At the age of 19, Zack Kassian has already seen himself compared to Milan Lucic, Bob Probert and Todd Bertuzzi. Selected 13th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the power forward is expected to have a big hand in the organization's future with his combination of physicality and playmaking prowess.
The former Peterborough Petes captain was traded to the Windsor Spitfires in early-January to supply the club with leadership and to look out for his teammates. Kassian is viewed as one of the final pieces Windsor required for a second run at the Memorial Cup this year with the strong and energetic play he displays.
Although he is more known for his hitting and fighting, the native of LaSalle has displayed his offensive skills averaging over a point per game in his second OHL season and compiling 27 points in the final 33 matches with Peterborough prior to the trade. He scored a goal during his first game with Windsor but was later ejected and eventually suspended for 20 games because of a hit on forward Matt Kennedy of the Barrie Colts.
His anticipated return is on March 7 against Sault Ste. Marie. Zack was kind enough to lend me a few minutes of his time to speak about his suspension, the skills he possesses, playing with the Spitfires and his eventual debut with the Buffalo Sabres.
You've been often compared to guys like Bob Probert and Milan Lucic. Would you agree with those assessments or is there maybe another player you see having a style that resembles your own?
I like to think of myself as my own player but those guys are people I like to pattern my game after. Obviously, they're both established NHL players. Lucic is so young and so talented, Probert played in the NHL for many years and he's very tough so I don't know if I could live up to that (laughs). I don't disagree but I like to think of myself as my own player.
Not a lot of players can hit, fight and produce offensively with equal efficiency. How do you bring all of these elements together so well for your overall game?
Just a lot of focus, knowing when I make a big hit or if I want to score that it's not me just wanting to play that one area. I want to do it all so I think that has a lot to do with it. I don't want to be just a one-dimensional player, I want to do more than one thing out there and that's what my mindset is.
Regarding your suspension, your coach thought you were a victim of bad timing because the hit came within a few days of Patrice Cormier's check in the QMJHL. Do you think the circumstances of your punishment may have been different if the whole head shot debate wasn't already receiving so much attention?
I didn't really read into it too much. What our commissioner of the OHL wants to do, he's going to do. I'm not going to argue with it because he chose that. I just have to move on and now the suspension's basically over so it's time to forget about that.
People often don't take into consideration how fast the game of hockey is when they analyze hits. They think it's so easy for someone to pull back a little during a shift. But when you look back, is there anything you would have changed about the way you finished your check?
No, I've said that a number of times. You're right, the game is fast and when you look at things on replay, anyone can sit at home watching their television commenting on what I should have done or shouldn't have done but during the game, like you said, it's so fast. Decisions are made so quick that sometimes you don't always make the right one.
You're a player that will stand up for his teammates without hesitation. Where does that fearless edge come from?
It's just wanting to be a team guy and wanting to do anything for the team to win. I think star players like Taylor Hall; you only play with these guys once a year. He's the best player in the world and you don't want him being hurt. You want him to kind of feel protected out there.
Your return to the line-up is just a few days away and you'll have four games to prepare for the playoffs. Any concerns with this type of situation?
Not at all, the coaching staff has been working with me through skating and little games here to get me ready. Joey, our trainer, has worked with me off the ice so I think it'll take a couple of games to get my timing back but definitely nothing is too worrying right now.
You've mentioned before that skating was one area you really wanted to improve on. How close would you say you are to reaching your goal there?
When I'm playing in the NHL full-time, then I'll have reached my goal (laughs).
When you're fighting is there a technique you use or any kind of particular training you undergo to prepare yourself?
No, to be honest I just throw punches and try not to get hit (laughs).
In Windsor, you aren't necessarily the captain like you were in Peterborough but will still be depended upon as a leader. Will any part of your game change in terms of how much responsibility you feel is on your shoulders?
No, to me it doesn't matter if you're wearing a letter or not. I just go out there and do what I do. I'm not too vocal but we have great leaders in this room and they're young. There's a whole group of people that have letters or don't even have letters that are leading on this team. I think if we all work together, we're going to have a good shot in the playoffs this year.
Were the Buffalo Sabres a team you were eyeing in last year's draft or were you hoping to maybe land somewhere else?
To be honest, I didn't really care where I went. It's the NHL, to be a part of any team is an honor. I think Buffalo could be a better place for me with all their skilled smaller players. A big guy like me could fit in quite well there in the future.
Plenty of Sabres followers believe you'll be ready for the NHL very soon with your abilities. Is there a particular time frame you're targeting for when you'd like to enter the league?
As soon as possible. Last year, I went in with the mindset of making it but I didn't. It was a high standard for me and obviously a lot of players don't make it right after they are drafted. My main focus right now is the Windsor Spitfires and trying to win a second Memorial Cup.
Last question, the Buffalo Sabres aren't a big team by NHL standards and many people see you as that power forward they've been lacking for years and also someone who can provide a much needed physical presence. Have you thought about this much and do you think you'll feel any pressure with these expectations?
No, it's the business we're in I guess (laughs). There's always going to be pressure and expectations. You clear your head, go out there and at the end of the day just have fun with it. There's always going to be people wanting more things that you can provide but as a hockey player, you just have to go out there, do what you do and everything will work out.
I want to thank Zack very much for taking the time to speak with me and wish him the best of luck for the remainder of this season and his future.