Zack Kassian could be described as one of many things, depending on who you ask. A thug. A talented young forward. A malicious hitter. Misunderstood. Overhyped. Underrated.
To his friends and family, he is a humble and hard working 21-year-old who had to overcome adversity at a very young age (Kassian was only eight when his father Michael passed away suddenly from a heart attack). To his teammates in Peterborough and Windsor, he was a leader, an offensive force, and a physical presence. To his coaches, he was an intriguing combination of skill and size, and a player who lacked consistency but made up for it with stretches of dominance.
Kassian was one of the most intimidating players in the OHL from 2008 to 2011. The next great power forward. Milan Lucic with better hands. To Buffalo Sabres fans, he was everything that their team was not – big, tough, and mean. They instantaneously fell in love with their 2009 1st round selection, and collectively looked forward to the day in which he would be patrolling the ice protecting their finesse players.
However, the Sabres traded Kassian less than three years after drafting him. They moved him to Vancouver for Cody Hodgson in a trade that will forever link the two players together. Hodgson was Mike Gillis’s first ever draft selection as Vancouver’s general manager. He had all of the attributes Gillis looked for in a prospect – intelligence, hockey sense, and leadership. Like Kassian in Buffalo, the Canucks soured on Hodgson in the coming years after his draft.
A fresh start. A turning of the page. Kassian and Hodgson both played in the OHL, but that is about where the similarities end – on or off the ice.
Kassian is a power forward in every sense of the word. A bull on skates, he dominated against his peers in junior with thundering body checks and a scorer’s touch. Consistency won’t be found in his vocabulary yet, though. At each step along the way, the peaks have been high and the valleys low. Blessed with a tremendous amount of skill for a player who stands in at 6-3 and over 220 pounds, he is still trying to figure out how to best use his physical assets.
Peaks. Kassian won a Memorial Cup with his hometown Windsor Spitfires in 2010, and a Silver Medal with Canada in 2011 at the World Junior Championships. Valleys. He was suspended multiple times in junior hockey for reckless physical play, and was charged with assault after a bar fight in 2010 (the charges were later dropped).
Peaks. Kassian dominated offensively as an AHL rookie in 2011-12. With the Rochester Americans, he scored 15 goals in only 30 games. Only a few days after the trade to Vancouver, Kassian recorded two points and seven hits in an impressive performance against the Sabres. Valleys. He was criticized for a lack of physical play by the media in Rochester and Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff. His production vanished after strong starts in both Buffalo and Vancouver.
Buffalo didn’t draft Kassian to be a pretty good player. The Canucks didn’t trade for him because they think he could settle in as a solid NHL player. Both teams saw a star quality in him – the ability to dominate games with offensive talent and brute force. Kassian may not be the next Milan Lucic. But it is far too early to write him off.
Kassian was able to overcome the great loss early in his life because of an incredibly strong support network.
“My mom is an unbelievable person to be able to do what she did. When I look back, it was crazy how she was able to do it all. I feel very grateful. If it wasn’t for her and my siblings to look out for me, and for my older brother to be a father figure, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Mike Kassian (Zack’s older brother) was a big part of said support network, too.
“Being very family oriented, we always did things together. There was so much family support. I think that bump in the road and terrible situation for Zack also gave him courage and made him a stronger person.”
A few years ago, American researchers conducted an interesting study on the effects of adversity. The study found that people who experienced a few adverse events in their lives reported better mental health and wellbeing than people with either a history of frequent adversity or no history of misfortune. Dr. Mark Seery, one of the researchers who co-authored the study, said that the many studies done on adversity in the past have failed to find the silver lining in the clouds. (This isn’t to say there is anything inherently positive about the loss of a family member.)
“So much of the existing literature shows that having experience with a negative life event is bad, with negative effects on mental and physical health. But we’ve found that this is not the whole story, and that people are more resilient in general than we may think. Adversity can help people develop a psychological immune system to help them cope with the slings and arrows that life throws, while those with no experience of adversity may have a hard time dealing with tough times.”
The study wasn’t meant to show that adversity is always a good thing. “We do have enormous capacity for resilience, but that doesn’t mean horrible experiences are good for you,” says Ann Masten, an expert in resilience in young people at the University of Minnesota. Masten believes that it is important to have community and social networks in place to help people deal with these adverse events. In Kassian’s case, that was an extremely supportive family.
Losing a parent is something that only those who have experienced can adequately describe. However, from all we have read about and heard from Kassian, his family, and those who coached him throughout his career, he is well-adjusted and grounded, which are important qualities for a young athlete, especially one with such high expectations surrounding him. A bad game? It happens. Not getting enough ice time? Ask for a trade. Work harder for it.
Money was tight for the Kassian family, but they found a way to make things work.
“We were worrying about gas and how I was going to feed [Zack] for the week and he’d go bust a helmet, break skates and break a stick. All in one week. We repaired the helmet, found a way to fix the skate and we got him a $40 wood stick.”
Kassian’s older brother stepped in to fill the void left by his father.
“My brother really stepped in there to be a father figure. I have to give a lot of credit to my mom and brother. They drove me everywhere, got me where I needed and made me the man I am today.”
The two still speak often, and Mike often times needs to remind himself of how young Zack still is.
“We have adult conversations now, and I need to sit back and say he’s just… a kid. When he was little, I always used to think of him as being through five times, 10 times more things as most kids his own age. He understands life at an advanced age compared to his peers.”
All About Hockey
Kassian has had high expectations surrounding him for his entire hockey career.
He always carried with him a strong internal belief that he was going to play in the NHL. Even at the age of seven, Kassian had already scripted his NHL Draft speech. At 12, he was concerned about his nutrition.
“[Zack] told me he was going to be at the [NHL] draft, and he was going to put on his jersey, and he was going to stand there and thank all of his coaches. He was driven by the love of the game. You even saw it in how he ate. How many 12-year-olds would look at you when you give them something and say, ‘I can’t eat, that mom. I have to eat healthy.’”
Kassian’s skating isn’t his best asset, but for a 6-3, 220 pound forward he moves well. He can thank his parents for that, as he was enrolled in figure skating well before his hockey career began. The year after Zack’s father passed away, he was late submitting his hockey registration and wasn’t able to play. Not wanting to waste a year of development, Kassian was enrolled in figure skating again (a bit more reluctantly, this time).
“If he had to be Mickey Mouse one more time, that was it for Zack.”
Kassian’s career as a Disney character was short lived. He returned to hockey the next year. He was always bigger than the other kids (a trait he inherited from his 6-5 father), and dominated minor midget and major bantam. He also excelled at volleyball and basketball. Playing different sports while developing as a child and adolescent allows for different skills to be developed – hand-eye coordination, balance, agility, speed, and awareness.
Kassian wisely focused his attention on hockey after being chosen 4th overall in the 2007 Priority Selection by the Peterborough Petes (two spots behind Taylor Hall).
Kassian played parts of three seasons for the Petes, cementing a reputation as one of the most feared fighters in the OHL along the way. In 2008-09, he scored 24 goals and racked up 136 PIM in 61 games. Even as a 17-year-old, older opposing players wanted no part of him. Petes assistant GM Aaron Garfat loved what he saw from the budding power forward.
“He was 6-foot-3 and 200 plus pounds. He put up decent numbers in his rookie season but right away was a physical presence on the ice. He’s not going to dangle guys, but he had a pro shot playing junior and a pro body and above average speed.”
The hype around Kassian increased exponentially with his performance at the 2009 CHL Top Prospects game. Kassian levelled John Tavares with a body check in the third period, knocking the consensus 2010 1st overall pick out of the game. Kassian hoped that the hit would help him get noticed.
“You play the game to be remembered. [The hit was] good for me, obviously, getting my name out there.”
Before the game, Tavares unintentionally foreshadowed what was to come.
“[Kassian’s] an intimidating guy. He’s a guy that’s definitely a force out there. He’s a guy that goes to the net well. If he sees the opportunity he can finish, he’s dangerous being physical and putting the puck in the net.”
The Buffalo Sabres loved what they saw from Kassian in 2008-09, using the 13th overall selection on him in the draft that June. Kassian was a highly-sought after prospect (the Canucks and Mike Gillis followed him quite closely, but they didn’t get to pick until 22nd overall), and Sabres fans universally praised the pick. In addition to his physical presence, he was developing into a well-rounded forward. NHL Central Scouting’s Chris Edwards was a huge fan of Kassian leading up the draft.
“Kassian is one of the toughest guys in the OHL and probably the entire draft. Last season as an under-ager there were overage guys in the league who would not try him on. He has not fought much this season (because) he has not had to. He is at his best when he is playing physical and tough along the boards. He protects the puck very well and fights through checks. He has very good play-making and puck-handing abilities.”
Kassian was named as the Petes captain to begin the 2009-10 season. He returned from his first NHL training camp full of confidence.
Kassian showing great hockey sense to create a goal off of a turnover:
Halfway through the season, he was traded to the powerhouse Windsor Spitfires (Kassian grew up in Kingsville, a small town just outside of Windsor).
However, he suited up for only five regular season games with his hometown Spitfires. In a January game against Barrie, he caught Colts forward Matt Kennedy with his head down and delivered a vicious check that left Kennedy concussed. Kassian was suspended 20 games. To some, Kassian was a scapegoat for a growing problem of headshots in junior hockey. To others, he should have been booted from the OHL permanently.
He played a key role in Windsor’s second consecutive Memorial Cup victory, suiting up for all 19 postseason games, recording seven goals and 16 points.
However, Kassian’s bad boy reputation continued to grow. Only a few weeks after the Memorial Cup victory, he was charged with assault after getting into a bar fight in Windsor. The charges were later dropped after he agreed to a fine and community service. The Buffalo Sabres suspended contract talks, hoping to teach their top prospect a lesson. It appeared to have worked.
Kassian took huge strides forward on the ice in 2011-12. He recorded 77 points in only 56 games, and 16 points in 16 postseason games. The consistency issues that had plagued him during his first three OHL seasons seemed to have disappeared. His reputation as a physical presence continued to build. Those who supported him believed he was just a really big and strong player hitting smaller players, but there were many around the league who viewed him as a player who repeatedly crossed the line.
He was named to Canada’s team at the 2011 World Junior Championships, and he skated on a line with Ryan Johansen and fellow Buffalo prospect Marcus Foligno. Kassian scored two goals and added 27 PIM in five games, but it is what happened against the Czech Republic that got his critics talking once again.
He was suspended two games for hitting Czech defenseman Petr Senkerik with his head down. The hit wasn’t as late as the one he delivered on Kennedy, but it only confirmed the beliefs of his detractors.
The suspensions and subsequent negative media attention overshadowed Kassian’s hockey playing abilities, which had progressed a lot in four seasons. Brock Otten, one of the best resources for OHL information, saw Kassian play a lot.
“Through his first three seasons in the league, [consistency issues] plagued him. He’d have one great period, then one lousy one. Whether you want to blame that on conditioning, motivation, an inability to combine his offensive and physical roles; each one is debatable. However, in his fourth and final season, he really hammered out those consistency issues and was able to strong not just periods together, but streaks of good games. He became a man amongst boys and was so difficult for the opposition to handle down low.”
In the fall of 2011, Kassian arrived in Buffalo as the answer to many of the Sabres problems. The team was chalk-full of small and skilled forwards, and fans were desperate for an injection of some toughness and physicality into the lineup. Kassian was arguably the most hyped prospect in Buffalo since Thomas Vanek. Die By the Blade’s Andy Boron on how Kassian was viewed in Buffalo heading in to the 2011-12 season:
“He was exactly what the franchise needed at the time – an infusion of size and skill in a wrecking ball package.”
Kassian didn’t earn a roster spot with the Sabres out of training camp, and was sent down to their AHL affiliate in Rochester.
His offensive skill was on display from game one and he quickly played his way on to the top line. However, his physical game was nonexistent on many nights for the Americans. Some speculate that the Sabres had asked Kassian to tone down his aggression after his tumultuous junior career. Rochester coach Ron Rolston was asked for his thoughts on Kassian after the trade to Vancouver.
“I think he still has to mature as a person and a professional, but he’s done a good job so far. There’s room for growth but I know he understands he has to make those adjustments. He’s very coachable. We really enjoyed having him here.”
Kassian’s offensive abilities were a surprise to many, unfortunately so was his lack of a physical presence.
When Buffalo fans heard that they were getting the next Lucic (more on that comparison later), they expected to see a plodding winger throwing his weight around and challenging all comers. Instead, they got a silky smooth offensive forward with great vision who just happened to be 6-3 and 220 pounds.
Kassian’s offensive ability on display in Rochester:
“He didn’t really show a consistent willingness to engage opponents as the physical force he can be – he often shied away from contact and was reluctant to fight.”
It could have been a case of a player finding his place in a new league. Kassian’s offensive game translated quickly to the AHL level. However, with the Sabres (and later, with the Canucks), he played great for a few games before his level of play dropped off. Kassian had five points in his first six games as a Sabre, but only two in his next 21.
One of Kassian’s finer moments in Buffalo:
The Sabres were not actively shopping Kassian as the 2012 trade deadline approached, but his lack of physical play may have changed their future plans for him. Another potential reason he became available was the play of Foligno, his former World Junior linemate. Foligno would go on to have a very impressive stretch run with the Sabres, supplying the physicality that the team hoped Kassian would.
Fighting isn’t always the best measure of toughness, but Kassian built his reputation in the OHL through a willingness to chuck knuckles with any willing combatants. He amassed 33 career fights in the OHL, according to Hockey Fights. However, in 30 games with Rochester, he dropped the gloves only once. In 44 games with Buffalo and Vancouver, he fought three times.
Kassian’s best showing as a pro:
Lindy Ruff had mixed thoughts on Kassian’s play with the Sabres.
“I liked what he was doing on the offensive side of it. Good puck protection and hanging on to pucks.”
“I’ve got a curiosity on where his physical game is going to go. You never know with young players. It’s a little bit of hit and miss. There is a lot of inconsistency usually, so in his case there’s a lot there.”
Not exactly the most glowing of reviews. Ruff’s thoughts were echoed by many Rochester and Buffalo fans and media, too. The polarizing continued – he was disappointing and impressive at the same time, depending on who you asked.
The Sabres didn’t give him away for nothing. Cody Hodgson has the talent to become a very good NHL player. However, Kassian’s fall from graces in Buffalo was swift.
Welcome to the Spotlight
The Kassian trade was a major shock to everyone in Vancouver. Earlier in the day the Canucks had added checking center Sammy Pahlsson, and many expected them to stand pat with their NHL-leading roster.
As the deadline passed, TSN’s Bob McKenzie dropped a bombshell – he had heard that Kassian was on the move to Vancouver. The speculation as to who was going the other way was furiously debated for the next few minutes. Kassian was Buffalo’s best prospect and the Sabres had a glaring need for a center. The Canucks didn’t have any good young centers available. Was it Jordan Schroeder going the other way? He probably didn’t have enough value to land Kassian. Who else could it be? Hodgson’s name didn’t even register – many were already dreaming up fantasies with Hodgson wearing the ‘C’ and overtaking Kesler for the second line center spot within a year.
Gord Miller moments before McKenzie announced that Hodgson was being sent to Buffalo:
“Well, this will be an earthquake in Vancouver.”
It was released in the coming months that Hodgson had asked for more ice time and a trade out of Vancouver, and the Canucks grew tired of dealing with his issues. They made him available for a few select players around the league (Kassian, Brandon Sutter from Carolina, Erik Gudbranson from Florida, John Carlson from Washington, Kyle Clifford from Los Angeles, and one more unnamed player), and Kassian ended up being the only one available.
He got off to an impressive start as a Canuck. He spent some time on a line with David Booth and Ryan Kesler, but was primarily placed in a depth role with the Canucks down the stretch and in the postseason against the Los Angeles Kings.
“If there are any red flags regarding Kassian, it’s that he hasn’t been the same intimidating, crash and bang player he was in junior hockey. A feared fighter [there], Kassian was questioned by Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff for not showing those attributes often enough at the professional level. It could be about confidence and getting familiar with a new level of hockey.”
Kassian’s first goal as a Canuck:
After the Canucks were steamrolled in five games by the Kings, Gillis shared his thoughts on Kassian at his season ending press conference.
“Zack is a commodity that is impossible to get if we develop him and make him into the player we think he can be.”
That player they think he can be is a goal scoring power forward capable of intimidating with his fists, hits, and offensive game. Vancouver native Milan Lucic is a player Kassian tries to model his game after, as the hulking left winger is arguably the toughest skill player in the league.
Lucic and Kassian had very different junior careers. Lucic was a decent player with the Vancouver Giants, but he lacked Kassian’s pedigree or his offensive talent. He was a surprise 2nd round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2007, while Kassian went exactly where many expected him to in 2009.
Petes assistant GM Aaron Garfat got an up close look at Lucic at the 2006 Memorial Cup in Moncton (Lucic’s Vancouver team defeated Peterborough twice). That was Lucic’s rookie season in the WHL. Garfat saw a lot more of Kassian, who played almost three years in Peterborough.
“I got to see Lucic play as a junior. Zack may have been more powerful physically. I think it’s a pretty fair comparison. There both big, there both physical. They also have offensive tools.”
Lucic’s development accelerated in 2008-09, his second full NHL season. He scored 17 goals and added 136 PIM. He went on to play a significant role for the 2011 Stanley Cup Champions, and is feared around the league for both his offensive talent and his physicality. The Canucks will be very happy if Kassian’s sophomore campaign plays out anything like Lucic’s.
Their rookie seasons are comparable when Kassian’s numbers are projected out over a full season.
Kassian was 20 years old when his rookie season began. Lucic was 19.
In over a minute of less ice time per game, Kassian compares pretty favorably to Lucic. In fact, his assist total is the only thing that is lacking (like Kassian, Lucic was always an underrated play maker during his junior career).
Taking a look at the advanced statistics:
|Season||Name||Corsi Rel QoC||Corsi Rel||Corsi On Ice||Offensive Zone Start %|
A quick explanation of the advanced statistics above – the Corsi Number tells us how a player is performing in terms of puck possession (Calculated by taking Shots on Target For + Missed Shots For + Blocked Shots Against minus Shots on Target Against + Missed Shots Against + Blocked Shots For).
Corsi Relative Quality of Competition: This is the weighted relative Corsi number of a player’s opponents. During their respective rookie seasons, Lucic faced tougher competition than Kassian.
Relative Corsi: The Corsi number of a player subtracted by the team Corsi number when the player is not on the ice. This lets us see how a player performs relative to his teammates. Lucic and Kassian were comparable here.
Corsi on Ice: Calculated by taking Shots on Target For + Missed Shots For + Blocked Shots Against minus Shots on Target Against + Missed Shots Against + Blocked Shots For. Lucic has the slight edge, but both players performed well for rookies in limited roles. Puck possession is a strong suit of both Lucic and Kassian, and I’d expect Kassian’s Corsi number to improve as he develops.
Offensive Zone Start %: The percentage of shifts that a player starts in the offensive zone. Players are often “sheltered” by being given a higher percentage of offensive zone starts. Some teams, like the Canucks, tend to play their offensive forwards in strictly offensive situations (Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, and Alex Burrows were the top three in terms of offensive zone start % for the 2011-12 season). Kassian’s number is cumulative of his time in Buffalo and Vancouver. Both players were sheltered a bit.
In Lucic’s rookie season, he spent lots of time with on a line Phil Kessel (Kessel scored 19 goals and had 37 points that season):
|Frequency||Strength||2007-08 Line Combination|
|14.98%||EV||12 KOBASEW,CHUCK – 17 LUCIC,MILAN – 13 METROPOLIT,GLEN|
|8.47%||EV||81 KESSEL,PHIL – 17 LUCIC,MILAN – 72 SCHAEFER,PETER|
|7.07%||EV||81 KESSEL,PHIL – 46 KREJCI,DAVID – 17 LUCIC,MILAN|
|7.01%||EV||11 AXELSSON,PER JOHAN – 17 LUCIC,MILAN – 13 METROPOLIT,GLEN|
In Buffalo, Kassian didn’t play with anyone of Kessel’s talent (unless you count Ville Leino or the ghost of Brad Boyes):
|Frequency||Strength||2011-12 Line Combination|
|13.57%||EV||72 ADAM,LUKE – 54 KASSIAN,ZACK – 23 LEINO,VILLE|
|9.24%||EV||22 BOYES,BRAD – 37 ELLIS,MATT – 54 KASSIAN,ZACK|
|7.79%||EV||72 ADAM,LUKE – 37 ELLIS,MATT – 54 KASSIAN,ZACK|
|5.62%||EV||72 ADAM,LUKE – 28 GAUSTAD,PAUL – 54 KASSIAN,ZACK|
In Vancouver, Kassian spent some time with some really good players, but the sample size of 17 games skews the numbers. He was put with Henrik Sedin and Mason Raymond, only Daniel Sedin suffered a concussion.
|Frequency||Strength||2011-12 Line Combination|
|18.54%||EV||9 KASSIAN,ZACK – 21 RAYMOND,MASON – 33 SEDIN,HENRIK|
|17.07%||EV||9 KASSIAN,ZACK – 40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM – 27 MALHOTRA,MANNY|
|14.27%||EV||9 KASSIAN,ZACK – 40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM – 32 WEISE,DALE|
For better or worse, Kassian and Hodgson will forever be linked. Hodgson was the prized prospect and golden boy of the Brampton Battalion who played an integral part on a few Gold Medal winning clubs for Canada. He had to overcome some adversity in the way of a serious back injury which almost derailed his NHL career.
After the trade, Hodgson was thrown under the bus by many in Vancouver, when the blame probably should have been pointed at his support group.
The adversity that Kassian experienced growing up will only benefit him in a hockey-crazed market like Vancouver.
“I think some guys get mad because they’re not playing here, they’re not playing there, and they want to get traded. I don’t think they realize that’s really nothing. Your family is what’s important. When something like [the death of a father] happens it’s always a tragedy. But I think it made me stronger to make it to the NHL and make them proud.”
After his stellar performance against Buffalo, Kassian was a guest on CBC’s After Hours. He was composed and humble. Easy to see how his older brother still forgets that he’s only 21.
Putting aside the Lucic and Hodgson comparisons, the Canucks have high hopes for Kassian. He was a player they scouted extensively back in 2009, and he was one of only a handful of young talents they were willing to move Hodgson for. The reasons why are obvious – Kassian has the skill and talent of a finesse forward in a 6-3, 220 pound body.
The important thing will be learning how to balance the physicality and the offense, something he struggled with in his first professional season.
Ron Rolston liked what he saw, though.
“Zack has a tremendous amount of potential. He started out with us and in the first 19 games he was leading our team in scoring as a rookie. I think [Vancouver] will be surprised at his ability to make plays with the puck for such a big guy. I feel – especially with the amount of talent that Vancouver has… he’s going to be a great piece for them.”
Brock Otten agrees that Kassian’s playmaking ability is a huge part of what will make him successful.
“He sees the ice well and uses his size to make plays. He’s also got the hands to score in close. That combination alone should make him a fixture on a first or second power play unit, and as a big, gritty winger to compliment finesse players.”
In the OHL, his combination of size and skill was unmatched. As a rookie getting his feet wet at the professional level, Kassian struggled to provide the physical impact that the Sabres were hoping for. The Canucks know that his on ice maturation will take time. There will be many more peaks and valleys as Kassian continues to develop as a hockey player.
“I’ve just turned 21. I still have a lot of things to learn. I’m going to be a sponge and try to learn things as soon as possible. But saying that, it takes time and years in the league to fully mature.”
Zack Kassian could be described as one of many things, depending on who you ask. Intimidating. A blue chip prospect. A head hunter. The next Milan Lucic. Polarizing. Overrated. To the Canucks he’s a talented young hockey player finding his way. Maybe he doesn’t become the next Lucic. Not many players are able to balance physical play with offense. Bertuzzi was only able to do it for a few seasons. Whatever you think of Kassian, there is no arguing that overcoming adversity at such a young age has given him the perspective and maturity necessary to thrive as a Vancouver Canuck.