It was just over a full calendar year ago that Cole Cassels’ Oshawa Generals captured the OHL Championship. In that Game 6 win against Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters on May 15, 2015, Cassels had four assists and a plus-three rating.
Fast forward to just over two weeks after that, and Cassels’ Generals were Memorial Cup Champions after beating the Kelowna Rockets 2-1 in overtime in the finals on May 31st. As an overage player, Cassels was a huge part of his team’s run to major junior supremacy. The Canucks 85th overall pick in 2013 had catapulted to being one of the team’s top prospects.
But Cassels’ development stagnated in 2015-16, in his first year of pro hockey with the AHL’s Utica Comets. He followed up a junior season of 41 goals and 116 points in 79 total games with three goals, eight points and a minus-17 rating in 71 total games this year.
Ben Kuzma on Cole Cassels: “He got hurt & didn’t have a great off-season of training. He wasn’t able to train the way he hoped.” #Canucks
— Canucks Now (@CanucksNow) April 23, 2016
It became apparent that Cassels played through an abdominal injury suffered in the middle of the 2014-15 season. He played through it for the final three months of the regular season, for all of the OHL playoffs and during the Memorial Cup. His offseason last year started in June, and he spent almost the entirety of it rehabbing. His training never caught up to where he wanted it to be.
It’s tough for a young player to transition to pro hockey out of junior, and it’s tougher for a player who’s a step behind the entire season – physically and mentally. That could be said for the 21-year-old Cassels last year. What he and the Canucks can hope for, is that he’s able to put 2015-16 in the rear view, and turn last season’s adversity into success next year and beyond.
Chance for Cassels to Rebound in 2016-17
There seemed to be hope at various points last season that signaled Cassels might not be far off from being 100% healthy. But his injury was a “tricky one”, which Canucks general manager Jim Benning acknowledged as well. He never fully healed, and as a result never consistently contributed in the Comets lineup.
.@benkuzma: Travis Green felt Cole Cassels wasn’t physically ready for AHL, wasn’t there mentally this season.
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) April 23, 2016
These struggles are understandable. And for a player like Cassels who battled to stay in the lineup and will no doubt be determined to better himself as a player, they can be overcome.
Worth noting is that Cassels is evidently a slow-bloomer. He gained tons of notice last season, due to his proven abilities and accomplishments in the OHL, but he wasn’t always on that level. In his rookie season of major junior, Cassels totaled only three goals and 11 points in 64 games, numbers that look similar to his rookie AHL season. Over his four OHL seasons, he improved that 0.17 points-per-game average steadily – to 0.67, 1.20, and 1.50 in the respective three years that followed.
Maybe it’s a trend for some two-way forwards to endure these struggles in production. That type of player tends to want to take care of his defensive responsibilities first, and typically takes longer to gain confidence offensively. Combine this with being cast against stronger, faster competition, and with an injury that wouldn’t go away. It shouldn’t surprise many that Cassels struggled mightily in his first pro season.
So now with a long offseason underway and a chance to test the waters in the books, Cassels will be back. If there’s anything he’s shown by playing upwards of 100-plus games while fighting off an injury, it’s that the Dublin, Ohio native is lacking none in his tenacity.
Cassels will almost certainly be in a more favorable position to better contribute next season should he be at full health. Don’t be surprised if he plays a larger AHL role, and proves to be much more level to his playing field. The son of former NHL forward Andrew Cassels, Cole has been labelled by some as a player who could be a checking line forward with offensive potential for Vancouver someday.
Canucks fans got a taste last spring of what they have to be excited for in Cassels’ future. That excitement might not be far from resurfacing.