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Managing BZK Expectations


It’s the call-up you’ve been clamoring for, Buffalo – big, bad Zack Kassian is set to make his NHL debut tonight versus Columbus. But the player you’ve been foaming at the mouth for may not be the player you’ll be getting, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

First, a little history courtesy of Kris Baker at Sabres Prospects and his 2011 prospect ranking article:

At 6’3, 215-pounds and strong as an ox, Kassian is considered the prime-time power forward in the Sabres developmental ranks. After winning a Memorial Cup and getting his first taste of NHL preseason play, the Windsor native returned to his hometown Spitfires in 2010-11, cruising to an impressive 20 points in 11 games before signing his entry-level deal with the Sabres on November 1st. Kassian, who also scored three points in five games as Canada won silver at the World Junior Championship, finished the season with 26 goals and 77 points in 56 outings (2nd on team).

Kassian has the soft hands and edge to someday drive second-line minutes, but work needs to be done towards achieving night-to-night consistency. The bullish forward gets around well with a long skating stride, yet the key to unlocking the good in his game (his vastly underrated passing ability, heavy one-timer, and ability to hit like a truck) lays in keeping his feet moving in all zones. He did it often along the way to averaging 1.92 points-per-game prior to playing for Canada. He did it less when averaging just .94 points-per-game upon his return. Kass continued his hit-or-miss ways in the playoffs, collecting six goals and 10 assists in 16 games before a suspension caused a premature end to his junior career.

Of course the aggressive component to Kassian’s mix makes the conversation interesting. Often compared to his idol Todd Bertuzzi in terms of frame, skill set, and OHL production, the 20-year old has shown a propensity for high hits that will need to be smoothed out. It’s OK to have a short fuse as long as you can control when it ignites. Bob Probert was a mix of skills and aggression who sometimes spun out of control, and he too was a 6’3, 220+ pound Windsor-born forward with similar OHL statistics.

It’s obvious that once Kassian gains the proper focus, he’ll immediately add toughness and touch the Sabres’ core forwards, taking confidence and space away from the opponent while elevating the play of his line mates. In a nutshell, it’s that blend that places him at the #1 spot. After a brief playoff extension in Portland to gather his summer takeaways, expect Kassian to make waves in training camp and possibly cause interesting roster conversations at the start of the year, but ultimately spend the majority of his first professional season in the AHL. Anything more would be an over achievement.

(Follow Kris on Twitter – @SabresProspects)

In junior, Kassian was known for his aggro (if not unhinged at times) play. Being the OHL’s undisputed heavyweight champion last season overshadowed his offensive output, which saw him score 26 goals and 77 points in 56 games for the Windsor Spitfires. In Roc City, it seems he’s been coached to reign in his physical performance in favor of developing his offensive game further. In 18 games so far this season, Kassian has 7 goals and 14 points but only one fighting major to his credit. Video of the fight (a tag team bout with Marcus Foligno versus Grand Rapids) is below:

Many reports on Kassian’s play indicate that, if he is indeed being coached to play more of a skill game, the dropoff in his heat-seaking missile hitting has been drastic. From an excerpt from Keith Wozniak (of Let’s Go Amerks!)’s quarter-season grades:

Plus: Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno are so far having great rookie seasons each having scored seven goals already. Kassian also has one assist compared to one for Foligno.

Minus: The lack of a physical play from players like Zack Kassian and Brayden McNabb who were known for that at the junior level. This doesn’t mean going out there and fighting but besides a hit here and their they aren’t having a real presence on the ice. They’re strong and use their bodies but playing a more physical game could help change the pace of some games. It’s likely how Buffalo has asked them to play which is understandable but it’s an element of the game that could be a difference maker at times.

(Follow Keith on Twitter – @LetsGoAmerks)

It may be why the Sabres declined to call up the youngster purely as a hitman for their game on Wednesday against the Bruins. That doesn’t mean, however, that’s he’s gone completely milquetoast. From Scotty Michalak of Buffalo Sabres Nation:

He’s going to fight along the boards, he’s going to go to the net, and he is going to hit. Just don’t expect him to explode onto the ice and immediately hit every player not wearing [a] Blue and Gold sweater.

(Follow Scotty on Twitter – @ScottyMCSS)

Now, there is going to be a disparity in his play down on the farm and his likely role with the Sabres. In Rochester, Kassian fills a top line role and gets lots of power play time so his offensive game is always the priority. With Buffalo, he’ll probably play a bottom six role and be asked to ramp up his physicality again so scoring will take a back seat to his hitting. Is it out of the question to see BZK plow through a couple of Blue Jackets tonight and maybe drop the gloves with Jared Boll? No, but fans shouldn’t write him off if he doesn’t. He’ll be expected to forecheck hard, play responsibly in his own zone, and maybe tack on a point. A goal would be cake. A goal and a fight would be cream cheese icing on a red velvet cake and put Sabres faithful into a tizzy.

So what should we expect? Exactly what Lindy Ruff is going to expect – hard forechecking, responsible play, and chipping in offensively. If he finishes the game without any glaring defensive mistakes and some hard play in the corners, consider it a plus. A goal and/or fight would be double plus good.

(Etymology of ‘BZK’: The day Kassian was drafted by the Sabres, I dubbed the bruiser Bad Zack Kassian – or BZK for short.)

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