassian has struggled to produce points.  Should the Canucks explore trading Kassian, the hardest part about maximizing returning value is
that people often correlate point production to player quality.  If Kassian is truly
on the trade market, then he is not going to fetch what he is worth, especially with his
current low PDO.

No one should expect Kassian
to evolve into a Cam Neely, but he is better than his current production indicates, and probably deserving of more favourable usage.  People would also be best to alter their perceptions and expectations of Kassian and not
think of him as that rare “mythical beast” power forward, but as a useful and young complimentary piece that will be more effective for years to come than most of the Canucks’ current NHL wingers.

    • Larionov18

      He passes too much to play with the Sedins. Like to see him on a line with Vrbata and Bonino. two finishers. Put Burrows back with the twins. Brad with higgy and hansen and Bo with Mathias and Dorset. Vey when injuries occur.

      • RandomScrub

        This. Play him with Vrbata if Burrows goes back with the Sedins. Also, as others have mentioned, he needs to grow up and play between the whistles. It seems his hockey IQ is higher than his actual IQ – leave the trash talk to Burrows and Bieksa. That, and Kassian could also benefit from making a conscientious effort to look less like a retarted llama.

  • Fred-65

    The question is does a player earn a spot with the Sedins or be handed a spot ? Remember the leading goal scorer on the team is the guy that he will replace ….. Vrbata, do you loose his finish around the net ? because if you do that’s a big loss. There has now been 3 coaches who have shown little faith in Mr Kassian. Know one will say much but I suspect there may be more than on ice problems causing coaches to loose faith ?

  • Brent

    When the deal was struck, I hatef it because people were claing “you don’t turn down the opporrunity to trade for a Cam Neely-type player”. But I said it then, and I feel I overestimated Kassian at the time, he reminded me more of a Jim Sandlak. ‘House’ was a first round pick PF who was supposed to have the hands to put up dynamite #s but he never could and was destined to be shipped away for Robert Kron.

  • Brent

    I am still wondering how Linden Vey is getting’ a free pass’ in terms of his play and time in the line-up. We play in a big, strong, tough conference. We need big, strong, tough players in our line up. To think of trading Kassian while Vey flounders is a mystery to me. Vey is not a strong player. What are the coach and GM thinking? Appears to be some type of commitment to a decision made in the off-season, that isn’t supported by the current play of the player (Vey). Maybe in time he’ll develop.

  • Larionov18

    “When Hodgson no longer wanted to be part of the team Mike Gillis made arguably one of his most shrewd moves in purposely sheltering Hodgson to increase his scoring, hide his two-way deficiencies, and boost his trade value.”

    I added the missing comma for you but FFS…

    The weak return on the CoHo trade should make it obvious that sheltering did not boost his value in the least.

    The fact that Paajarvi cleared waivers with little money remaining on his contract gives a pretty good idea of how little Kassian is worth.

    The Canucks may as well keep him…

  • Larionov18

    Focus seems to be the problem, easily distracted and most games expends too much energy chirping when he should be playing the game. He has the tools to be a good rugged player and pot a few points but seems immature the way he handles adversity. Needs to grow up basically.

    • Larionov18

      All the right tools, no toolbox.

      Yes it’s cliche but he does feed the stereotype.

      Probably should have spent a little more time in the minors growing up but Gillis had to cover his backside after all of his talk about Hodgson. Who at the time, sheltered or not, was performing pretty well.

  • Fortitude00

    Kassian is a big strong forward who skates well, you don’t trade young players with that skill set unless you are getting Milan Lucic back in a salary dump trade.

  • RandomScrub

    Kassian will probably be a frustrating player for a while because he is an innate play maker. His passes are very slick and he should be put on a line with guys that can finish. He produced at the end of last year next to Richardson and Booth so imagine two guys that can score? No offense Brad 5 goals is great.

    His defensive brain farts have seemed to dissipate which is great, so I think the best days are yet to come.

  • RandomScrub

    We need big,strong players like Kassian.Why is he not given a chance in the 2nd or 1st line to see if he can flourish?Vey is an offensive player, but he hardly win the one on one battles especially along the boards,yet he is getting the ice time.Why???Give Kassian a chance & play him in all possible situations to find out his true potential