Vancouver Canucks fans greeted Zack Kassian’s arrival at the trade deadline last spring with howls of protest.
It was no fault of Kassian’s per se; rather, the reaction reflected the fans’ affection for Cody Hodgson, the player sent back to the Buffalo Sabres in the deal.
Canucks supporters had a lot of hope invested in Hodgson, and many were stunned to see the up-and-coming centre swapped for a work in progress – albeit a high-end prospect – like Kassian.
Well, if Kassian ends up earning the affection of Canucks fans, his current sojourn with the Chicago Wolves during the NHL lockout could prove pivotal in his development arc.
With Vancouver last season, the hulking 6’3”, 214-pound right winger was used predominantly in a bottom-six checking role. With the Wolves, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, he’s playing on a scoring line and in a wider variety of game situations for as long as the lockout persists.
“This is a great league down here,” said Kassian, 21, whose Wolves face the Abbotsford Heat this week in a Friday-Saturday set at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (7 p.m. both nights).
“Getting to play and being in more situations, I think it’ll definitely help my all-around game. I want to improve all aspects of my game. At the NHL level, everyone’s so good at everything.
“I want to try to create more opportunities, whether it’s goal-wise or physically opening up more space for my teammates.”
Kassian began the 2011-12 season, his first full pro campaign, with the AHL’s Rochester Americans, racking up impressive numbers (15 goals and 11 assists in 30 games) before being called up by the Sabres. He posted seven points in 27 NHL contests with Buffalo, and three points in 17 games with the Canucks following the trade.
The Windsor, Ont. native showed up for Wolves training camp this fall seven pounds lighter – a change he attributes mainly to dietary fastidiousness.
“When you’re in junior hockey, you’re getting pizza on the bus after the game, and you’re not always eating the right foods,” he explained. “You definitely want to stay away from those types of things, and I think I did that.
“I think I’m a step quicker now. Being lighter and stronger, there’s nothing bad that can come out of that.”
Kassian, skating on a line with Jordan Schroeder and Bill Sweatt, picked up an assist last weekend as the Wolves opened the regular season with a pair of wins over the Rockford IceHogs.
“So far, we’ve done fairly well together,” he said, assessing his chemistry with the fleet-footed Schroeder and Sweatt. “They can back the D off with their speed, and I can use my big body down low and try to get them the puck.”
The comparisons to Hodgson will surely linger among fans and media, but Kassian doesn’t allow that line of thinking to mentally sidetrack him.
“To be honest, I don’t really care what people think,” he said. “I’m playing for my teammates and myself and my coaches every night, and I don’t really listen to what other people have to say.
“For me, it’s just playing hockey.”
Playing in Abbotsford is a unique road-game scenario for the Wolves, as Canucks fans show up in droves to cheer them on.
“I’m guessing it’ll be a little more exciting to come in there,” Kassian said. “Vancouver is a big hockey town, obviously, and I’m sure there’s a lot of Canucks fans in Abbotsford. I think it’ll be a good, exciting environment.”
• Kassian is one of a handful of Canucks regulars and top prospects currently plying their trade with the Wolves, along with Schroeder, defencemen Chris Tanev and Kevin Connauton, and goalie Eddie Lack. The Chicago roster also features ex-Heat forward Guillaume Desbiens, who inked a two-way pact with the Canucks in July.
• Kassian and Heat forward Greg Nemisz (currently sidelined with a lower body injury) were junior hockey teammates in 2009-10, winning a Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires.
“We have that respect, and we obviously won a championship together,” Kassian said. “It’ll be nice to see him, but once we’re on the ice, there’s no friends.”
• Canucks alumni Cliff Ronning and Geoff Courtnall will be in attendance at the AESC on Friday, part of the Heat’s “Legends of Hockey” promotion.