A lot has been made about what the Sabres need to do this offseason in order to make themselves into a Stanley Cup contender. Essentially, all the fan sentiment revolves around two thoughts. First, adding a top-tier center to most likely play on a line with Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek that is going to (hopefully) have perennial 80-90 point producers on it. Second, adding a stay-at-home defenseman that will likely pair with Tyler Myers as the Sabres #1 option for lockdown pairing against opposing teams top lines. Pretty simple to add the final pieces for a #1 defensive pairing and #1 line, no? (Note: That last line was sarcasm)
As our lovely friends Bucky Gleason and Jerry Sullivan would like to point out there may still be a missing ingredient: a skilled player that plays with an edge. I’m not talking about a fourth line player like Patrick Kaleta (refer to this post by Matthew Stewart at Hockey Heaven) or Cody McCormick. No, I’m not trying to diminish what they bring to the table for the team either, but the Bruins showed us (and to some extent Vancouver) is that in the playoffs you need players who can go out for 15+ minutes a night and contribute offensively while delivering physicality.
Patrick Kaleta averaged 11 minutes throughout the playoffs and McCormick only eight. That’s 9-14 less shifts that Boston received from Milan Lucic (17 minutes) in the NHL playoffs. What the Sabres need is actually a tall order for the franchise. They need Zack Kassian to be ready, and sooner rather than later. It is an unfortunate burden to put on the 20 year old. Lucic just finished his fourth season with the Bruins before finally asserting himself in their lineup. Buffalo may not need all of the production that Lucic provided, but they need a player like him.
On a team full of swift skating forwards (read soft) there is the need to have a player near the top six (or even nine) that can both contribute offensively while adding much more. To some extent Ryan Kessler was doing the same thing for the Canucks through the playoffs, even Ovechkin does it for the Capitals (playoff choking aside). This doesn’t mean being an “enforcer” for the team. It does mean taking care of business in the corners and clearing space behind the net. It doesn’t mean playing reckless. It does mean that when in position to deliver a hit, you do, and hard. Hockey has evolved that you can’t just have a specialist as an enforcer on your roster. You need a someone able to handle both roles to some extent.
Kassian had 77 points in 56 games last season for the Windsor Spitfires while also displaying his propensity for reckless behavior (and here), but it’s a fine line to ask a young player to walk. As he matures and continues to learn the game he should be able to curb that part of his game. Kassian is 20 years old and at 6’3”, 215lbs has size and ability to fit the role. He’s raw, he’s talented, and he’s a big part of the future of the Sabres organization. The question for the Sabres is going to be how soon that future arrives. Given the Sabres track record, there is the extreme likelihood that Kassian spends the entire season with the
Pirates Amerks (Insert AHL affiliate), but more so than with prior players (Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and numerous others) I think there will be a push to have Kassian see time on the parent club to some extent. It’s just too bad that given the current state of the Sabres he wasn’t one or two years further along in his development, because he is exactly what this team needs.
Brian Bund is a Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills fan currently residing with his family in Syracuse, New York. He is a contributing writer at Hockey Heaven, Buffalo Wins and the author of the The Buffalo Sports Fan blog. You can reach him on Twitter at: @brianbund