DUTY AND THE BEAST
MACINTYRE COLUMN: The Canucks want Zack Kassian to find the fire to become a physical force.
For a few minutes Friday morning, Vancouver Canuck winger Zack Kassian was as loquacious with the media as is Marshawn Lynch, the prickly and obstinate Seattle Seahawk running back who responded to a recent $50,000 fine for not talking to reporters by bestowing upon them oneword answers.
Better than a two- word answer, we suppose. And, honestly, curtness isn’t an entirely bad development for Kassian because the Canucks, like the Seahawks, need their powerful player in Beast Mode.
Besides, Kassian said all he needed to the previous day when he made it clear he was unhappy with Canuck coach Willie Desjardins’ decision not to play him against the Los Angeles Kings, disagreed with the National Hockey League team’s version on his medical clearance, and declared: “When I get my chance, I’m not going to come out, I’ll tell you that.”
It was a great quote for both reporters and Canuck staff. Desjardins’ primary objective in sitting out the winger in favour of the light and ineffective Linden Vey against the brawny Kings was not to spark a fire under Kassian, but one appears to be raging nonetheless. It is a nice side-effect for the Canucks, who need Kassian to bring that burning determination to the ice tonight when he plays for the first time since breaking his finger on Nov. 25. The Detroit Red Wings are visiting.
The Canucks need less beauty and more beast from Kassian. Now in his fourth NHL season, and three coaches and nearly three years since his trade to the Canucks from the Buffalo Sabres, Kassian is still discussed in the context of potential.
Desjardins and general manager Jim Benning probably have a pretty good idea what kind of person he is — and what kind of pro — but the floor and ceiling on Kassian The Player remain a mystery.
“I’ve seen him play good and not so good,” Desjardins said Friday in a radio interview.
“But he seems to be prepared to come out and work hard and that’s all you can ask for. If he’s willing to do that, there’s a chance he can be pretty successful.”
Asked if Kassian, who turns 24 on Jan. 24, has earned the right to be in the lineup every night, Desjardins said: “I think that remains to be seen. It’s not what you’ve done; it’s what you keep doing. That’s for any player. For Zack, he’s had some good games. He has the potential to do real well. He’s big, he’s got some size. It remains to be seen exactly what he does with that. I know Zack’s real confident. Time will tell.”
Before the Canucks were physically overpowered Thursday by the Kings, Benning told a town hall-style meeting of ticket-holders that, contrary to reports, he was not trying to trade Kassian.
But he confirmed that other teams have been calling to ask about the 6-3, 219-pound forward’s availability.
Kassian, the Sabres’ firstround pick in 2009, has value. And if he fails for much longer to establish a consistent, physical presence in the Canuck lineup, chances are Benning will leverage that value and get what he can for Kassian.
Desjardins has no more agenda against Kassian than did coach John Tortorella last season or Alain Vigneault the season before. There is no conspiracy. Desjardins has a bias against losing, and if he thinks Kassian helps the Canucks avoid that job-killing scenario, then he’ll play him. And if Kassian plays well, he’ll earn more ice time and responsibility.
And if he doesn’t, well, the Canucks placed Tom Sestito on waivers Friday because they won’t wait any longer for him to practise himself into game-shape. There are significant differences between Kassian and Sestito, a 27-yearold fourth-liner who will be assigned to minor- league Utica, N.Y., if he clears waivers this morning.
But there is still a lesson there for Kassian.
“The hardest thing to figure out with young players is: Are they going to play consistent on a night-to-night basis?” Benning told reporters on Friday. “With Zack, he’s got the physical skill set to be a physical player for us. He’s got good hands for a big man. But he needs to get to that point where on a night-to-night basis, he’s going to be consistently physical and use his frame to take pucks to the net, to stand in front of the net, to get rebounds, to get tipins. That’s the power-forward style of game. That’s the game he needs to play for us to stay in the lineup.”
Kassian, who did offer a couple of answers on Friday that looked like sentences when transcribed, accepts Benning’s expectations and acknowledges he needs to play a power game every night. Between two injuries, Kassian has two goals in 17 games this season but doesn’t have to score to be effective.
“I need to be physical; that’s one thing I need to bring on a more consistent basis,” he said. “My all-around game, if I’m being physical, creating turnovers and bringing pucks to the net, it’s creating more room out there.”
Asked if sitting out has stoked his hunger to play, Kassian said: “Oh yeah, for every player. It’s no walk in the park playing in this league. There are ups and downs every day. It gave me time to even look at myself and regroup and come back better and more determined.”
It’s what the Canucks wanted to hear. Now they need to see it, too.