Just a few months ago, Zack Kassian was in the process of assembling what would be his finest season of junior hockey with his hometown Windsor Spitfires. Today, after helping the Spitfires to their third straight appearance in the OHL Conference Finals, he was skating on a line that consisted of Buffalo Sabres forwards Tyler Ennis and Luke Adam in just Day Two of Buffalo’s week-long development camp at Dwyer Arena on the campus of Niagara University.
So what, you ask?
Well, two-thirds of his line has won the Dudley Garrett Memorial Award as the American Hockey League’s outstanding rookie in back-to-back seasons, beginning with Ennis’ nod at the conclusion of the 2009-10 campaign when he led all first-year players with 65 points (23+42) in 69 outings. Adam quickly followed suit in 2010-11, leading all AHL newbies with 29 goals and 62 points in just 57 outings to become the third consecutive member of the Portland Pirates to capture the feat.
The common thread though – both Ennis and Adam saw considerable NHL time during their first professional seasons and now Ennis, just a second-year pro, calls Buffalo is home permanently. Adam, on the other hand, has 19 games of NHL experience under his belt with four points (3+1) and 12 penalty minutes.
For a player whose professional career is on the verge of blossoming, Kassian realizes the first step to where Ennis and Adam are, and ultimately the NHL, starts this week in Sabres development camp.
“I feel really well,” said Kassian after the team’s on-ice workout earlier this morning. “I think Kevyn Adams (Sabres Player Development Coach) really helped out with the hard work we’ve been doing. We’ve been skating for three weeks now and I think that really prepared me for camp this week.”
Led by Adams, along with the help of Head Coach Lindy Ruff and Director of Pro Scouting Jon Christiano, the 42 players hit the ice at 9:45 a.m. for a two-hour on-ice session. After a brief warm-up period, the practice intensified with a series of team drills before allowing the players to showcase their individual skills to the 200-plus fans in attendance. Fans, however, were particularly eager to watch the line of Ennis, Adam and Kassian form a connection. It was an opportunity for the Windsor, Ontario, native that he was certainly ready to embrace.
“It’s definitely nice when you get the chance to play alongside two guys with NHL experience, especially Ennis, who is an unbelievable player, and then you have Luke Adam who has a fair amount of games in the NHL as well,” said Kassian of his linemates.
Playing with the duo of Ennis and Adam, who combined have over 100 games with the Sabres, undoubtedly speaks volumes of Kassian’s caliber as an up-and-coming star and reinforces the confidence the Buffalo coaching staff has in the 20-year-old.
“It’s a great learning experience playing with those two guys, but at the same time I don’t want to embarrass myself out there,” said a laughing Kassian. “But skating with these guys makes me want to work that much harder and make things happen out there.”
Buffalo’s first-round selection (13th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Kassian has never had a problem in terms of not producing or contributing offensively as evidenced by his 77-point output last season with Windsor. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound forward captured career highs in all offensive categories in goals (26), assists (51) and points (77) to finish second on the team in overall scoring. In 213 combined OHL games with Peterborough and Windsor, Kassian potted 71 goals and assisted on 121 others for 192 career points. After a midseason trade to Windsor in 2009-10, he helped the Spitfires to their second consecutive Memorial Cup, notching 16 points (7+9) in 19 postseason contests along the way.
If that wasn’t enough, Kassian earned a spot with the AHL’s Portland Pirates for the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs, one that provided quality ice time in North America’s second-best hockey league and a chance to suit up for his first professional game. It was an experience he will never forget.
“It was awesome to get thrown in the mix right away,” said Kassian on his pro debut. “It wasn’t just a regular game, but it was a tough playoff series against Binghamton. It was exciting and it was good to get used to what AHL hockey was like and I learned a lot from it. I got to take a lot in.”
In addition to his natural ability to find the back of the net, Kassian is also known for his big, physical presence as validated by his 358 career penalty minutes over his four-year junior career. It’s just one of several attributes that comprises Kassian’s drive to be an all-around player and something fans can expect to see from him this season.
“I like being physical and it’s always been a part of my game,” said Kassian. “I like being hard to play against, but I also want to have a scoring touch and be able to put points on the board.”
With the reunion of Buffalo and Rochester, and hockey’s longest affiliation being officially restored, Amerks fans can once again reunite themselves with a competitive on-ice product they once knew and loved. Though Kassian is somewhat unfamiliar with the city of Rochester, he knows that hockey is more than just a game to its fans.
“I don’t know too much about Rochester, but I hear it’s a great city for hockey,” said Kassian on the likelihood of becoming an Amerk for the 2011-12 season. “There are a lot of Buffalo fans and it’s exciting for everyone, fans and players alike, to have Buffalo right there in your back door. I’m excited and it’s close to home for me, so that’s a bonus.”