Question Marks About Readiness Aren’t Stopping Young Pair
In a season blitzed with injuries by the quarter mark, the Sabres have seen various players from Rochester get called up and sent back down as part of the nightly carousel. The two guys playing well enough to argue their case for a roster spot after everyone is healthy are the two guys who came into their rookie (AHL) seasons with questions surrounding their game. What are Zack Kassian and Brayden McNabb doing right and will it be enough to stick around?
Zack Kassian was drafted 13th overall by the Sabres in the 2009 entry draft. At the time of the draft, as a member of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, Kassian was known for his okay scoring but fearsome fighting and hitting. After being dealt to the near-dynastic Windsor Spitfires, his physical play took a back seat to his increased scoring (with the exception of that heinous head hit he delivered in his first game with Windsor). His physical Petes play resurfaced during the 2010 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo, but was put on the back burner when he moved into a top line/top PP unit role with Ron Rolston’s Rochester Americans. Before his call-up, the big Southern Ontario native was leading his team in scoring. Now that he’s been called up to the show, to the delight of Sabres fans everywhere, his physical play has been on display again.
It shows an eagerness to adapt his style of play to what his team needs, and it’s working very well for the youngster so far. He’s got 3 points in 5 games played after last night’s breakaway goal and has already dropped the gloves for his first NHL fight. The kid with the Iginla/Bertuzzi ceiling is off to a fine start so far, but more importantly it’s what he’s done off of the score sheet to answer questions about his development.
Kassian’s skating was a major drawback to his position on the Sabres’ depth chart and it’s something he looks like he’s worked on to improve. He’s looked faster than past evidence indicates, nearly splitting the D and evading defenders on numerous occasions. Last night’s goal against the Predators, pictured above, was a great example of the work he’s put in and the work he still needs to do when it comes to his feet (Counterpoint – if the puck wasn’t rolling all over creation, Kassian wouldn’t have had to slow himself).
Brayden McNabb was also drafted in 2009, 66th overall in the 3rd round of the entry draft. McNabb spent his entire junior career with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice as an all situations-type of defenseman. He played in his own zone, he joined the rush, he was on the top PP and PK units, and when he left his only team he left as captain of the Ed Chynoweth Cup champions. Fans were excited to see the big man doing everything his team asked, but then training camp rolled around and it was a different story.
Sabres faithful were concerned over what appeared to be a nervous and/or overwhelmed McNabb making bad plays and looking generally unsure of himself. His stock with fans dropped and things didn’t look to bright at the outset of the Amerks’ season. After his shaky start, McNabb settled down and started earning crucial minutes on the farm, improving his play enough to earn a call-up when the Sabres’ blue line was devastated with injuries. While he left his scoring game Monroe County with 10 points in 19 contests, he’s adapted his play to what the Sabres need a la Kassian.
Also like Kassian, McNabb’s skating was a huge uncertainty and he’s largely negated it with smart play. He uses his long reach and body to guide forecheckers toward the outside and break up rushes and he’s starting to get time on the penalty kill, showing coach Ruff’s trust in his young defender. Something that’s really helping McNabb play his game are the huge hits he’s doled out seemingly every night since his call-up. Jason Chimera, Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey, and even Pavel Datsyuk have all had the displeasure of the big Saskatchewan native bearing down on them. It’ll open up room for McNabb to make plays and intimidate opposing players, helping him play his way while continuing to improve his footwork.
While the Sabres are still hampered by injuries, Zack Kassian and Brayden McNabb have little to worry about regarding their roster spots. But when the big club gets healthy? McNabb has played well enough to send Marc-Andre Gragnani to the pressbox upon Myers’ return from his wrist aliment, but it’s a bit cloudier for Kassian.
Kaleta and Boyes both being injured leaves plenty of room for BZK, but their roles make it harder for him to stay in the lineup. Kassian is too effective on offense to be relegated to a fourth line role when Boyes comes back, and yet Kaleta seems to always be dressed when he’s healthy no matter his play. If Kassian continues to play, literally, strong hockey on each side of the red line and continues to chip in, it just might make Lindy Ruff see that his best lineup might be one without the Sabres’ token local guy. Only time will tell if these youngsters can take away roster spots from established NHLers, but if they continue along their current arcs, it might become a non-issue.