Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Cassels, the club’s third pick at the 2013 NHL entry draft this past June, has had to a good deal to adjust to in his freshman season of Major Junior hockey.
Cassels currently plys his trade for the red hot Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, and has been entrusted with a vastly expanded role this season. He’s also learning the finer points of a new position.
For the past couple of seasons Cassels has played bottom-six minutes for a perpetually stacked Oshawa Generals side. In his draft year Cassels was a third-line centreman. He killed penalties, and occasionally saw playing time on the club’s second power-play unit. At even-strength, Cassels was stashed behind current Columbus Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner, and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Scott Laughton (a first round pick in 2012).
This season things have been a little bit different for Cassels. Actually they’ve been significantly different. Not only is Cassels playing top-line minutes for the Generals this season, but he’s gone from being a third-line centre to a first-line winger.
Cassels was initially bumped to the wing in early October, when the Philadelphia Flyers re-assigned Scott Laughton to the Generals. “He's there to put more skill with Laughton,” explained General head coach DJ Smith. “They’re a pretty good line.”
“We've been switching on and off between wing and centre,” Cassels explained this past weekend, “taking draws on our strong side. It’s been working well.”
The early returns have certainly been auspicious for the Generals, who have jumped out to an 14-3-1 start to the 2013-14 season. Cassels is third on the team in scoring having chipped in 27 points in 18 games, and he’s logging major minutes in all situations.
“Being a top-six guy you have a little more spark to score goals and make plays off the rush,” Cassels said of his new responsibilities. “You get a little bit more leeway.”
But with greater leeway comes great responsibility (apologies to Madame Web). “You have to score,” said Cassels, “it's an adjustment I still have to make: trying to be more unselfish and score more than I have in the past.”
Cassels’ coach echoed those sentiments. “He's a pass first guy. He hits the open man, he's an unselfish player,“ coach Smith told Canucks.com. “Sometimes he's not selfish enough when it comes to shooting the puck and scoring goals.”
Not that Cole’s characteristic, maybe even hereditary unselfishness is a bad thing necessarily. “Cole’s one of those guys who can get dirty as well,” explained Smith. “He's at his best when he gets to the front of the net, and when (defenders) get sucked to him he'll make the right play and find a guy for an open shot."
Beyond the concerted effort to get Cassels to shoot more often – the young forward believes he was playing at the top of the circle in Oshawa’s 1-3-1 power-play formation on Friday partly because “they want me to start shooting more” - there are the obvious and expected growing pains when it comes to figuring out how to be effective at a new position.
"It’s a little bit easier defensively on the wing, but it's still hard,” Cassels said after Oshawa’s 4-0 loss to Mississauga last Friday night. “You have D pinching down on you, and you have to be aware in all situations."
On Friday night in Mississauga, Cassels’ line with Laughton and winger Bradley LaTour were mostly dominant through 40 minutes – thought the results didn’t reflect that. The chances did, however, as the Generals recorded eight scoring chances with that group on the ice in the first two periods, while permitting only two against.
Hockey can be an odd game, however, and the second of those two scoring chances against resulted in the game-winning goal for the Steelheads.
Cassels took full responsibility for the goal against after the loss. The breakdown was a dash of bad luck for the Generals, but also an example of the wires getting crossed in the defensive-end. Essentially two natural centremen made the same costly read.
“I got caught down low,” Cassels explained. “I thought I was covering low, (Laughton) thought he had it too…just some miscommunication.
“You're going to have those tough games where nothings going right for you,” continued the Canucks prospect.
Luckily for the Generals, there hasn’t been too much in the way of miscommunication between Cassels and Laughton this past month. Nor have there been many tough games where nothing is going right for their club.
On Saturday the General played a rematch against the Steelheads and were dominant. Cassels set up the games opening goal, as the Generals proceeded to outshoot the Steelheads nearly two to one in a 5-2 shellacking.
Cassels was even better on Sunday in a furious Generals comeback against the Niagara IceDogs. With the Generals down by two goals in the third period, Cassels one-timed a gift set up from teammate Josh Sterk on the powerplay to cut Niagara’s lead to one.
A few minutes later Cassels blasted a rush slapper past IceDogs goaltender Christopher Festarini to even the score. It was precisely the sort of shot Cassels knows he needs to take more often.
“He's a competitive player, he tries to give me everything he has every night,” said Smith of Cassels. “He's one of those guys, he shows up for me. He does whatever it takes to win.”
For Cassels this season, “whatever it takes to win” has meant grappling with increased offensive responsibility, developing a shoot first mentality, and playing out of position. It’s early in the year yet, but Cassels has clearly risen to the multitude of challenges so far.
Meanwhile, the Generals just keep winning.