Is a lockout exactly what Zack Kassian needs?

In his first professional season, he seemed stuck between being too good for the AHL and not quite good enough for the NHL. While it might have been best for his development to play the full season in the AHL where he could play big minutes, he instead spent a large chunk of the season averaging around 11 minutes in ice time with the Canucks, with minimal success offensively.

Then, the CBA negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA stalled, and a lockout loomed. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Ryan Kesler, who had a fantastic season for the Manitoba Moose.

Wait, did you think I was talking about Zack Kassian? That’s an understandable mistake to make, considering I put his name in the title of the post and used vague personal pronouns in my opening paragraph. Sorry about that.

The parallels between Kesler and Kassian are intriguing. Both were highly-touted first round draft picks, taken 23rd and 13th in their respective drafts. Both play a power forward style, though Kesler is a better two-way player and Kassian is stronger offensively than Kesler was at his age. And both were stuck in between the AHL and NHL in their first professional season.

Now, if the owners lockout the players for any significant amount of time this season, Kassian may end up with the opportunity to do what Kesler did during the 2004-05 lockout: become a star in the AHL.

If not for the lockout, there’s no way Kesler would have played the full 2004-05 season with the Moose. He was just too good. Kesler was second on the Moose behind Lee “Scorin’” Goren with 30 goals and third on the Moose in points with 58. More importantly, he developed his game as a two-way force, finishing with a plus-22 and playing in all situations.

Kesler was named Manitoba’s MVP for the season. He was also named to the AHL All-Star Game, playing alongside Zach Parise, Christian Ehrhoff, Dustin Brown, and Tomas Plekanec for PlanetUSA.

At 20 years old, it’s likely that Kesler needed that full season in the AHL to help his development, rather than the minimal minutes he would have received for the Canucks that season. The following year, he averaged 14 minutes of ice time per game, scoring 23 points in his first full season with the Canucks.

Kassian played his first professional season when he was a year older than Kesler, who entered professional hockey at 19 after just one year in the NCAA. Kassian played out his over-age season in the OHL, starting his professional career at 20.  That one-year gap should be kept in consideration when looking at Kassian’s AHL production in his first professional season.

In 30 games for the Rochester Americans, Kassian scored 15 goals and 26 points, proving himself as one of the top forwards on their roster. He was simply too good for the Buffalo Sabres to keep him on their AHL affiliate, but his offensive production didn’t follow him into the NHL. He scored 7 points in 27 games for the Sabres prior to being traded to the Canucks. With the Canucks, he played minimal minutes and added just 3 more points in 17 games.

In the playoffs, Kassian ended up as a healthy scratch after barely seeing the ice through the first four games. It’s an experience that Kassian doesn’t want to repeat, as he told The Province’s Ben Kuzma:

“I still have a sour taste left in my mouth not playing in the last game,” he said Thursday following an informal skate at UBC that included teammates Manny Malhotra, Dale Weise and Jason Garrison. “I remember those things and I want to prove myself. You’re mad and upset, but at the same time you know if you’re not playing good someone else is going to come in. It’s in the back of my mind and makes me hungry.”

The question is, where will the opportunity be? With Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond both angling for more permanent roles in the top-six, along with Danish wunderkind Nicklas Jensen and potential (if unlikely) free agent Shane Doan, things could get a mite crowded at the top end of the depth chart. That leaves Kassian third line or, more likely, fourth line minutes.

Of course, Kassian could impress and out-battle one of the incumbents for a job on the second line, but he’ll be hard-pressed to do so. It seems likely that a return to the AHL might be the best thing for his development, but he wouldn’t stay there long if he played at the same level he did in Rochester.

That’s why a lockout might be the best thing for Kassian’s development. With no NHL to be called up to, Kassian could settle into a top-line role with the Chicago Wolves, where he could play big minutes alongside players with a more offensive bent. Instead of playing 12 minutes with Maxim Lapierre or Manny Malhotra, he could play 20 minutes with Jordan Schroeder and Anton Rodin.

If Kassian could use the lockout the same way Kesler did, using it to develop his game and emerge as a leader in the AHL, he’ll be in a prime position to develop into an NHL star. Kassian, to his credit, wants to play full-time in the NHL and thinks he’s ready.

“It would be a great opportunity for me to go down there and try to earn ice time and learn to play in every situation and grow as a player,” Kassian said. “But I want to play in the NHL, especially in Vancouver. I want to show the fans what I can do and there were glimpses of it last year, but this year I’m ready to do it full time.”

A lockout that removes the possibility might be just what he needs.

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  1. BakerGeorgeT
    September 5, 2012

    I think the reference to Lee “Scoren” Goren was more apt than you might have believed. The risk with Kassian is that he could end up like Goren, a big boy who can score at the ‘A’ level, but when tested in the big leagues, his game curls worse than cheese in a drought.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      September 5, 2012

      It’s an interesting theory, but Lee Goren didn’t really hit his scoring stride in the AHL until he was 25. Kassian came just short of a point-per-game in the AHL in his first professional season at 20. I wouldn’t put Kassian in the same category as Goren until a few more years have passed.

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  2. kagee
    September 5, 2012

    Kassian developing in the AHL for half a season will be great for his confidence and development!

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  3. Nee
    September 5, 2012

    I like his attitude. He’s saying all the right things.

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