Zack Kassian no longer grounded; should Canucks have sent him down?

Lost in the excitement of the Canucks’ compelling, dizzying lack of action on trade deadline day was the one roster move they did make, recalling Zack Kassian from their AHL affiliate in Chicago and sending down Bill “The Jet” Sweatt in his place.

The move brought to a close what appears to have been some sort of punishment for off-ice shenanigans, something that Kassian corroborated upon his return, saying that management had stressed “being a professional away from the rink.”

Granted, this somewhat contradicted Alain Vigneault’s earlier explanation that Kassian “went to Chicago basically to play hockey,” but only somewhat. After all, Kassian did go to Chicago to play hockey. That’s what he did while he was there. He even scored a goal. Of course, the reason he had to go to Chicago to play hockey is because whatever he was up to in Vancouver was enough for him to be grounded from playing hockey here.

Here’s hoping this is the last we hear of Kassian’s proclivities (unless the Canucks hire Andrew W.K. as a party counsellor, of sorts, to teach Kassian how to party hard but smart. That would be awesome.)

Now, while I don’t feel like talking about what Kassian is rumoured to be into (hint: it wasn’t infringing on Matt Kassian’s “Kassassin” trademark), I do want to use this small ado as a jumping off point for a discussion about the unending criticism over Vigneault’s treatment of young players. It seems clear that, while conditioning may have been a secondary reason, the primary point of the demotion was to remind Kassian that he can’t take his spot in the lineup for granted.

Thing is, that’s the point of most of AV’s roster decisions involving young players.

Even before Kassian found himself back in Wolves’ white and burgundy, Canuck fans have been up in arms about Vigneault’s reluctance to put him back with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, where he had so much success earlier in the year.

It’s another example of the outrage that accompanies the deployment of almost any Vancouver prospect on a line that isn’t commensurate to his scouting report. Apart from the grinders who fit the role, I think we’re all aware that the fourth line isn’t where many of these guys should be. But that’s on them as much as it’s on Vigneault. It’s their responsibility to earn better deployment with consistent two-way play.

You can play on the fourth line and still stand out. When you do, you’ll get promoted. Just look at a guy like Dale Weise, who upsets almost everybody whenever he earns a brief stint on another line.

These guys have to earn their minutes, just like anybody else. To give them the best assignments, ignoring their defensive shortcomings, their occasionally spotty decision-making, or their struggles with consistency is to spoil them. Do that and you’re doing a terrible job developing your prospects.

Ben Kuzma didn’t agree with Kassian’s demotion to Chicago. From the Province:

What can Zack Kassian learn in Chicago on his current “seasoning” stint in the AHL? Probably nothing. If the hulking winger has fallen out of favour with the Canucks for his lack of professionalism on and off the ice, deal with it and move on and get him out of there. The Canucks need Kassian in the postseason. They need  him back on the top line with the Sedins where he scored five goals in his first seven games this season.

But if you’re trying to remind the guy that he has to earn his spot in the lineup, giving him its absolute best spot seems counterintuitive.

A lot of this criticism began last year with Cody Hodgson, who people claimed was being mistreated by Vigneault. But if the goal was to make sure Hodgson became the same sort of reliable, all-situation, two-way player he was in junior rather than just an offensive specialist, it was understandable.

Especially since Hodgson’s struggles haven’t changed. He’s gotten a lot of offensive minutes in Buffalo, but he’s a defensive liability. Sunday night versus the Bruins, Hodgson found himself on the Sabres’ fourth line when coach Ron Rolston swapped him with Jochen Hecht. From a Buffalo News article titled “Hodgson must improve his defensive play”:

That meant Hodgson was centering John Scott and Patrick Kaleta against the Boston Bruins, two players with a combined zero points on the season.

“He’s got to be better on the defensive side of things right now, period,” Rolston said of why he dropped Hodgson, who remains second on the team with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) after Sunday’s 2-0 loss at First Niagara Center.

Rolston’s other option was leaving Hodgson where he was and pretending that his defensive play wasn’t hurting the club. But that’s bad coaching and it’s bad prospect development. It also doesn’t lead to winning.

Many of the same fans that criticize Vigneault’s treatment of prospects also like to talk about the Canucks’ “window.” With the Sedins getting older, they say, the Canucks need to win now. Complaining, then, about Vigneault not giving inexperienced prospects plum positions in the lineup and demoting them when they play poorly is a contradiction. Laurence Gilman touched on this as well when he said the Canucks couldn’t afford to have Kassian getting back up to game speed in the NHL when they need to win games now.

We’ve talked, in the past, about how many players have graduated to larger roles under Vigneault. Guys like Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Jannik Hansen, and even Chris Higgins started on the fourth line in AV’s system. Now they’re staples of the Canucks’ forward corps because they’ve earned it.

Kassian, Schroeder and any other prospect that comes up the pipe in Vancouver will have to earn it too.

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22 comments

  1. ktownfan
    April 4, 2013

    Good points, but I don’t think you can really make the Buffalo/Silent G comparison as they are not in the hunt this year.

    Canucks are fighting a pretty darn good Wild team for that 3rd seed and are not a lock on a playoff spot with things so tight. Kassian produced with the twins, as well as anyone not Burrows has this years and added a physical dimension to that line that Burrows or Jensen (talk about rewarding rookies) does not.

    Hard not to think about the Canucks and the twins of late lack of production and wonder why not put the guy that worked with the Twins again.

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  2. Lenny
    April 4, 2013

    I wonder if Darcy Regier is spending half his time dealing with Cody’s issues.

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  3. Chris the Curmudgeon
    April 4, 2013

    Defensive shortcomings notwithstanding, did you see Hodgson’s 3-1 goal against Pittsburgh the other night? Very nice.

    It’d be nice if the “trading a headache out of town” storylines (with Hodgson) can end now, being that Kassian’s attitude problems were well documented even in junior and he’s obviously easily as much of a handful as Cody was. Save, of course, for the fact that Cody clearly fit in just fine with the Canucks veterans.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      April 4, 2013

      Different types of problems. Hodgson was unhappy with his role and had his dad and agent endlessly badger Canucks management about it. Kassian goes out and parties sometimes. Guess which one is actually the bigger headache to management.

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      • Chris the Curmudgeon
        April 4, 2013

        Well then riddle me this: which issue ultimately has a bigger impact on on-ice performance?

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        • Darren
          April 5, 2013

          I think the “trading the headache out of town” storyline was only part of the motivation for trading Hodgson. Ultimately, you trade what you don’t need for what you do need. We already have Kesler and Henrik, we do not need another top 2 centre, especially one that is only a so-so skater and can’t play defence. Hodgson is a good centre for a bad team, but not a good centre for a contender. What we DID need was a potential top 6 winger who can lay out some hits on Hawks and Bruins and look after himself, and Kassian shows every sign of being that, soon.

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      • J21 (@Jyrki21)
        April 5, 2013

        Darren — not to rehash the same old storylines, but while all that may be true, none of it explains the need to do it at the deadline, when it was certain Kassian would have next to no impact in the playoffs.

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        • Harrison Mooney
          April 5, 2013

          The timing of the trade was mostly due to the fact that Kassian was available THEN. He may not have been come the offseason.

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        • Darren
          April 5, 2013

          @J21- your point is taken, but without Daniel, I don’t think that Cody would have gotten us much further against the Kings than Kassian did. We might have gone out in 6 games instead of five, but it wasn’t our year, it was theirs (as shown by how they demolished everything that stood in their path). So the move could have been questioned at the time, but at the end of the day I don’t think it made much difference.

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  4. RHvan
    April 4, 2013

    I agree that he needs to learn his lessons but I also think he adds what this team needs. Come playoff time we’re going to need a big talented winger with the Sedins. Get him ready for that. I’m glad they brought him back up from Chicago in a hurry. Hopefully AV finds this sufficient in teaching him whatever lesson he was trying to teach him. Now let’s get this team ready for a playoff run. No time for showing everyone who’s the boss anymore.

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  5. Kaleb
    April 4, 2013

    Oh man now if AV puts Kassian, Schroeder and Jensen together would be awesome! I foresee that line being the WCE 2.0

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    • Kenji
      April 5, 2013

      I agree. As the Sedins age out, I think that we will be seeing the next first line very soon, in zygote form, perhaps as soon as this playoff season

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  6. Carlo
    April 4, 2013

    “We’ve talked, in the past, about how many players have graduated to larger roles under Vigneault. Guys like Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Jannik Hansen, and even Chris Higgins started on the fourth line in AV’s system. Now they’re staples of the Canucks’ forward corps because they’ve earned it.

    Kassian, Schroeder and any other prospect that comes up the pipe in Vancouver will have to earn it too.”

    Wholly agree. :)

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  7. akiddd
    April 4, 2013

    there is more than one way to develop a young player. punishment for defensive mistakes is not the only way. sure it’s the macho old school way and it can be effective but it’s not ALWAYS effective. especially with something so ‘artistic’ as goal-scoring. if you send a young prospective goal-scorer down to the 4th line you run the risk of destroying his confidence and undermining the joi de vivre which gets that player into the mindset where he can be fluid and instinctive enough to make the split-second decisions necessary to score goals. goal scoring is an art.

    i understand that AV runs a tight ship but he’s also doesn’t seem to apply his ‘rules’ evenly. if guys get punished for defensive gaffes why isn’t edler spending more time in the press box or having his minutes cut way down?

    or how about the reverse. how did booth ever get all those minutes out of AV when he quashed the offense on every line he played on? booth made one poor offensive decision after the next throughout his tenure with the canucks, countless canuck possessions ended on his stick yet there he was again, out for the next shift.

    i’m with AV having guys earn their minutes but there’s more to coaching young players than teaching defense. there’s cultivating creativity too. now a coach can’t do much there but at least he can stay out of the way sometimes.

    remember naslund on the 4th line? it was entirely possible that naslund could have given up on the nhl and gone back to europe.i’m sure he was thinking about it. all that talent and a great career with the canucks could have been squandered because of archaic blue-collar ethics about earning your ice-time. talent may seem like an elitist concept because you either got it or you don’t. and those guys that didn’t have it, like bam-bam, might be a little sour about the unfairness of their lot. talent exists. you can’t ignore it. it’s not all about hard work.

    i think the best case study was in i think late january 2011. the canucks were running away with the division and had lots of breathing space to experiment. coho finally worked his way out of his back issues and got called up. everyone was eager to see what kinda goods he might bring. AV’s response was to play him 5 mins a game on the 4th line for two games. then he got sent down again. AV basically took a guy who had been at the bottom of the abyss and stepped on his fingers as he was trying to crawl out of it. not the way to cultivate talent, i’d say.

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    • J21 (@Jyrki21)
      April 5, 2013

      I fully agree with the above post. There is a very wide happy medium between spoon-feeding prime ice-time to a raw rookie and making the rookie “earn it” by putting him in a position where he practically can’t. Some players bring mostly defense to the table (like Samme Påhlsson), and some bring mostly offense (like most NHL scoring stars). They are both valuable and their strenghs can be cultivated rather than trying to cut them all down to the same shape. If a player isn’t a great defensive player but outscores his problems (again, like most NHL scoring stars), what’s the problem?

      Kassian has some skills already, and there is no sense in not tapping into those now while also doing what you can to teach him. Hell, that’s how it worked with Bertuzzi when he first joined the Canucks. He wasn’t a rookie, but he was also very unproven. He nevertheless ended up on an offensive line (albeit on a terrible team).

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  8. BBoone
    April 4, 2013

    How many players drafted since av was hired played for Vancouver last game. Clearly his approach has been a huge sucess . You teach a potential top 6 power forward how to play NHL power f,or ward hockey by putting him in that role and then teaching him as the need arises . If it is the effort that is lacking then you put him in the press box and tell him why . If the effort is there but the defensive skillset needs help then you teach him the skills and help him practice them while still putting him in the offensive role that made him a 13 draft pick He will also develop his offensive potential playing with skilled forwards. There is a risk reward offense/defense a top forward needs develop . i also blame Gillis for not insisting av take a long
    view . Why the editors of this otherwise insightful blog don’t get this is beyond me . The evidence is overwhelming that av does not get it .

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    • nanodummy
      April 5, 2013

      Well, Tanev and Burrows were both signed while AV was with the organization, and Schnieder, Hansen and Edler were both drafted just a year before he was hired, so they basically have played mostly for him, oh and Mason Raymond was drafted just before he was hired. So 3 of 12 forwards, 2 of 6 defensemen and the starting goalie all earned their spot under AV.

      The Sedins predate him, but both became ppg players under him, Kesler has played 8 of 10 seasons under him, winning the selke, Bieksa 8 of 12 seasons and Luc Bourdon was on his way to being a promising young defender until tragedy struck.

      And Schroeder counts as an nhler as far as I’m concerned. The Roy trade just made him superfluous.

      So he’s developed 8 draft picks from rookie to pro and two more unsigned prospects. So 10 NHL players, 9 of whom are on the roster, or will be.

      Add Kassian, who was not drafted by us, but is in his system now, Weise, who made the NHL under AV, and Pinzotto, who made the NHL under AV, it makes for 12 roster players who AV has developed out of 23.

      Lapierre and Higgins are also reclaimation projects who have thrived under AV.

      Roy, Booth, Hamhuis, Garrison, Ballard, Ebbett, Alberts, Barker, Sestito and Luongo are not really AV credit-worthy. 9 of 27 I listed here don’t really owe AV anything. 4 of those are spare parts. 2 are elite talent that would thrive anywhere. 2 just joined the team. 1 has been quietly effective as a top 6 winger. 1 has been a bust in AV’s system.

      So AV has made over 50% of this team better by coaching, utilizing and developing them, and of the top 20 players, it’s 65% who owe their success to AV, 70% once Kesler returns.

      I think the evidence speaks for itself…

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  9. wwf fan
    April 4, 2013

    just wondering if anyone knows who the wwf script writers are that got hired by the nhl to run the season this year?
    The penalties that that have been called on Canucksopponents these past few years seems very contrieved. Daniel gets mugged in the crease without call …
    No power plays for 2 of the last 3 games … obviously this is an organized plan … not just random referees that selectively blind …

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  10. RG
    April 5, 2013

    People need to become serious readers of PITB to avoid sounding like a fool. The Hodgson trade and why Elder remains in the lineup for his defensive mistakes have both been explained with logic and statistics, not to mention good perspectives.

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  11. Pukeko
    April 5, 2013

    Nanodummy knows what’s up. I’m always surprised when I hear posters knock AV’s ability to cultivate talent. One need only look at the current line up to see how good a job he’s actually done. Akidd- I don’t actually think AV is in the business of “macho old school” punishments for defensive lapses, but I do know that he IS in the business of trying to win hockey games. The former is sadly incongruent with the latter, hence the bench or less deployment. Even still, and this is purely anecdotal- and from a guy who thinks we have a very good coach- with the rookies even the most egregious error is often followed by continuing to take a regular shift- a demotion only occurs when it becomes a habit.

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  12. smj
    April 5, 2013

    It seems like people get so wrapped up in not having this huge depth of talented prospects. That we should judge AV and MG based on who they ave drafted rather than winning games. Teams like NYI, EDM have had the luxury of giving their elite talent top line minutes but I have rather enjoyed having a team that wins and makes the playoffs. AV has been a huge part of that and I for one don’t think that I know more than he does about coaching and developing.

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  13. ColbyD
    April 5, 2013

    Great article! Kassian is ahead of the curve as far as young power forwards as far as i’m concerned. Can’t wait to see him in the playoffs, where a player of his talents is going to shine!

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