VANCOUVER - There are not many positives to be gleaned from what has been something of a train wreck of a season for the Vancouver Canucks.
But there is at least one -- the play of winger Zack Kassian since the Olympic break.
After hearing so much the past couple of years about his potential, Kassian has started to deliver on some of that promise.
Since the Olympic break, he has been Vancouver’s leading scorer with three goals and 10 points.
It has been a veritable Big Zack Attack. Well, almost.
Coach John Tortorella says Kassian’s improved play is more than just about the points.
“His whole game, with and without the puck, has been more consistent,” Tortorella said after the team’s practice on Sunday. “And I think he has the puck more because he’s been more consistent away from the puck.
“So again, we all know some of the things he has as a player and as a young man and now it is becoming more consistent. More importantly, I think he sees he is becoming more consistent and he’s playing better because of the consistency.”
Kassian was one of the keys to Vancouver’s 2-1 come-from-behind win over the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night. He found linemate Brad Richardson with a sublime back-door pass for the game-winner at 18:32 of the third period.
It was another one of those flashes we have been seeing more regularly from Kassian in recent weeks.
Kassian says he can’t really explained what has happened.
“After the Olympic break I came back and something clicked, not only myself but our line started to play better and when your line is playing better it is obviously better for individual success. Yeah, I don’t really know what I did. I wish I could have started the year off that way, but it was one of those things where it kind of just happened. I am starting to find my game and am feeling comfortable.”
The season is ending much more positively than it began for Kassian. Back in the pre-season he was slapped with a lengthy suspension for breaking the jaw of Edmonton Oilers centre San Gagner with a high stick. Kassian missed the final three pre-season games and the first five regular-season games.
It wasn’t the best way to endear himself to a new head coach. Tortorella was critical of Kassian’s defensive play for much of the season and on many nights cut his ice time to single-digits.
Maybe Tortorella’s tough-love approach worked or perhaps as Kassian suggests something just clicked. Whatever, he has clearly taken a significant step forward and his 13 goals this season are fourth best on what has been an offensively-challenged team.
Some of those who questioned the Cody Hodgson trade that brought Kassian to Vancouver may now be having second thoughts.
Kassian thinks playing with Richardson has helped him realize what kind of commitment it takes to be a pro.
“He has been awesome,” he said of Richardson. “From Day 1 he has been very approachable for a guy who has been around in the league. He’s a fun guy to be around and when he comes to work, he comes to work. Everyone noticed that right through training camp, one of the toughest training camps, and he put his head down and went to work and didn’t complain. He is a good role model for lot of young guys, including myself.”
Richardson had most of the net to shoot at after Kassian delivered that slick pass late in the third period Saturday night.
“Kass has had some good vision lately,” Richardson said. “He found me in the second (period) and I didn’t score for him and I know he would have screamed at me if I didn’t get that one.
“Kass made a hell of a play, I gave him little yell, but he made a great play to kind of suck everyone in and then hit me back-door, empty net so that was pretty easy for me.”
Kassian still has lots of work to do, of course. His temper continues to sometimes the best of him. He received a three-game suspension early last month after slamming Dallas defenceman Brenden Dillon into the side boards with a hit from behind.
Kassian knows full well that as his level of play rises so too will the expectations of him in Vancouver’s hockey-mad market.
“Yeah, I have learned here to keep an even keel, you could have a crap game tomorrow and the next thing you know it’s total flipside,” he said. “It’s about staying even-keeled and coming to work every day and working hard. I think most importantly it’s bringing the work ethic and consistency of being physical, being hard to play against, protecting pucks, bringing pucks to the net. Do those things and everything else comes from that. . .I still have a lot to learn, there’s no doubt about that. But I feel it is coming along.”
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