At 22 years old, Zack Kassian is still incredibly raw. The big-bodied power forward has all kinds of skill, but has had issues with consistency in his young career. This season, he has just 5 points in 15 games, while struggling to earn the trust of his new coach and thereby earning more ice time.
There are some positive signs, of course: 4 of his points are goals, putting him on pace for about 20 goals this season, which would be a solid step in the right direction. He’ll need more shots to do so, however, as he’s averaging just over 1 per game, and he’ll likely need an opportunity in the top-six in order to get those shots. On the other hand, he’s formed a valuable partnership with Brad Richardson on the third line that has been able to perform admirably with some lesser linemates like Darren Archibald and Tom Sestito.
One area that he definitely needs to work at, however, is at his own blueline, where he has a tendency to get complicated where he needs to be simple. Kassian clearly has the capability to make unexpected and creative passes. Some of the passes he has made even just this season are simply sublime — little 2-3 foot hook passes around an opponent’s stick to spring a teammate in the neutral zone — and we flipped our lids at his incredible lob pass to Darren Haydar with the Chicago Wolves back in January.
The problem is that Kassian tries to use that same creativity in the defensive zone, frequently and infuriatingly just inside his own blue line, which has led to some needless turnovers.
In today’s game, the blue line is where some of the most important plays occur. The ability of a player to gain the offensive zone with possession of the puck is of extreme importance, as is the ability of a player and team to exit the defensive zone safely. Forechecking schemes are drawn up to pin the opposing team in the defensive zone, with puck-moving defencemen prized for their ability to break down the forecheck with an outlet pass or superior skating.
For me, there is nothing more frustrating than a player who cannot clear the defensive zone. It’s one of my main issues with Tom Sestito and it’s one of the main reasons why Aaron Rome was legitimately valuable as a depth defenceman — for all his other faults, he knew how to safely chip the puck off the boards and out.
So I can forgive Kassian for all his other flaws and excuse them on account of his youth. I don’t want him to play it safe in the offensive zone — I would much rather he make mistakes trying to create scoring chances than avoid risks. In the defensive zone, however, safety is of primary importance. Kassian isn’t all that bad defensively, but when it comes time to get the puck over the blue line, he tries to do too much.
His turnover on Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings is a prime example, forcing Eddie Lack to make a spectacular and unnecessary save. Here’s the highlight, complete with commentary from Swedish Chef because the gang at Legion of Blog are loveable goofballs:
Kassian receives the puck along the far boards after a missed shot by Drew Doughty with plenty of time and space. While many turnovers at the blue line are caused by pressure from the opposing team, that isn’t the case here. The defenceman on Kassian’s side has retreated into the neutral zone, giving Kassian a free pass out of the defensive zone.
Instead of taking that route, however, Kassian chooses to drop the puck back to Chris Higgins, who has no reason to expect the pass. The puck slips by Higgins and is out of the reach of Jason Garrison, winding up right on the stick of Trevor Lewis, who is all alone in front of the net. Fortunately, Lack bails Kassian out with a magnificent save, although the game was out of reach by that point anyway.
The issue lies with Kassian’s decision-making in that moment. It’s not difficult to figure out what he’s thinking, since he’s standing still by necessity when he receives the puck and Higgins is picking up speed heading out of the zone. Kassian clearly wants to give the puck to the player with speed in hopes of creating a dangerous rush the other way.
It’s his location that is the problem. Making that pass deeper in the defensive zone, even, would be less dangerous, but making that pass just inside the blue line creates all sorts of difficulties. You can see it in the video: every Canuck on the ice is blowing the zone, sure that Kassian will either chip the puck up the boards and out, where Higgins may be able to get to it, or will attempt to skate it out himself. That’s why Lewis is free and clear behind the Canucks’ defence.
If this was just an isolated incident, it wouldn’t be a huge deal. The game was all but over at this point, with even Tortorella giving the game up as lost, benching the Sedins for almost the entire third period. A mental mistake in such a game would be completely understandable. But this appears to be part of a larger pattern for Kassian where he tries to be too cute at his own blueline, leading to turnovers and extended shifts trapped in the defensive zone.
Kassian needs to take a page from Henry David Thoreau: simplify, simplify, simplify. In the defensive zone, focus on getting the puck over the blue line first, then look to make a more creative play.