Could an Alex Burrows suspension be Zack Kassian’s blessing in disguise?


Alex Burrows’ shoulder to the head of Alexei Emelin in the second period of the 3-2 Canuck overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday night was a hit potential department of player safety hire Scott Stevens would be proud of.

It should also garner the winger a minimum 2-game suspension for a Rule 48 violation, according to the NHL’s spinning wheel that decides suspension lengths.

Despite an encouraging start to the season and quickly building a rapport with new line mates Nick Bonino and Chris Higgins, there are a few reasons why his suspension wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Canucks.

With Bo Horvat returning to the Canucks on Sunday after a two week conditioning stint with AHL affiliate Utica, it adds another body to the pile of contributing forwards. The Canucks will likely take their lumps with Horvat as it doesn’t make much sense to leave the rookie sitting in the press box. He needs minutes, and although Shawn Matthias had his best game of the season against the Carolina Hurricanes (58% corsi for on 0% zone starts; yes, 0%!) he’s likely the first to cede his spot to Horvat.

The third line has largely been composed of Brad Richardson centering Matthias and Zack Kassian, so head coach Willie Desjardins has some options on the table: promote Kassian to the Higgins-Bonino duo and move one of Horvat, Derek Dorsett, Jannik Hansen and Linden Vey to the third line; reunite Hansen with Higgins, where the two posted a respectable 53.2% corsi for in 384 minutes last season; or promote Vey to the second line and see if he can add more offensive zone flair.

The likelihood of Hansen getting promoted outright over Zack Kassian is probably premature at this point, given that Kassian has been playing two more minutes a game than Hansen (11:44 to 9:45). And while Kassian seemed nondescript after last night’s exchange regarding Dale Weise (Kassian said “it was good, it was fun” playing against him three times in a row post-game) he should be excited for the opportunity to finally crack into the top six and provide Higgins and Bonino with a quality winger who is beginning to consistently do the little things. He’s been more physical, made less mental errors, taken less egregious penalties and provided the team with good zone entries and possession numbers.

It’s one thing to play well, but it’s another to show well in tough assignments and pressure situations and gain Desjardins’ confidence.

One of the things the Higgins-Bonino-Burrows line has done is drive excellent possession in “close” situations – when the game is tied or a team is up or down by a goal. All three players are in the top-35 in fenwick for % and while that number is sure to regress given the inflated PDO (combined shot & save percentages) thanks to great goaltending when they’re on the ice, it’s still encouraging for Kassian to be in a position he can thrive in. He’s become a more responsible and dependable winger that can hold his own in all three zones; many times under Tortorella he’d be given too many defensive zone starts, forcing the player to learn through trial by error. It was a classic example of trying to drive a square peg through a round hole.

Kassian’s passing would be a welcomed asset for the second line. It’s not exactly a secret that Bonino isn’t an elite level passer – he had 11 first assists last year, good for fifth on Anaheim, but was 14th in A/60 at 0.93/60. Apart from that is the fact that he wasn’t given the opportunity to drive possession and scoring chances with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry anchoring the first line, although they did so against much tougher competition. Kassian had a 1.02 A/60 rate last season, good for third on the team, and his vision, skill and size in traffic allows him to find both the dirty areas of the ice and his teammates in traffic.

The Canucks and their fans have been waiting for the arrival of Kassian as a top-flight power forward who is a terror on the forecheck, can score goals and be a dynamic player. We’ve seen players take these leaps before – how long did fans wait for Todd Bertuzzi to become the same thing? The development of Kassian could be a lightning rod for the Canucks season, giving the team another bonafide top six forward that can supplement the secondary scoring Vancouver has often lacked.

If Willie Desjardins is the type of coach he was hyped to be upon his hiring, he’ll have the foresight to see that while Jannik Hansen can be a decent option to fill in, he’d be more effective on the Dorsett-Vey line. Better yet, he’ll have the foresight to see the Kassian promotion would pay dividends for a player people have been expecting to rise to the occasion for going on two years.

After all, it could be good. It could be fun.