by Brian Beitz
Today should be a sad day. Today, we said goodbye to an exciting player and prospect. Today we watched our “friend” (I put the word “friend” in quotes because the definition of that word is not “guy whom we watch at home in our underwear and secretly wish we knew”) leave the gentle womb of Smug Nation and enter the dangerous world of sabres and buffaloes (everyone knows if there’s one animal you don’t give a sword to it’s a buffalo). And yet today, as Canucks fans and players alike bid Cody “Franchise” Hodgson a fond farewell, wishing him all the best as he moves on to a team that will provide him with the playing minutes he so craves and deserves, we find a silver lining. That is because today, Smug Nation welcomes a new prospect to the Blue ‘n’ Green in Zack “Whistles” Kassian.
Kassian (supposedly pronounced “Cash-in”) was acquired in the trade that sent Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer to the Buffalo Sabres, which is, by now, news to no one. But as risky as this move was, it was in no way a lopsided trade, and Zack Kassian is every bit the highly touted prospect that Hodgson is, if slightly less proven at the NHL level. More importantly, he’s a big (read: huge), physical power forward with soft hands and a penchant for scoring, a player who adds some of the grit that the Canucks were accused of missing in last year’s playoffs. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. I’m as excited as Mark Messier was to meet Gary Coleman. (Question: who’s more enthused about this meeting of the minds? Answer: me.)
Kassian, 21, is originally from Kingsville, Ontario, and is a product of the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, the system that produced such NHL players as Jamie Langenbrunner, Steve Yzerman, and Wayne Gretzky. His first year in the OHL, at a tender 16 years of age, he potted 9 goals and 12 assists in 58 games. In his second year, he brought that to a more-than-respectable 24 goals and 39 assists in 61 games, throwing in 136 penalty minutes just for funsies. He was selected 13th overall by the Sabres in the 2009 NHL entry draft and sent to play the ’09/’10 season in the OHL. Partway through the season, perhaps due to his penchant for missing curfew, the winger was traded to the Windsor Spitfires.
The ’09/’10 season was the year that began to show the dichotomy of Zack Kassian. On one side, you have the powerful force that shows great hands and a knack for finding the net; on the other, you have the kid who misses curfew, is known to be a partier, and has faced a few suspensions, most notably for this hit on Matt Kennedy in January 2010 that earns this reaction. That headshot got him a 20-game suspension. To Kassian’s credit, he returned to be a large part of the Spitfire’s J. Ross Robertson Cup and Memorial Cup wins that season. Kassian also spent the ’10/’11 season playing for Windsor, racking up 77 points in 56 games, and has spent the ’11/’12 season split between the Sabres and the Rochester Americans, their AHL affilliate.
So far in the NHL, Kassian has yet to show what he has at other levels, putting up 4 goals and 3 assists in 27 games, adding 20 penalty minutes. Don’t panic though, my little Smuglies, as Cody Hodgson had only put up 5 points in his first 27 NHL games, including last year’s playoffs. Unlike Hodgson, Kassian can be a bit more versatile on a Canucks lineup that is overloaded with high-quality centers. He is able to provide grit on the 4th line or, hopefully, some scoring on the 2nd. We are, afterall, talking about a player who can do this, this, and this.
But the question bears asking: which Kassian will the Canucks be getting? One would hope that after his multiple suspensions, the 6’4″, 230lb skater will stay on the right side of the line. Will the prospect often compared to Todd Bertuzzi give us the elite, goal-scoring power forward or the penalty- and suspension-earning winger? In other words, will we see Todd Bertuzzi or… the other Todd Bertuzzi? One also has to be worried about Kassian’s love of the nightlife and arrest record, something we at Smug Nation refer to as a certain je ne Shane quoi. I know which one the Roxy is hoping to get, but I’m also well aware of Alain Vigneault’s feelings about players who lose focus on hockey. But then, the Canucks have never before acquired a highly touted first-round draft pick power forward from the Sabres’ system only to have them end up as a bust. Never ever.
Make no mistake: this move was a serious gamble by Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who felt that Hodgson did not provide the team with what they needed to win now. In Kassian, the organization gets what it most sorely lacks: a large, gritty, young, natural right winger. Undoubtedly, he’s not the leader and character guy that Hodgson is, but, unlike what Jimmy Howard thinks, the Canucks have character guys. They have leaders. What they needed was a little more size and a little more asshole, and in Kassian I think they’ve got just that. I must admit, it was nice to see number 9 in green and blue tonight mixing it up after the whistles without having his cheeks pinched and his hair tousled.
So welcome to the Canucks, Zack Kassian, and welcome home.
Editor’s note: And for the the natural pairing to this smooth, full-bodied welcome, read So Long, Cody Hodgson.