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Ready to rise

Friday, 18.10.2013 / 3:10 PM / Features
By Jeff Angus
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Ready to rise
There is no questioning Zack Kassian\u2019s potential as a hockey player.
There is no questioning Zack Kassian’s potential as a hockey player.

At 6-foot-3 and 215-pounds, the rugged winger combines skill, vision, and toughness better than most hockey players. He has also had to overcome more adversity than your typical 22-year-old. Kassian was an offensive and physical force in the OHL and was deserving of his 13th overall draft selection back in 2009.

New Canucks bench boss John Tortorella reached out to Kassian earlier this summer to open the lines of communication. This may seem like an insignificant bit of information, but new head coaches typically only reach out to the key/core players in the early parts of the summer. Tortorella’s gesture says a lot about how Kassian is viewed by the organization. The trade that brought him to Vancouver was controversial, as it saw the Canucks trade away a budding fan favourite in Cody Hodgson.

Kassian’s tenure with Vancouver has been full of the typical ups and downs experienced by young hockey players (including the recent suspension he was handed down as a result of the high-sticking incident with Edmonton center Sam Gagner). “What if? are probably the two best words to summarize why the Canucks went out and acquired Kassian. What if he becomes one of the next dominant power forwards? What if he is able to chip in with 20-25 goals and bring a consistent physical edge to the ice? Power forwards always have been one of the most sought-after commodities in hockey. It is nearly impossible to land them in their prime years. You either have to draft them (Milan Lucic), trade for them before they break out (Cam Neely, Todd Bertuzzi), or trade for them after they have peaked (Jarome Iginla, Mark Messier).

For the Vancouver Canucks to be successful this season (and beyond), they need Kassian to take the next step in his development as a hockey player. Not only does he bring a much-needed dimension of intimidation to the roster, but he could potentially be a significant contributor in 2013-14 while on the final year of his rookie contract. The Canucks are a team that spends every available cap dollar, and having rookies and younger players playing significant minutes allows for greater financial flexibility come deadline day.

Let’s get back to Kassian as a player for a minute. Every summer, we hear about how certain players report to training camp in “the best shape of their lives.” Players work harder than ever in the summer now, and as fans we are often granted access to their training thanks to social media and the focus now placed on the trainers themselves (the Gary Roberts effect, if you will).

During his OHL days, Kassian dominated the competition with his skill and size, but the consistency and work ethic were sometimes questioned. When the Buffalo Sabres traded him to Vancouver last year, Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff wondered about Kassian’s future as an NHLer.

Buffalo’s current head coach, Ron Rolston, coached Kassian with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester. He also shared his thoughts after the trade:

“I think [Zack] 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.”

In parts of two seasons with the Canucks, we have seen glimpses of Kassian’s potential. He scored five goals in the first seven games of the 2013 season. He had a dominant game against his former club near the end of the 2011-12 regular season. But he was also a healthy scratch in the playoffs that year, and he scored only two goals in the final 32 games of 2013.

Clichés aside, Kassian did indeed report to camp “in the best shape of his life.” He spent the summer training back home in Ontario with Dave Orton, a strength coach who also trains Luke Willson of the Seattle Seahawks and Matt Martin of the New York Islanders.

Orton has worked with Kassian for consecutive summers now, and knows him as a person from growing up in and around the Windsor area. He has seen firsthand the maturity in Kassian – both as a player and a professional.

Kassian reported to Orton this summer with less body fat and in better shape than he left at the end of the 2012 offseason. A big reason for that has been a focus on making better nutritional choices. The changes with Kassian are visibly obvious – he is skating better at camp this year, and the weight loss and body composition changes are easy to see. Something has clicked with Zack. He is starting to figure out that being a professional is a 24/7, 365 job. What you do off the ice impacts how you perform on the ice. And this all bodes well for Vancouver.

Physical players dropping weight doesn’t always end up working out (just ask Steve Bernier), but for Kassian, he still checks in at well over 200 pounds. His improved conditioning and fitness will be crucial if he wants to play upwards of 16 or 17 minutes a night over the course of the entire season.

Here are a few more reasons why fans (and Tortorella) should be excited about Kassian this season:

Lineup balance

Having Kassian on the top line (where he has skated for much of camp) allows the Canucks to reunite Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler on line two, giving the Canucks more scoring depth and a dependable two-way line they can lean on.

Creativity

Kassian’s playmaking and creativity are often forgotten about when his hockey playing abilities are discussed. This clip below is a great example of the kind of “outside the box” thinking he can bring to the ice:

Room to grow

At the end of the day, Kassian has played in only 83 career NHL regular season games – essentially only one season of experience. If his dedication to fitness and training over the past two summers is any indication, his on-ice impact will be felt in a big way in 2013-14.

The best is yet to come.