Botchford: Back to the future — again — with Zack Kassian
A new coach brings yet another opportunity for the big forward to evolve into a big-game player
A lot has changed for the Vancouver Canucks in a year, but not so much for Zack Kassian.
This summer is, in fact, identical to the last one.
People are again prophesying how critical — or not — he’ll be to a turnaround.
People are wondering if he’s ready to do more than paw at the top six. People are wondering if he can contribute to a power play. And people are still wondering about his fitness.
That last one is a staple of offseason Kassian stories, and one which won’t change any time soon after John Tortorella embarrassed him in September. He said then the Canucks were going to “really nail” the gap-toothed one for his conditioning during that ridiculous eight-game suspension he served.
It was just one of a string of indignities Tortorella publicly speed-bagged Kassian with during the season.
The coach called him “a project,” said he couldn’t “trust him” against tough competition, and took not-so subtle stabs at his intelligence by saying he was struggling “to process the game.”
Tortorella was also sure to mock those who thought Kassian should get a shot with the Sedins all season even as winger after winger got served their lunch riding in the twins’ saddle car.
Incredulous, really, because it was an idea Tortorella mouthed last summer and exactly where he had Kassian before the Sam Gagner incident.
Kassian, rather remarkably, took every shot in stride, which, I believe, says everything you need to know about his character.
As does the fact he led the team in scoring after the Olympic break, when just about everyone else on that team played like they’d rather be on a cruise ship with a Norovirus outbreak than in Rogers Arena.
But Tortorella is gone, and Kassian is about to play for his fourth NHL head coach in three years.
Whatever the reasons, he hasn’t won any of them over. That has to change.
Things appeared to go sideways right at the start with Tortorella, after Kassian’s reckless stick waving broke Gagner’s jaw and left him sitting out the first couple weeks of the season.
“It was frustrating,” Kassian said after signing his two-year, $3.5 million extension this month.
“You train all summer. You are ready to go and you get suspended to start the season.
“It’s never something you plan on, for sure. But you have to roll with the punches. It obviously took me a while to get going.
“It’s something I’ll learn from and move forward.”
Kassian needs to take that lesson and find a way to click with Willie Desjardins early to avoid another year of pushing the rock up hill every day.
Good news for him is Desjardins needs this relationship to work well just as much as he does, so we may finally see what Kassian is like when a coach is supporting rather than flattening both tires on his bike.
Despite Tortorella’s tire-slashing, and the fact we still don’t how Kassian will respond with a regular slot in the top six, it was not a wasted season.
Kassian did manage to become a man on the ice.
He drove play five-on-five. When he was on the ice, the Canucks scored 52 per cent of the goals. He was not a defensive liability. His 14 goals were fourth on the team, and done without the power play and with Brad Richardson.
His 13 even-strength goals were three more than Radim Vrbata managed for the Coyotes last year.
Kassian did say he’s spending this offseason getting “stronger.”
What he needs to be doing is figuring out how to shoot the puck more. He isn’t likely to repeat the 15.4 shooting percentage, so if he’s going to score more, it’s going to have to come from a significant increase in shots on net.
He had just 91 last year, 12th on the team and tied with Mike Santorelli, who played 24 fewer games.
It’s why many believe he’s not ideally suited for the Sedin line, despite having a very good shot.
He’s always been more of a playmaker anyway, which in theory at least suggests he should work well on a second like with Alex Burrows.
He sure did enough last year that it’s exactly where he should start this season in October, no matter how training camp goes.
Of course, that’s assuming there’s no suspension.
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