Miscast Vancouver Canucks power forward Zack Kassian is confused, and rightly so.
Three different coaching staffs have cycled through Vancouver during the big 24-year-old winger’s tenure and he’s endeared himself to precisely none of them. For a while that was understandable, since Kassian’s two-way deficiencies were plain to see.
Over the past 12 months though, Kassian has turned himself into a credible NHL forward. The bounces haven’t been going his way this year, but he’s still driving play decently well in a bottom-six role. He’s surely one of Vancouver’s nine best forwards.
He isn’t being treated that way though. Instead he’s yo-yoing in and out of the lineup, and on Monday – one day removed from being a healthy scratch against the MInnesota Wild – Kassian was skating with Nick Bonino and Shawn Matthias on what would seem to be Vancouver’s probable second forward line. Or maybe not.
“I wouldn’t read to much into it,” Kassian told Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Province. “I don’t even know what the hell is going on.”
Neither do we, Mr. Kassian. Let’s try and figure it out.
Let’s start with the full gamut of Kassian’s quotes, because they’re pretty excellent. Here’s mount Kass erupting, via Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun:
I thought I played well against Anaheim. I took the bad penalty but I was playing with emotion and I was trying to do the right thing. I played a good game against Buffalo and then that happens. So, honestly, I can’t tell you. I don’t know. I was if not more shocked than anyone.
Am I frustrated? You guys have no idea how effing frustrated I am. But that’s the way it is. I’m not going to sit here and sulk. I just have to find a way. It’s no secret I need to start scoring goals and I need to be more consistent. I have two goals this year. I came in and I had high expectations… it’s tough to score when you’re riding the bike.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to it.
The first thing we should discuss is Kassian’s deployment, which has legitimately been a bit weird this season.
The burly forward has come into his own as a two-way player, and to these eyes, has been particularly effective when cutting through the neutral zone with control of the puck this season (and towards the tail end of last year). His play without the puck is also significantly less noticeable than it has been in years past, which we mean as a compliment.
Of the four forwards with whom Kassian has played at least 40 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, all four have done better by shot attempt differential alongside the oft-disciplined forward than they’ve done without him. Similarly, last season, all three forwards with whom Kassian spent at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5 fared better by the shot based metrics with Kassian than without.
This would suggest that Kassian, as his game has matured, has found ways to move the river in a positive direction.
Considering these results, and considering how poor Vancouver’s forwards have been at controlling play over the past eight weeks – no Canucks line, including the Sedin line, has won their territorial matchup on a consistent basis since December 1st – scratching Kassian with any degree of regularity is borderline preposterous. This club needs his speed, and play-driving ability in the lineup. Period.
As for the lack of production, and that ghastly minus-8 number, that’s a different matter. While Kassian has only two goals and five points on the year, it would appear that a good deal of his offensive struggles are the result of bad luck.
Like a man with food poisoning, Kassian is dealing with a spell of misfortune at both ends. His 6.1 percent personal shooting clip is roughly half of his career 11.9 percent rate, and his 6.37 percent on-ice shooting rate at 5-on-5 ranks 284th among the 355 NHL forwards who have played at least 300 even-strength minutes this season. Throw in an unsustainably low .883 on-ice save percentage, and Kassian’s 94.6 PDO ranks 350th among the 355 forwards who have played at least 300 minutes this year.
With only a few rare exceptions, forwards don’t generally have direct control over these bounces. It looks to this analyst’s eyes like Kassian is in the midst of a percentage driven off year.
All of which brings us back to Kassian not knowing what the hell is going on. He’s a professional hockey player who has been traded before, and us, well, this isn’t our first rodeo. His dwindling ice-time, the lack of trust this Canucks coaching staff rather apparently has for him and the persistent reports that Kassian is being shopped would suggest that the 24-year-old isn’t long for Vancouver.
His frank comments on Monday would seemingly serve as another data point in favour of this perhaps inevitable conclusion.
When trading a 24-year-old whose underlying performance appears to be improving even as his on-ice results crater, the seller best be beware though. Nothing is simple about this situation, really, except for the likelihood that if Kassian is traded, Vancouver will be selling low on a decently useful young player with a relatively rare skill set.
(Stats in this piece compiled from hockeyanalysis.com)