Zack Kassian is a complicated hockey player.
His impressive stature belies his impressive skills, and his lovable lug image is at odds with accounts suggesting that he is apparently hard to deal with. And somehow, these contradictions have been all wrapped up in a player who, despite his 198 NHL games, is only 24 years old.
Everyone seems to agree that Kassian can contribute, but none of Alain Vigneault, John Tortorella, or Willie Desjardins found a way to harness his talents to their satisfaction. And when he wasn't frustrating fans with his on-ice identity crisis, his myriad injuries managed to frustrate them anyway.
In Montreal, he can leave all of that behind him, and focus on becoming the player he has the potential to be.
The consensus on Kassian lies in the lower half of the top 10. While he did earn two fifth-place votes (including mine), that optimism was counterbalanced by a low vote of 18, leaving Kassian right where most voters seem to feel he belongs.
Top 25 Under 25 History
New to the organization, and due to turn 25 in January, this appearance will be Kassian's first and only foray into our annual series.
Zack Kassian has a lot of tools.
First and foremost, the man is lethally efficient in front of his opponent's net. Whether it's using his frame to box out defenders, or sneaking into space on the rush, Kassian knows where he needs to go score goals and has the speed, strength, and awareness to get there.
Once he's picked his spot, he has a couple of options with which to complete the play. His snap shot will earn him a few goals below the circles, and he has quite the deft set of hands in front. In fact, his most recent NHL goal summarizes his abilities nicely:
Kassian's efforts have translated into benefits for his teammates, too. He has a been a consistent possession driver, regardless of who he plays with, which should offer the Canadiens some flexibility in how they deploy their middle six.
Expecting Kassian to generate second-line level goal production is probably not realistic, but if he manages to stay healthy, he could very well eclipse the 10-goal total he put up last year. On a team where depth scoring is not exactly abundant, five or 10 extra goals from the bottom of the lineup could prove significant.
While not necessarily a weakness, it's important to understand that with Zack Kassian, what you see is not necessarily what you get. Before he was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, Kassian was profiled as an "aggressive power forward who is at his best when playing physical." When subsequently acquired by the Canucks, the trade looked like Vancouver's response to their loss to the physically dominant Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals the spring prior. Well, Zack Kassian is not Milan Lucic, and as the Canuck coaches learned, asking Kassian to play like a player he isn't only takes away from the things he does well.
But while playing a less than bruising style isn't an inherent weakness, Kassian does bring with him a few other concerns.
For a player acquired to add offence, Kassian doesn't shoot the puck much. Rather than shoot in volume, he relies on a solid output of high danger scoring chances, resulting in a high personal shooting percentage. Considering his size and skill around the net, this approach to scoring may or may not be sustainable. While his body of work in the pros is fairly large relative to the average 24-year-old prospect, 200 games of NHL hockey is probably not enough time to say definitively that Kassian is not just riding the percentages.
Then, there's his defensive game. While Kassian has managed to keep his possession numbers positive, he has relied on his on-ice offense to balance out his on-ice defense. For a spell, Kassian was bleeding shots and scoring chances at a higher rate than any other Canuck getting regular minutes. His play without the puck was either unenthusiastic or reckless, with no in-between.
Thankfully, Kassian has shown some improvement in this regard. His Corsi Against per 60 steadily decreased through 2014-15, and through the second half of his abbreviated campaign, he worked his way near the top of the Canuck ranks in shot attempts against. He seemed to achieve this by placing a simpler, less aggressive game - to quote Canucks analyst Thomas Drance, "his play without the puck is also significantly less noticeable than it has been in years past, which we mean as a compliment." His new goaltender is near certain to provide Kassian more support than the abysmal on-ice save percentage he coped with out west, but at the same time, the Habs will have to hope Kassian's play in his own end continues to mature.
Each of the players we've profiled so far this summer has a dream of playing in the NHL, but Kassian can claim more than that. When he plays his 200th NHL game on October 10 in Boston, Kassian will have reached a milestone that few players in the Habs' prospect pool will ever approach. He's the first prospect discussed who is a difference-maker right now, and who has reasonably solidified himself as a NHL roster player for the next few years at least.
Kassian likely slots in on the third line to start the year, playing a role similar to the one he often held in Vancouver. Alongside Shawn Matthias (or earlier, David Booth) and Brad Richardson, Kassian was charged with pushing play forward from his own zone. He completed that task effectively, keeping his on-ice possession numbers in the black and buoying those of Matthias and Richardson while he was at it. This experience should qualify him to be a good running mate for Lars Eller, given Eller's similar deployment.
That role may not be the best place for Kassian, however, especially if the Habs are hoping to get some offence out of him. Kassian has enjoyed his greatest goal-scoring success when playing alongside a player who can handle the zone entry and get pucks to the net for him. In Vancouver, those players were the Sedin twins, and in Montreal, it may be the puck-carrying skills of David Desharnais that best complement Kassian's talents.
Regardless of how Kassian is asked to play, he will need to find the type of consistency that evaded him on the Pacific coast if he is to succeed in Quebec. If Kassian ends up in Michel Therrien's line blender, or if his subtle style frustrates a coach expecting a grinder, that goal may be easier stated than accomplished.
When Kassian was traded to Montreal, he got exactly what he needed: a change of scenery from an apparently poisonous environment. And if the Canadiens organization can offer Kassian some stability, maybe their new right winger will find that hockey isn't so complicated after all.