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Thankful Kassian is ready for make-or-break year

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

Zack Kassian is "at peace" with everything after a tumultuous series of events that left his hockey career in limbo, and his personal life in need of change.

After being checked into the league's substance abuse program last fall, there was so much uncertainty of where he might end up or who might be willing to take a chance on the beleaguered winger.

The Oilers, as it turned out, were just the team willing to take on the risk in hope for reward. Edmonton sent goaltender Ben Scrivens to Montreal, in exchange for Kassian on December 28. Thus, giving Kassian an opportunity to show he was on the right path.

Thirty-six games at the end of the 2015-16 season was enough for the Oilers to invest another year in Kassian. The club announced Thursday they signed the forward to a one-year deal.

"I think with what I went through previously with the Oilers picking me up, for them to give me an opportunity to show that I've changed my life around, I was happy with that. Obviously, to extend that and come back next year I am more excited," Kassian said.

Kassian provided an immediate physical boost to the Oilers, while showing that he's versatile enough to play up and down the lineup as needed. There were dips, as can be expected from a player who missed half a season. Kassian is challenging himself to produce more peaks than valleys this upcoming season.

"I think, personally, the year was ok," said Kassian. "I came out of the gates pretty hard and then kinda hit the wall and didn't finish the season the way I wanted to. I think too that there's a lot of things I've changed personally in my life that made it tough for me. I was sitting in treatment for two months and then jumping into the AHL and then coming into the NHL, there's a lot of things that were happening that I kinda had to do along the way."

Photo by Getty Images.

Getting back into the swing of full-time NHL action had its challenges.

"For one thing, missing the first 40 games in any league is going to be tough," said Kassian. "I think conditionally, physically, I did the best job possible. It was more mentally getting back into the grind of flying and playing. Then, most importantly, the lifestyle changes I made were all new to me. It was just getting acclimated to that lifestyle. Obviously, my brain is at peace with everything now. I'm getting used to how my life is going to be lived for the next several years. I'm more than happy and I think this is where you're going to start to see results in my game moving forward."

There's reason for optimism with Kassian. Before coming to the Oilers, the forward produced two double-digit goal seasons with Vancouver, including a 14-goal, 29-point campaign in 2013-14. He's also heading into 2016-17 without the personal issues, with familiarity with the staff and chemistry with the locker room. There's also a lot of motivation with him being on a one-year contract. Kassian understands the stakes.

"This is going to be a year to really make me or break me," Kassian said.

It's another audition, but at least Kassian knows the judges.

"If you start with a team in training camp, with a line, with already knowing the systems, a lot of the game is reacting," he explained. "I think when you have that in the brain and you've learned all that and you know what you have to do out there, you react better.

"Me, personally, I'm just excited to have a good summer and come in and just hit the ground running knowing this is going to be a year to really make me or break me. From a team standpoint, we need to have that mentality too where this is the year we need to make improvements. If we don't, we're in trouble and it's going to be another long year. I think everyone is going in with the same mentality that this year is a very important year for us."

Last year, Kassian deflected a lot of questions about his personal performance goals. When asked, he'd steer things to the team and team production. It was all about the Oilers for him. Now, Kassian looks ahead to year two with the orange and blue and sees the blueprint for success within stretches of last year.

"It's a good group," he said. "It's a good group that's sick of losing. It's an exciting time to be an Edmonton Oiler. With the new rink going up, the fans are excited, the city is excited and as players we're excited to get the opportunity to show that our team is changing and the culture is changing. From a team standpoint, we brought in some new players and everyone was great. I think we really started to gel as a team. Obviously, every team goes through players that come and go, but as long as you can keep that good, fun working environment then whoever comes in and out, it's going to help your team. I think that's the mentality we wanted at the end of the year is we're going to come to the rink, we're going to work hard but working hard is fun. You get rewarded when you work hard, good things happen when you work hard and that's the team you want to be. That's the identity you want."

You could sense Kassian smiling over the phone after signing his contract. Maybe he's smiling because he's currently in California enjoying the sun, eager to learn to surf, although he is - jokingly - weary of sharks.

However, less than eight months ago, Kassian's world was spinning and wasn't as sunny as it is today. But that's in the past, and he's excited to return to the Oilers. To him, what lies ahead is really something to smile about.

"I'm beyond happy."

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