Vancouver Canucks Prospect Cole Cassels Struggling to Adjust to Pro Game


Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Cassels was a mid-round draft pick. But yet, many expected him to have a big NHL career. Today, things are changing, though.

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Centre Cole Cassels was the 83rd player to have his name called at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. A mid-round pick like many, many others. Two years later, it looked like the Vancouver Canucks had found a diamond in the rough, when he led his OHL club, the Oshawa Generals, to a Memorial Cup title — while being named tournament MVP. But only 21 games into his first pro season, things are starting to look different.

In 2014, EliteProspects scout Curtis Joe called Cassels a “swiss army knife type player” who “can do it all.” After that, Cassels recorded 30 goals and 81 points in 53 regular season games with the Generals. He added 19 points in 16 playoff games, and four points in four games at the Memorial Cup. Cassels really could do it all.

Following that triumphant 2014-15 campaign, Cassels started his first professional season with the Canucks AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. But instead of leading the team in scoring — or even being in the team’s top-10 in scoring — Cassels has zero goals and one assist while being a minus-six.

So, what had happened?

Two Lost Summers

In the summer of 2014, Cassels was completely out of action after being diagnosed with mononucleosis. It does not sound all that bad, and often is not, but physical exercise can make it very dangerous. So, Cassels missed the Canucks’ prospect camp and was unable to use his spare time to train.

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He came back and had the best season of his career, but the summer of 2015 would be exactly like the last one. This time, Cassels battled an abdominal injury he had suffered back in December 2014. He played through it but needed a summer to rest, if he wanted to avoid surgery. Again, it was a summer of missed training camps and a summer lacking any kind of physical training.

Coming into a professional league, the main challenges are usually the speed of the game and the opposition’s physicality. Players can come into the NHL and AHL with NHL-level hockey sense and a terrific shot, but they may struggle mightily due to the big difference in game speed. Cassels’ player type and lack of summer conditioning only make that worse.

All he Needs is Time and Trust

Cassels’ big weakness has always been his skating. If he was a good skater, he easily could have been selected in the first or early second round of the draft. He relies heavily on his hockey sense and passing ability, but needs time and room to utilize those skills — two things you usually do not have in the NHL.

Furthermore, the 6-foot, 180-pound centre is struggling with the league’s physical toughness. He is simply too easy to knock off the puck, and can neither skate away from nor push off an opposing player.

The million dollar question is: are those the results of two missed summers or does Cassels just not project to be an NHL player anymore?

Skating has always been his huge weakness. Skating is what made him a high-risk, high-reward pick, rather than just a player with huge potential. But, both John Tavares and Leon Draisaitl had skating issues too, and they overcame them by training with skating coaches for several seasons, especially over the summers. So, what about Cassels?

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Honestly? I have no clue. Give him a season to get used to the pro game, give him a summer to get stronger and improve his skating. Then give him a season to further develop his game, and then give him another summer to improve his skating.

At 20 years old, Cassels is still extremely young. Guys like Jared McCann, Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen made the NHL before that, but Cassels is a project more than anything at this point. What he needs is time, along with trust. It is a tough season for him, but he still has more than enough time to get to where he wants to be.