Over the last three years, Jim Benning has been applauded for building up the Vancouver Canucks‘ once woeful prospect pool.
While that’s good news for the Canucks and their fans, it’s not necessarily good news for Cole Cassels.
Once considered a top-five prospect for the Canucks, the 22-year-old has seen his positioning on the Canucks’ depth chart evaporate. It’s been a tough couple of seasons for Cassels ever since he led the Oshawa Generals to the Memorial Cup. He attracted attention from all over the hockey world after he was tasked with shutting down Connor McDavid in the OHL Championship. Cassels and the Oshawa Generals eliminated McDavid and the Erie Otters in five games en route to the Memorial Cup.
Well, other than by Cole Cassels
— smoothmedia (@smoothmedia) May 10, 2017
His final OHL season took a toll on his body, as he played with an abdominal injury from December 2014 onwards. It clearly affected the rookie’s play during his first season with the Utica Comets. Cassels finished the 2015-16 season with two goals and five assists in 67 games. He had the second-worst points-per-game mark among all Comets to play more than seven games.
Since I don’t get the chance to watch all of Utica’s games, I chatted with Ben Birnell of the Utica Observer-Dispatch to gain some more insight on Cassels’ sophomore year.
There was modest improvement in Cassels’ second season, but not enough to put him back on the radar as one of the Canucks’ best prospects.
With six goals and five assists in 66 games, there wasn’t much offensive improvement from Cassels. Playing in a bottom-six role, he never seized a larger role offensively despite multiple injuries that decimated the Comets’ lineup.
There were some improvements on the defensive side of the puck, according to Birnell.
“Last year, he started to show that defensive side. He was working on the penalty kill and began to take key faceoffs during games. He was starting to do that kind of stuff that doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet.”
His average time-on-ice, according to Prospect Stats, was 13:05 per game, indicating that Cassels played in a bottom-six role without being completely marginalized. His time on the penalty kill likely inflated his ice time, and he tied for the team lead with two shorthanded points.
With the injuries and the nature of Cassels’ position on the depth chart, he never found consistent linemates. It’s a telling stat that Cassels’ four most common linemates were defensive partners, according to Prospect Stats. His most consistent linemate was Comets MVP Darren Archibald.
“He had a few different linemates throughout the season,” said Birnell. “He was in the mix to move up the lineup, but things didn’t seem to be going his way offensively.”
“I wonder how he would do with consistent linemates.”
Can Cassels Rediscover Potential?
The young forward’s trajectory hasn’t been promising lately, but there’s still a chance for Cassels to climb the depth chart.
“It will be interesting to see how he performs with a good summer. He’s still young too,” said Birnell.
So many young forwards have entered the Canucks organization since Cassels joined the Comets that it’s easy to forget he’s still only 22 years old. Regardless, this is a massive year for Cassels, with this being the last year of his entry-level contract.
— DobberProspects #NHL (@DobberProspects) June 7, 2017
The Canucks must see some sizable progression in order for Benning to re-sign the young forward. Cassels was drafted during Mike Gillis’ last draft, so it’s unclear what Benning’s feelings towards Cassels are.
He was once projected as the Canucks’ third-line centre of the future. Someone who would shut down McDavid for years to come. Now, players such as Adam Gaudette have surpassed him on the depth chart.
There is a wild card in predicting Cassels’ season outlook. A new coaching staff is coming to Utica, led by Trent Cull. As someone who is known to excel with developing defencemen, Cull could take a liking to Cassels’ strong defensive game.
Cassels also has a connection to one of the new assistant coaches in Utica. Gary Agnew was the head coach of the Oshawa Generals during Cassels rookie season as a 16-year-old. Although Boone Jenner and Scott Laughton were the top-two centremen in Oshawa that season, perhaps Agnew already had an idea of Cassels’ potential.
Regardless of the coaches, there could be a wealth of talent in Utica this season. There’s a chance that Nikolay Goldobin, Jake Virtanen, Anton Rodin and Reid Boucher will be down in Utica. At centre, all eyes will be on Jonathan Dahlen if he doesn’t return to Sweden or make the Canucks. The Comets could also have Michael Chaput, Jayson Megna and Griffin Molino at centre.
“It’s tough for him considering the influx of forwards they’ve brought in,” said Birnell. “They’ve got a lot of forwards in the system now.”
There is an uphill battle for Cassels to climb, but a clean bill of health and a larger opportunity could allow him to recapture his glory as a bonafide NHL prospect.
“I could see him having a bigger offensive role while still contributing on the defensive side of the puck,” said Birnell. “Hopefully, if he’s completely healthy, he can perform.”