Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Prospect Pursuit: Zack Kassian - The Total Package

Zack Kassian {Rick Stewart; Getty Images}

Every team heads into the NHL draft with hopes of finding the next best player for their organization.  Whether it be a dynamic offensive forward or stalwart defensive defenseman or a big, quick goalie, each NHL team has a concrete idea of the type of player they want.  Each GM wants to find that "gem" that has the mix of size, skill, speed, grit, physicality, and vision.  It isn't often that you find a player with such a unique blend of all those skills, but Darcy Regier may have just hit the, proverbial, jackpot.

Going into the 2009 draft, everyone knew it was gonna be special year for prospects.  Names like Tavares, Duchene, Hedman come to mind, but as good as those three have been for their respective teams, one player no one should be overlooking is 12th overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres, Zack Kassian.

Kassian started his career in the OHL with the Peterborough Petes in the 2007-08 season.  Kassian wasn't really relied upon as a heavy offensive force in his first year with the team only potting nine goals in 58 games, amassing 21 points.  But on the penalty sheet, no one could deny that Kassian had that SO-HELP-ME-GOD-IF-YOU-GET-IN-MY-WAY-I'M-GOING-TO-PUMMEL-YOU-INTO-THE-ICE type of attitude.  Zack was 7th in the team in penalty minutes with 74.  The next season, however, would be the one where he needed to step up his game to the next level with high draft hopes on the line.  And that he did.

The following season, Kassian really had a breakout year coming 2nd in scoring for the Petes with 24 goals and 63 points in 61 games.  He even upped the ante in the penalty department leading the team with 134 penalty minutes.  The kicker is, he did all this as a 17 year old, and scouts started to take some serious note.  Kassian was being thrown around as being a possible top 5 pick, so when the 12th overall  pick came around, the Buffalo Sabres were pleasantly surprised to see Kassian's name still available.

Prospect Pursuit was fortunate enough to be able to get a one-on-one interview with the Sabres top forward prospect.

Prospect Pursuit: Growing up, who was your idol who you tried to model your game after the most?

Zack Kassian: When I was growing up, my favourite player was Todd Bertuzzi. It would be an honour to play against him.

PP: What player in the NHL, currently, do you compare yourself to (if not the same as above)?

ZK:  I more now compare myself to a Milan Lucic type of player. Power forward grinder, who isnt afraid to go to the dirty areas to score.

PP: Did you have a favorite team growing up?

ZK: My favourite team had to be the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was tough because right across the river, the Red Wings were having great success in the late 1990's, but ill have to stay loyal and stick with Toronto.

PP: How do you describe yourself as a player in a few short sentences?

ZK: A power forward banger, who isn't afraid to mix it up, but can still produce offense. 

PP: What are your strengths and weaknesses?

ZK: My strengths would be my physicality on the ice, along with the way I use my body to protect the puck. My weakness would have to be my skating. The next level is so fast, i need to improve that.

PP: When did you realize that playing in the NHL was no longer a fantasy, but more a reality?

ZK: I would say once i got drafted, and was called up to the stage to greet Gary Bettman, I was shocked. Also my first camp, i was with Roy, and all the known nhlers, it was a great experience.

PP: What were some key things you learned while playing in Peterborough?

I learned that I needed to be more consistent. That was probably my most difficult year offensively, as well.

PP: What were some key things you learned while playing in Windsor?

ZK: I learned that I was acquired to help the Spitfires win the Memorial Cup. That was my goal, and the teams goal, and we accomplished that.

PP: What are a few goals you have going into next season/training camp?

Increase my speed during the offseason. This will help me reach the next level. Speed is everything.

Did it ever cross your mind to come play in the US in the NCAA and why did you decide to go the junior route?

I never had any thoughts of going the college route. Peterborough, the team that drafted my in the 2007 OHL draft, made me feel really comfortable which helped alot.

Realistically, how far do YOU think you are away from playing in the NHL?

I think I may have a couple more years of development, weather that is in Windsor, or in the American League. But who knows, its all up to the coaching staff.

Its known you don't like to take crap from anyone, but is there anyone out there you wouldn't want to mess with?

I don't back down from anybody. But if I had to choose 1 guy...Probably Boogard, or Colton Orr.

The new class of Spits are coming onto the team. What do you think of the new players the organization has brought in?

I think the players coming in this season have done a great job so far. Jack Campbell has been great, but just out of curiosity. Did he save my shot on the breakaway at the WJC's? 

What players that you have played with/against would you recommend to take that you might think will break out and have great seasons down the road?

Nick Ebert will be great down the road. He is very young, and by the time its his draft year, he'll be a really good player.

What was the best part about playing for Team Canada?

The best part is wearing that Canadian Sweater. Its such a hard feeling to describe, but all I can say is that its an honour, and I would never turn down an opportunity to play for my country. 

What did you take out from your time playing for Team Canada? And how will you use it for the future in your career?

The experience of playing in front of the whole nation, and a loud 20,000 crowd. Also, alot of good friendships that will last a lifetime. 

Boogaard and Orr?  At least we know Zack is a smart player...

But seriously, Zack was traded halfway through last season to the Windsor Spitfires and added depth to an already stacked team that featured the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, and Cam Fowler.  Kassian powered the Spits with 16 points in 19 games to lead Windsor to a Memorial Cup Championship.  And this year, things just seemed to be going along on a steady incline for Zack as he notched 77 points (a career high) in 58 games, which goes to show Sabres fans that Kassian isn't just a flash-in-the-pan bruiser, but rather a big forward that possesses finesse in his offensive skill set.

A Lucic comparison is probably the most common that you will hear when you talk about Kassian, and all signs point to Kassian as being that type of player.  Let me take it one step further.  A 30-30 guy is the type of player that Lucic is, but I see Kassian as more of an offensive threat.  Think along the lines of a mixture between Lucic and Bertuzzi (in his prime). 

Kassian has great stick handling and a heavy shot for such a big frame (6'3", 215 lbs to be exact).  That frame is used in various situations, but mostly for taking players off the puck with hard checks.  But hitting isn't the only thing Zack can do with his body.  His ability to shield off opponents is second to none which gives him and advantage of crashing the net and causing havoc.  Add in his impressive resume with the Memorial Cup and a stint at the World Junior Championships, Zack Kassian can't go anywhere but up.  Whether it takes him a year or two in the American Hockey League is yet to be determined, but rest assure Sabres fans, Darcy Regier may have found your "gem".


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