At his news conference Wednesday, Vancouver general manager Jim Benning said “We have spent a lot of time working with Zack Kassian. Trust me when I say that.”
Benning is not the first hockey administrator to run out of patience with Kassian. He has played for four head coaches in his five NHL seasons; Lindy Ruff in Buffalo plus Alain Vigneault, John Tortorella and Willie Mitchell in Vancouver. He did not earn the trust of any of them. Unanimously they labeled Kassian’s defensive play as sloppy. His intensity suspect,his effort inconsistent and lackadaisical not only game-to-game but often shift-to-shift. And there are rumoured off-ice issues that prompted the Canucks at one point in 2013 to send Kassian to their farm team as a disciplinary move. For all of these reasons, over the last two seasons under Tortorella and Mitchell he averaged 12 minutes per game with no exposure on either of the Canucks special teams.
Kassian may have become a victim of great expectations,. He was listed by scouts as a high first round draft choice and after a big year that included a Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires, Buffalo took him 13th overall in 2006. He seemed the perfect hockey specimen. He was big, had excellent on-ice vision and great hands. His skating, passing and shooting were all top quality. So far his mental approach hasn’t shown to be on the same level as his physical ability.
And that brings us to what the normally well-prepared Marc Bergevin saw in Kassian that prompted him to risk trading the always-reliable Brandon Prust. First, it can be said there are some obvious up-sides to the deal. The Canadiens saved 750-thousand dollars off their salary cap. They traded a 33 year old veteran for a 24 year old. At 6’3” and 215 pounds Kassian makes the Canadiens forward group much bigger. And even as an underachiever, Kassian will score more goals than Prust. And add to that, as part of the deal the Canadiens also recovered a fifth round draft choice they gave to Buffalo when they acquired Brian Flynn from Buffalo in March.
It’s probable that Bergevin and his front office staff saw something they liked coming out of the ashes of what was a troubled Vancouver season in which Kassian played only 42 games. Despite reports that the defensive side of his game had shown some improvement, he spent the early part of the season in the coach’s doghouse, buried on either the third or fourth line or, on nine occasions, a healthy scratch. He suffered a broken finger which cost him the entire month of December and then in early March in a tussle with Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf he suffered a back injury that finished his season.
But here is where the Canadiens may have started to pay attention. In early February, first line right wing Alexandre Burrows suffered a groin injury. Coach Mitchell moved Kassian off the fourth line to play with the Sedin twins. In the ten games Burrows was out of the lineup Kassian scored seven of his season total of ten goals. He did it on only ten shots. . When Burrows came back, Kassian moved back down the Canucks depth chart and two weeks later he suffered his back injury. End of season. End of his Vancouver story.
It is apparent that Kassian’s only effective role is that of a power right winger on one of the Canadiens top two lines. He is a liability when asked to play a defensive role. So, as Michel Therrien takes over the Kassian Project, it’s top six forward or bust. It will be an interesting story as it unfolds next season.
Dale Weise, another former Canuck rightwinger, can attest to the fact that Vancouver can be a difficult place to play. The Canadiens are hoping a change of scene will do wonders for Kassian’s game as it did for Weise.