For Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Cassels, this past season could not have gone any better.
A stellar regular season that saw the 2013 third-rounder post 81 points (30-51-81) and 100 penalty minutes in just 54 games, was followed up by 19 points (6-13-19) in 16 post-season games along with an OHL Championship.
The icing on the cake? Leading his Oshawa Generals club to a Memorial Cup victory on Sunday with a 2-1 overtime victory over the Kelowna Rockets.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet that we won the hardest trophy to win in maybe all of sports,” said Cassels. “It’s so surreal still. I am just soaking it all in and relishing the moment. It’s a feeling you can’t describe.
“It is a fairy tale ending. To win it in overtime in your last game of junior, that’s what you dream about. It’s a long grind and it takes a toll on your body, but in the end, it is all worth it. Right now that trophy is nobody else’s but ours and your name will be on there the rest of your life.”
The Generals opened up the Memorial Cup with a 4-3 win over Rimouski, and followed that up 24 hours later with a 5-4 overtime victory over Quebec. Cassels setup the tying goal late in the third period, and then setup the winner late in the first overtime period.
“I tried my hardest to swipe it back to (Stephen) Desrocher and he made a great move and was able to score,” said Cassels. “If he didn’t score that goal, we are in a different position coming out of the round robin.”
Cassels scored his first of the tournament in their last round robin game, opening up the scoring in a 2-1 win over Kelowna. And although he was held off the scoresheet in Sunday’s Championship Game, Cassels was a force every time he stepped out on the ice. He won 17 face-offs, threw three hits and controlled the pace of the play whenever the puck was on his stick.
His all-around game has been on display since the moment the Canucks drafted him. He stood out at the 2013 Prospects Development Camp and 2013 Young Stars Tournament with his slick playmaking skills and ability to think the game at a high level. You can credit some of his all-around skills to his father, Andrew, who played over 1000 games in the NHL, but you can also credit it to the fact Cassels has had to earn his role, it wasn’t handed to him as a 16-year-old.
When drafted, Cassels was a third line centre on a deep Generals team, a role he spent two seasons playing. He learned to play in his own zone against the opposition’s best. He had a mean streak and was not fun to play against. However, Oshawa was set to lose their number one centre, Boone Jenner, opening the door for Cassels to play in an offensive role during the 2013-14 season. He didn’t disappoint, scoring 73 points (24-49-73) in 61 games.
“I learned to play a pro style game by being in a defensive role first,” said Cassels. “Everyone at the NHL level can play offence and defence. In junior, if you can learn to play at both ends of the rink I think it will help you in the long run.”
Those first couple seasons of his junior career did pay dividends in the long run, especially in the OHL Championship Series where Cassels was given the task to slowdown superstar Connor McDavid.
McDavid did finish the series with seven points in five games, but in the three games played in Oshawa, with the Generals having last change, McDavid produced just a single assist. He failed to record a point in two of the games, something that only happened on two other occasions all season long.
“That was huge,” said Cassels. “I did it with the help of my line mates and our goalie, Ken Appleby. A lot of credit should be giving to him for saving our lives sometimes. Obviously in playoffs line matches are key and we were able to get my line out there against McDavid.”
Even as a player counted on to produce offence, Cassels still enjoys going up against the oppositions finest and it’s no secret that the opposition doesn’t feel the same way about playing against Cassels.
“If guys hate playing against you, it means you’re doing something right,” said Cassels. “I take pride in that. Getting underneath people’s skin is how you get them off their game, but you can’t be too stupid out there and be taking penalties. In the playoffs I felt I was good at keeping my cool.”
Now it’s time for the next step. Starting the 2015-16 season with the Utica Comets is probably the most realistic scenario, but Cassels will have just one thing on his mind come Canucks training camp: making the team right out of the gate. His ability to play in the defensive end, kill penalties and win face-offs could force the coaching staff to give him an extended look.
“It’s everyone’s goal to make the NHL,” he said. “I am still a young guy and they know the best development path for me, but like everyone else I am going to go in there and try my hardest to make the team.”
The Ontario Hockey League conducts a yearly Western Conference and Eastern Conference Coaches Poll, where coaches vote on the top three players in 20 different skill categories. Cassels’ name was listed a lot. He finished second in voting in the Smartest Player, Hardest Worker, Best Playmaker, Best on Face-Offs, and Best Defensive Forward categories.