VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin was rattling off a list of the considerable talents of his new linemate, Zack Kassian, when a suggested comparable froze him like a Zdeno Chara cross check.
For everything Kassian may become, for all the Canucks are counting on the 22-year-old to be this season, a Todd Bertuzzi comparison went too far.
"Bert is maybe the best player I've played with, it's tough to get up to his level," Sedin cautioned. "But [Kassian] has the same body, good hands, and he can fly out there. He has all the tools, but it's going to be a work in progress."
The Canucks are hoping to see signs of it early, starting Kassian on the top line with Henrik and twin brother Daniel Sedin in the preseason. New coach John Tortorella is also pledging more patience than the big wing was afforded last season, when Kassian (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) scored five goals in the first seven games playing with the Sedins but was soon dropped to the fourth line, his minutes and opportunities diminished.
By the time the season ended Kassian also spent time back in the American Hockey League, something he alluded to then as punishment for unprofessional behavior off the ice. Yet Kassian's potential impact on the big club was important enough that Tortorella sought out a phone conversation after being hired.
"I want to give him every opportunity to be a huge part of this team, and I told him that," Tortorella said when training camp opened. "It's something I think the team needs as far as his willingness, as far as his playing into a bigger role. I'd like to see it happen. He's going to get the opportunity, but he's going to sink or swim himself. That's why I contacted Zack. This is a big year for him, and that's why I wanted him to step out of himself and be a big part of this club."
All the talk from Tortorella and the Canucks about needing to get younger, and cheaper, this season has placed the focus on recent first-round draft picks Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Gaunce, the development of Kassian, the 13th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, may be more important to their immediate fortunes. If he can be effective with the Sedins long term, it frees up their regular linemate, Alexandre Burrows, to drop down with old friend Ryan Kesler, spreading out the goals on a team that struggled to score last season.
Kassian, who finished last season with two goals over the final 32 games, appears ready to accept that challenge, arriving at camp lighter, stronger, faster and understanding he has to showcase his considerable talent more often.
"I feel like I have grown this summer and come in more mature, stronger and in better shape than last season and that's all you can expect," Kassian said. "I've worked on everything; all aspects of my game, like my speed and quickness. I need to get more consistent and I've grown the mental side of my game."
That side has been tested since arriving in a 2012 NHL Trade Deadline deal that sent highly touted center and fellow first-round draft pick Cody Hodgson to the Buffalo Sabres. In addition to expectations from general manager Mike Gillis that he can be a dominant power forward, and constant comparisons to Hodgson, who recently signed a six-year, $25.5 million contract extension with the Sabres, Kassian bounced all over the lineup. He quickly learned every move down is a story in a Canadian market when your upside has been so well-documented.
"It is always tough when you bounce around on lines, but I don't like using excuses." Kassian said. "I need to get more consistent."
That's not always easy for a young player trying to find the balance between having the size to power through opponents, and the skill to dance around them.
Bertuzzi, who was 6-foot-3 but in his prime carried at least 20 more pounds than Kassian's current weight, was 24 years old and in his sixth NHL season when he broke out with 25 goals for the Canucks. That kick-started a stretch of 174 goals and 418 points over six seasons for Bertuzzi, but even then there were stretches when it was tougher to find the balance between size and skill.
As Kassian prepares for his third pro season, he said he believes it starts with will.
"I just have to be skating and be physical and be hard on pucks, and from there the rest will take care of itself," Kassian said, reflecting on his early success alongside the Sedin twins last season. "I was skating, being physical, being hard on pucks, and creating room. We had a really good cycle game going on down there, just creating space and making little plays at the net."
Kassian also has the toughness -- not to mention a bit of a crazed look when the gloves come off -- to keep opponents honest against the Sedins, but like everything else in his young career it's about learning when to use it.
"He can be a force out there, but he's young," Henrik said. "There are going to be ups and downs. There are things you have to do game-in and game-out over 82 games where maybe he's not there yet, but no one is when they're 22."
The new coach seems to understand that, at least publicly. Kassian, who was minus-2 in his preseason debut but played 20 minutes and showed good signs on the power play, doesn't want to test Tortorella's patience for long.
"I am going to do what I can to stay there as long as possible," he said.
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