Why it’s time to give up on the ‘Zack Kassian is a playmaker’ narrative

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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

Zack Kassian is at his best when he’s creating havoc at the net front, challenging goaltenders with his sneaky-good wrist shot, and sticking pucks into the net from the slot.

In the past we’ve argued at length in this space that Zack Kassian is a playmaker. It’s time for us to reconsider that position in my view. Kassian is best suited to being a more traditional power forward, and his value to the Canucks – should they opt to keep him past this summer – will be heightened if he plays a simpler north-south game and generates more shots on goal.

Tackling the subject of Kassian as a playmaker, Josh Weissbock wrote this last 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.

Josh further supported his argument with some compelling video analysis.

We’ve all seen what Kassian can do protecting the puck down low, and he definitely has deceptively soft hands for a big man. It’s not necessarily that Kassian’s vision is sub-average or an issue or anything, but at this point, he has a large enough sample of performance for us to evaluate what he’s legitimately good at.

What Kassian is really good at is converting on a high percentage of his shots, not setting up goals for other players.

Since the 2012 NHL lockout Kassian has produced 5-on-5 offense at a second-line rate. His points per 60 minutes rate is similar to what players like Mason Raymond, Alex Killorn, Chris Higgins and Chris Stewart have managed over a similar time frame. 

It’s not his passing ability that’s driving that point production though. Among the 303 NHL players who have logged at least 1500 5-on-5 minutes since the 2012 lockout, Kassian ranks 210th in assist rate (comparable to the likes of Riley Nash, Brenden Morrow and Ryan Kesler – not exactly deft playmakers) and 180th in primary assist rate. 

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Where Kassian fares much better is in his goal scoring rate. The physical 24-year-old forward scores goals at a first-line rate at 5-on-5. Since the lockout, in fact, he’s scored goals at a rate comparable to the likes of Blake Wheeler, Jordan Eberle and Evander Kane.

What’s curious is that Kassian is scoring goals at a high rate despite carrying a persistently anemic personal shot rate. He’s generating 5-on-5 shots on goal at about half the rate that Kane does, for example, he’s just converting on a way higher percentage of his shots.

It’s not uncommon for big, skilled forwards – from Nathan Horton to Scott Hartnell – to shoot a higher than average percentage. If you’re tough to move out of the slot, it can be a bit easier to pick up the garbage. 

In almost 200 career NHL games, Kassian is carrying a personal shooting percentage above 14 percent. He’s been massively efficient.

Since the lockout Kassian’s personal shooting percentage at even strength ranks sixth among the 303 NHL forwards who’ve logged at least 1500 minutes (on par with Steven Stamkos, and ahead of Corey Perry and Jonathan Toews). His on-ice shooting percentage hovers around 8.75 which is similarly elevated. 1500 minutes and 200 games isn’t a gigantic sample or anything so he could just be on a run of insane finishing luck, but there’s perhaps some suggestive evidence that Kassian has the skill set required to drive percentages somewhat.

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Admittedly some of this data may be slanted by the fact that Kassian has spent 300 minutes or so riding shotgun with the Sedin twins – two of the best playmakers of their generation. The twins don’t really drive percentages anymore though, and haven’t really since the Keith hit…

When I look at Kassian’s rather rare underlying statistical profile, I’m left to wonder what he might be capable of if he could boost his shots on goal rate. Shooting at a higher volume would likely drop his efficiency somewhat, but he certainly seems to be most dangerous banging puck past goaltenders from the slot than he is making plays and protecting the puck on the periphery. Perhaps a simpler game, and more ice time with the Sedin twins, could benefit him enormously (and by extension, the club as a whole). 

Though Kassian still has promise and value, he was rumoured to be on the trade block and could conceivably still be moved at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. 

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  • andyg

    Desjardins was saying yesterday that he liked Kassian with the Sedins, so maybe there’s some hope there.

    Still think he’d be better off offensively on the LW.

  • andyg

    Can’t help but feel this is one of the times the numbers need to take a backseat to the eyes.

    Kassian’s assists totals have been a direct result of playing significant time with such gifted finishers as David Booth and Brad Richardson+Matthias, the latter combo who absolutely could not convert on Kassian’s dishes to start this past season.

  • andyg

    Just curious, but if his assist ranking jumps up by 30 places when we look at primary assists vs. overall assists, doesn’t that speak to a low QoT?

    Yes, Kassian does score like a first-liner 5-on-5. Yes his assist rate is terrible. But his linemates, for the most part, are either bottom-6 volume shooters or simply not strong offensively. Should he go to the net more? Of course he should. Should he shoot more? Of course he should. If for no other reason than keeping his opposition on their toes. Right now his play is rather predictable on most occasions. Playing a more aggressive, shoot-first N/S game, as you espouse, will not only increase his scoring potential, but it will open up the passing lanes that he likes to exploit, and, incidentally, it would see him playing with a higher calibre of linemates who would be more capable of finishing the chances he generates.

    But honestly, I’m not that worried about him changing his style of play. This past season, he was on a 20g pace, and just a hair off a 40pts pace, getting 3rd line ice time. A slight uptick in the finishing abilities of his linemates, and regular shifts on the 2nd PP unit, will carry him over those benchmarks.

    I want the fine gentleman to come to camp with a commitment to physical fitness. Better overall fitness should result in fewer injuries (and fewer benchings); and more days in the lineup should mean he finally “arrives”, even if he changes nothing else about his game.

  • andyg

    Not entirely convinced by this primary assist stuff. If you remove secondary assists from point rate over the last couple of seasons, Henrik’s scoring like a 3rd liner.

    • peterl

      If you take away Henrik’s 2nd assists, you have to take away everyone’s, that keeps him in the top tier of the league.

      That comment you made reminds me of the comments people make about the “twins not being elite players”, yet when a guy like Kassian our Burrows lights it up on the top line, the comments switch to “he’s only putting up points because he’s playing with the twins.”

  • andyg

    Most important I think is for the lad to stay healthy, small sampling last season and I agree that his passing is first rate and only needs to play with line mates who can finish. I’ve been back and forth with Kassian but I really think he needs a chance to play with regular line mates for a full season to really see his potential.

  • andyg

    Clickbait! Trying to keep them traffic #s up eh? Looking at his long run stats is not useful – the variance he experiences is down to linemates and getting a shot on 1L from coaches.

  • peterl

    He needs to start with the Sedins if he is still with the team. All depends on his commitment to fitness and staying out of bars. If he can do this he allows more time for one of the youngsters to have a year in Utica (Virtanen would be best). I hope that they trade Higgins, while he is still worth a draft pick (3rd) which would allow Baertschi to play with Bonino and Vrbata, the Sedins with Kassian, promote Horvat to the third line with Burrows and Hansen. Kenins, Dorsett and Vey (I would like to see them sign another center perhaps the big Swede in Boston UFA). If they trade Bieksa as well they can also bring in Bartkowski to play with Sbisa. Then Hamhuis/Weber, Edler/Tanev and the two youngsters Corrado and Clendenning as spares. The 7 million they get for Higgins and Bieksa would cover the cost of the two Boston players and leave a little room.

  • peterl

    Kassian does have a nice passing touch, but that belief is what gets him in trouble.

    Sneaky drop passes that end up going the other way and very loose outlet passes combined with a less then genuine effort has put Kassian with the reporters.

    Both Kassian and Sbisa will be a test for this coaching staff. Two guys with loads of talent that can’t put it together. Pairing Kassian with the Twins would solve a lot of problems.

    Bo Horvat could be a very good center between Vrbata and Burrows. Bo’s size, speed and face off prowess combined with Vrbata’s sniping skills and Burrs net presence seem like a fit. But no one likes putting Kass with the Twins?

    Come on Coach Willie…. You say your a teacher, let’s see it!