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by Kevin Snow / Buffalo Sabres

Few Sabres draft picks in recent memory have garnered the attention that Zack Kassian has. Selected 13th overall in the 2009 Entry Draft, Kassian has become a cult hero to many Buffalo fans, many of whom have never even seen him play a game. Instead, Kassian’s following has been built on YouTube clips of his fights and hits from junior hockey.

But the Kassian who will make his NHL debut tonight in Columbus is vastly different than the one who physically dominated the Ontario Hockey League for four eventful seasons. In his first pro season with Rochester, Kassian leads the Amerks in scoring with 14 points (7+7) in 18 games. Most notably, he only has 17 penalty minutes – and 15 of those came in one game against Grand Rapids on October 16.

At 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, Kassian is never going to shy away from the physicality. But he’s been using his time in Rochester to work on the offensive elements of his game.

“I’ve never been the guy who really looked for it. I’ve been put in a lot of situations offensively that I’ve succeeded pretty well in,” he said this morning. “When you’re put in those situations you don’t want to waste time in the penalty box, you want to improve as a player. The toughness in my game will always be there, it’s about developing other skills.”

Lindy Ruff is looking forward to seeing what the 20-year-old Kassian can bring to the ice tonight.

“He’s played well. Offensively he’s been going pretty good down in Rochester. He can really hang on to pucks; he might be as strong a player as we’ve got. He’s a big man already.”

Kassian will make his debut before numerous family and friends that have made the four-hour drive from his hometown of Windsor, Ont. Ruff has no intention of trying to tone down Kassian’s enthusiasm on what will be an emotional night for him.

You want to see the emotion; you want to see the intensity. You would like at some point to say ‘hey, you’ve gotta pull back.’ It’s a lot easier than trying kick him in the backside and say ‘hey, you’ve gotta get going.’” 

Kassian is expected to start on right wing on a line with Luke Adam and Matt Ellis. Kassian and Adam have some familiarity with each other after dominating the Traverse City Prospect Tournament in September along with linemate Marcus Foligno.

The other lines at today’s morning skate were: Vanek/Hecht/Pominville; Leino/Roy/Stafford; Gerbe/Gaustad/Tropp.

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