Zack Kassian knows he is in a great spot.
Not only is he grateful to be gearing up for a shortened NHL season during a global pandemic, but the rugged winger also found himself slotted alongside Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid to begin training camp Monday. It’s a coveted spot that helped earn Kassian a four-year contract extension back in February.
“There’s 700 players in the NHL. I think whoever can slide on the right side is gonna be happy about it,” said Kassian.
“(McDavid’s) the best player in the world so obviously excited to play with him. We’ve had success.”
But since signing the deal that pays him an average of $3.2 million per season making him the fifth-highest paid forward on the team, Kassian has struggled to produce offensively. He scored just two goals in his final 14 regular season games (after scoring 13 in the first 45 games) and was point-less during the four-game play-in series against Chicago.
In order to remain a fixture on the Oilers ‘top line’ in 2021, Kassian acknowledged he must be productive.
“I’ve gotta be physical, I’ve gotta be skating, but I’ve gotta play between the lines and I’ve gotta make plays. It’s that simple,” Kassian said.
Head coach Dave Tippett shuffled Kassian down the lineup during the August play-in series but hopes the sixth-year Oiler can find the offensive touch that he had earlier in the halted 2019-20 season.
“Kass is in great shape. He’s committed. He worked hard today and, you know, that line’s had some success,” remarked Tippett. “Kass has had success with Connor so we’ll see where it goes for time being.”
Opposite of Kassian on Monday was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a player many observers predicted may begin the year playing alongside reigning Hart trophy winner Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto. Instead, Edmonton native Tyler Ennis filled that left flank while newcomer Dominik Kahun, another player viewed as a ‘top 6’ option, was deemed “unfit to play.”
The trio of Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl and Yamamoto formed one of the most dominant lines in hockey for most of the Oilers 2020 games, except for the play-in series, when they were only reunited in the late stages of the final game versus Chicago.
“To me, it doesn’t really matter. I guess we’ll see. I don’t really have much say, it’s kinda where they put me. Obviously, I like playing with both of them,” said Nugent-Hopkins on Sunday.
Tippett acknowledged that line-up decisions and combinations are going to have to be made more swiftly than for a typical training camp, as there are no exhibition games to help gauge them.
“Some decisions are made early but there’s some that are going to be made and they’re going to be open to change in a hurry if they don’t work out,” said Tippett.
Forward Jesse Puljujarvi skated with the Edmonton Oilers for the first time in nearly two years on Monday.
The fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft spent last season playing for Karpat of the Finnish Elite League, opting not to resign with the Oilers last summer.
But after an off-season of relationship-building conversations with Tippett and general manager Ken Holland, Puljujarvi signed a two-year contract and is trying to reestablish himself as an NHL player.
“He’s a monster of a man,” said Tippett, after seeing number 98 skate in-person for the first time.
“He engaging with his teammates and it was a good first step.”
Puljujarvi skated on a line with new Oilers centre Kyle Turris and winger Josh Archibald.
The Oilers have divided their players into two groups, A and B. Players can move between groups during camp while undergoing daily COVID-19 tests and symptom checks, according to a team spokesperson.
The aforementioned Kahun, James Neal, Gaetan Haas, and Devin Shore were all listed as ‘unfit to play’ with no other details given, as per NHL training camp protocol.
The Oilers open the season at a fan-less Rogers Place against the Vancouver Canucks on January 13 at 8:00 p.m. MT.