If it was an encouraging assessment following what would have been the NHL regular-season opener for the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday in Calgary, it may have carried more clout.
However, even at the AHL level, any positive developments regarding the ongoing maturation and transformation of Zack Kassian from fourth-line plugger to productive power forward are welcome.
As the Chicago Wolves prepare to open their AHL regular season Saturday, the Canucks have not only stocked their affiliate’s roster in lieu of the lockout that has no end in sight, they have provided a platform for Kassian, Jordan Schroeder and Chris Tanev to log major minutes and build their levels of confidence to contribute at the next level.
And if the good early returns on Kassian continue, then the constant comparisons to Cody Hodgson in the trade-deadline swap last February will subside. Especially if the slimmer, quicker and more responsive Kassian gives the Canucks reason to believe that there’s a much bigger upside for the 21-year-old right winger who’ll line up with Schroeder and Bill Sweatt in the season-opener against the Rockford Ice Hogs. Last season in 30 games with the Rochester Americans, Kassian had 15 goals and 26 AHL points, so the potential is there.
“Zack is moving really well and has been a force playing a power-forward role,” Wolves coach Scott Arniel said Thursday. “The surprise to me is that I’ve really noticed his playmaking ability, and that’s something I wasn’t expecting. But getting thrown into the fire in Vancouver, he had a lot of pressure in being traded for a popular player who was playing well for the Canucks.
“It can be tough on a kid and now it’s kind of a fresh start. He gets to get his feet under him and show the organization what he can do. We’re pleased with what we’ve seen.”
That’s fine. But because Kassian managed just three points in 17 games while Hodgson had but eight points in 20 games following the trade, the microscope is always going to zoom in on the pair — especially after Hodgson managed 16 goals and 33 points in 63 games before the transaction.
“That stuff doesn’t bother me,” said Kassian, who has two seasons left on is entry-level deal.
“If that bothers you, you’re not going to go too far. We’re different players and I wish him all the best. You can’t really listen to what people are saying outside the rink. My goal is to make my teammates and my coaches happy. I’m prepared to do whatever it takes.”
That’s what the Canucks want to hear because the knock on Kassian before he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres is that he would show up one game and then you’d be hard-pressed to find him in the next few. In his first outing with the Canucks, the Windsor, Ont., native was on the fourth line, but took first and second-line shifts, finishing with five hits in a dozen minutes. Kassian then moved from the fourth to the second line in the third period just two games later, and responded with a goal and an assist and finished with seven hits in a win over Hodgson and the Sabres. However, he also went pointless in four postseason game and his ice time shrunk from six to less than four minutes. And he delivered only five hits.
“We need him to be a power forward and not play just one or two shifts,” added Arniel. “He’s giving himself a good chance to get off to a good start. He’s like most young guys. He’s eager to learn and recognizes the opportunity that’s been put in front of him. Does he want to be a fourth-line right winger, or does he want to play in the top six of the Canucks?
“He has the skill set and size and ability. We’re going to work with him, but he’s got to have that mindset to play up there and it could be rewarding for him. Playing an elite role with a very good Canucks team should be motivation for him. It’s whether he goes out and grabs it.”