After the 19-year-old forward, who won’t turn 20 until May, played third-line minutes and produced a meager amount of offense in his draft-eligible season, he took a gigantic step as a point producer in 2013-14. Cassels played a top-of-the-lineup role while replacing departed (and high-end) forwards like Columbus Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner and Phoenix Coyotes winger Lucas Lessio.
On a line with top-prospects Scott Laughton and Michael Dal Colle, Cassels saw his production spike significantly as he scored 24 goals and 73 points in 61 games. That’s 30 more points than he managed in his draft season the year before, and 19 more points than he recorded in his first two campaigns in major junior combined.
For his commendable efforts Cassels earned himself an entry-level contract with the maximum signing bonus, an invite to Team USA’s U20 summer development camp (though he ultimately didn’t attend with some sort of undisclosed illness or injury), and most importantly, the #9 overall slot on our prospects list – up from #18 just one year ago.
The story of the 2013-14 season for Cassels was, essentially, one about a player who’d previously played a depth role on a major junior club stacked with forward depth, who took on a bigger role offensively and saw his production explode in his draft plus-one season.
It’s fair to question whether or not Cassels was really driving the bus on a line with a 2012 first round pick (Laughton) and a 2014 top-five pick (Dal Colle) – particularly since both players dominate the puck. Admittedly, Cassels almost surely wasn’t the guy moving that needle for that line, but he had solid chemistry with both players and was still a key contributor for a Generals team that finished first in the OHL’s Eastern Conference by a wide margin.
When I first saw Cassels play live in the fall of 2011 (while covering 2011 Canucks first rounder Nicklas Jensen), he didn’t stand out much. This was in large part because he was playing on Oshawa’s fourth-line behind Jenner, Laughton and current L.A. Kings farmhand Andy Andreoff (an overager at the time).
That 2011-12 version of the Generals had five forwards who were already, or were ultimately, selected in the first two rounds at the NHL draft, relegating Cassels to a role in which he rarely sniffed the power-play and couldn’t buy top-nine minutes. Even when Jensen and Christian Thomas graduated the following season, Cassels was still stuck behind Jenner and Laughton and outside of the top-six (though he was efficient in limited duty on the power-play).
It was finally this season, and he was 18-years old for the entirety of the campaign, that Cassels was thrust into prime duty with the Generals and responded impressively. Tasked with shooting more, the pass-first center and right-handed shooter played at the top of the left circle on the Generals’ potent first power-play unit.
Riding shotgun with Laughton and Dal Colle, Cassels finished second among Generals players in assists and third in total points, while also managing an on-ice goal differential in the black. He finished the season 16th among all CHL players drafted in 2013 in points, posting comparable counting stats to top Canucks prospect Bo Horvat.
In this Cassels highlight video, you’ll notice an awful lot of goals resulting from Cassels basically manning the “Ovy/Seguin spot” in Oshawa’s 1-3-1 power-play formation. Not an overpowering shooter, Cassels relies pretty heavy on guile when manufacturing goals:
That’s heady stuff for a third-round pick who didn’t play a top-six role at the major junior level until his draft plus-one season.
This season more will be expected of Cassels, particularly if Dal Colle sticks with the Islanders (which is probably unlikely, but not impossible). Either way, Cassels is going to be the number one center in Oshawa with Laughton poised to turn pro. If his development continues to tick up the way it has over the past 12 months, he’ll be expected to dominate the OHL’s Eastern Conference and push for a spot on Team USA’s U20 world junior championship team. After the success he had in 2013-14, anything less would surely be disappointing.
In terms of Cassels’ tool kit, the comparison I’d make is to Mario from the Nintendo family of party games (Mario Tennis, Mario Party, Mario Kart etc.). Basically Cassels can do a little bit of everything, but none of his tools really stands out as “plus.”
Cassels is a solid skater, but he’ll need to get faster. He’s got roughly NHL size, but will need to add heft (without losing foot-speed). He’s got a very good, hard, accurate shot, but he’ll need to uncork it more often if he’s going to produce offense at the professional level. If he has one plus tool it’s probably his passing and general offensive awareness, which isn’t to say that he’s a flashy player – quite the opposite, really – but his skill level is pretty high.
In addition to all of that, he’s quite a chippy forward – and a willing fighter – with a hint of rat in his game (though his martial skills aren’t really above average, even at the OHL level). “When we did [draft combine] interviews this year with draft-eligible players from the OHL, we asked them ‘Who do you not want to play against?’” Canucks director of player development Stan Smyl told Jason Botchford earlier this summer. “(Cassels’) name came up often. So he has that, but he also has the skill to make plays.”
Beyond the rough stuff and the skill level, Cassels has consistently demonstrated that he’s a responsible defensive piece and has generally logged a good deal of ice time on the penalty kill throughout his major junior career. If he continues to develop, but never really reach his offensive ceiling he likely still has the size and two-way ability to hold down a bottom-six role at the NHL level in the future.
That’s still a ways off. Because Cassels won’t turn 20 until May, his entry-level contract can slide once again and surely will. Thereafter Vancouver will get three full professional seasons out of Cassels’ entry-level deal.
It’ll be very interesting to watch how Cassels, whose development track has taken a bit of an unconventional course, adjusts to being “the man” for the first time in his Major Junior career in Oshawa this upcoming season. His performance in his draft plus-one year was excellent and he’s come a long way in a very short period of time, but if he’s going to be an everyday player at the NHL level that was just the first step. He remains a long-term project, and there’s many steps yet to take.