Intense off-season has raised Zack Kassian’s game

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When the shock of their first-round 2012 playoff ouster wore off and the Vancouver Canucks began to take stock of their roster, there were far more questions than answers when it came to Zack Kassian. Was he a power forward or a power failure?

The big winger was acquired at last February’s National Hockey League trade deadline and floundered in the 17 games he played before the end of the regular season. It reached the point that as his team was being eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings last spring, Kassian could only watch from the press box—a healthy scratch on the final night of the season.

But after a summer of intense training—on and off the ice—and spending the first three months of this season in the American Hockey League, a different and vastly improved Kassian has returned to the Canucks lineup.

Lighter but stronger and faster, and more in control, the 6-3, 214 pounder is looking like the player the Canucks believed they were getting when they acquired him from Buffalo for Cody Hodgson. And the most important part of his development is that his hard work is being rewarded.

Kassian has used his size effectively, powering his way to the net to score four times in the first six games of the season. It’s clear that for the first time in Canucks colours, the 22-year-old is playing with the confidence needed to succeed at this level. As with all young players in the NHL, Kassian needed to see tangible evidence of his improved play.

Without seeing those results on the scoresheet, he would likely have wondered if he was, in fact, doing the right things at all. But now he knows he’s capable of making plays and scoring goals, and a confident Kassian could be a big part of any Canucks success this season—and a handful for opponents.

“Yeah, you definitely feel more comfortable on the ice and definitely make better plays when things are going your way,” he tells the Straight after a recent Canucks practice at Rogers Arena. “When you’re playing with confidence, you do things that you wouldn’t if you didn’t have that confidence. But I just think it’s a case of every night going back to the basics and building off that and having strong games.”

A big part of Kassian’s early season success has been the role he’s been given. Promoted to the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Kassian has been asked to use his size to get in on the forecheck, retrieve pucks for the twins, then get to the front of the net to cause havoc for defenders.

Last season, Kassian was a young player whose world was turned upside down with the trade. He joined a first-place team with Stanley Cup aspirations, and he never really seemed to find a home. The Canucks used him as a depth forward and never clearly defined their expectations for him. And, as such, he struggled to fit in.

“Last year, I’m not making any excuses about coming into a new city and new system,” Kassian says of his trying transition. “In the off-season, I worked really hard, and after getting a taste of this league, you know what you have to do to improve and be a good player. I think I’m at my best when I’m winning battles and protecting the puck and taking the puck to the net and fighting off defencemen. Those are my strengths, and when I’m doing that, it helps the team and it helps myself. I don’t think anyone sits there and thinks about what they have in the way of potential. I just have to keep going and keep showing that I can play at this level.”

The early reviews are overwhelmingly positive and have given the Canucks and their fans reason to believe Kassian can evolve into a dominant physical presence the likes of which has not been seen in these parts since Todd Bertuzzi, almost a decade ago. Taylor Pyatt and Steve Bernier were supposed to play that role, but neither had much snarl in their games. Kassian does and can’t be afraid to let others know it.

What made Bertuzzi so effective for a few seasons at the height of his career was an ability to deliver each and every night. Kassian has yet to show that. He has to continue to develop that side of the game, and he’ll likely need the occasional kick in the rear from the coaching staff.

“Finding that consistency is a challenge for any player, a veteran or a younger player,” Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault says. “Zack has shown some real good things since we’ve put him with Daniel and Henrik. It has to continue, and I think it can continue. He has to skate, hit, and bring pucks to the net. If he does those things and does it with passion and energy and emotion, he’ll be fine.”

It’s early, and the sample size is admittedly small, but so far Kassian appears to be a completely different beast than the guy who couldn’t find a spot in the Vancouver Canucks lineup during their short stay in the playoffs. Instead, he looks every bit the kind of player the Canucks so desperately lacked when they got unceremoniously dumped by the Kings.

This is a team that has needed size, grit, and an element of intimidation for too long. It looks finally as though that player has arrived.

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Ibitz
Glad the Canucks got him.
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