EDMONTON, AB - It was a slow-burning '20-21 NHL season for forward Zack Kassian that ended with a spark in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That spark, a brief taste of individual success against the Winnipeg Jets during the Oilers short four-game playoff run, smoldered over a long offseason to help the 30-year-old get back on track and return to Edmonton for Training Camp as a player keen to turn the page on what was a challenging season.
The postseason-bred Kassian battled a pair of injuries during the regular season that made it difficult adjusting to the shortened 56-match campaign, spending respective stints of 17 games (Feb. 9 - Mar. 15) and 12 games (Apr. 26 - May 19) on the sidelines in a season where the Windsor, Ont. product posted two goals and three assists in 27 games.
"I don't think it's any secret out there that it was a tough year for me personally," Kassian, speaking with Bob Stauffer and 630CHED's Oilers Now, said Monday. "It's the hardest league to play in hands down when you're healthy, let alone injured a few times. It's tough to get traction… you're not familiar with any linemates, you're kind of overwhelmed trying to do everything in one shift that you should be doing throughout the course of the evening, so last year was really frustrating."
Video: Informal Skate 09.13.21
Kassian returned to the lineup in time for Game 1 against Winnipeg, playing his best hockey of the season when it mattered with a goal and assist in four games during what was a brief return to normalcy before a long offseason for the 6-foot-3, 211-pound power forward.
"What I can say is that I think I came back from that last injury in the playoffs and I played like myself. I had a step in the right direction going into the summer," he said. "I think I played the way I could, played the way the team wanted me to play, and I think at the end of the day I put in a lot of work this summer.
"My body feels good, everything feels good, so we want to hit the ground running right from Training Camp. It's important, so I'm looking forward to the season."
Kassian is one of the returning Oilers forward cast that will be bolstered by a number of positive additions up front that include Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, and Derek Ryan - each of which bringing their own unique skillsets that will bring added depth and competition to the club.
"It's huge," Kassian said. "Ken [Holland] has had a tough job to do obviously with the flat cap, but when you bring in guys like that, they all bring something to the team that at the end of the day helps us win."
"All those guys are going to help us and hopefully strive to get better as the season progresses to help get us into the playoffs. Then from there, you never know what's going to happen."
Video: EDM@WPG, Gm3: Kassian finishes off a Draisaitl feed
Combined with defensive acquisitions in the likes of Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci, along with the maturation of important prospects in Jesse Puljujarvi and Evan Bouchard, Kassian believes there's a strong sense of confidence within the group that will take to Rogers Place for the start of Training Camp next week.
"We're a team that's made a lot of changes, but I think ultimately we're a group of individuals that thinks there's more in the tank," he said. "I think that's a good recipe to have going into the season, especially going into a Training Camp."
As a fan favourite who regularly feeds off the energy of Oil Country, one of the biggest returns to normalcy for Kassian will come in the return of fans to NHL arenas after a year-and-a-half without spectators in seats.
It is, quintessentially, what makes the League so great.
"It sucked with no fans. It wasn't the NHL," he said. "You go out for warmup and you've got fans around the glass, the music's pumping, the glass is shaking, and you feel the energy in the building. To not have that was very odd, but obviously at the end of the day the puck drops and you try to play through it.
"I think you can tell already there's an added excitement for the year with some normality getting our fans back in the building and going on the road and getting some boo's. That to me is hockey, where you get the goosebumps and get the adrenaline. It's fun to play in away barns, it's fun to play in home barns, so fans are a big part of hockey."