With the Oshawa Generals pushing the Erie Otters to the brink of elimination, the Cole Cassels hype train has kicked into overdrive.
Certainly, Vancouver’s 3rd round pick from Mike Gillis’ final draft has continued to take massive strides forward in his development this season, as he further built on a very positive draft+1 year last year by growing in to the best centreman on one of the OHL’s very best teams. He’s continued his strong play into the OHL final, going blow-for-blow with the most dominant prospect the OHL has seen since Eric Lindros, and with a win tonight, could lead his team to the Memorial Cup in Quebec.
The accolades keep pouring in for Cassels, but is he going to be able to translate this elite two-way game to the NHL, or is he just a product of having a physical advantage over his younger peers and playing on a stacked team? Find out after the jump.
Cassels’ playoffs have been nothing short of spectacular. Playing on a line with Bradley Latour and Hunter Smith, coach D.J. Smith has been hard-matching Cassels against Connor McDavid so far in the first 4 games of the OHL final. It’s been working for the Generals too, as Cassels has held the nearly unstoppable McDavid to 6 points in 4 games – a pedestrian total for the Otters’ juggernaut. In games 1 and 2 when Smith had last change and was able to hard-match Cassels on McDavid even closer, the future Oiler was held to just 1 assist.
Cassels on the other hand has 8 points (4G, 4A) in the series, including the overtime winner in game 4.
So while saying “Cassels has shut down McDavid!” isn’t at all accurate, he’s definitely helped contain junior hockey’s most dominant player better than any other opponent has so far been able to do. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise though, as the Generals played better team defense than almost every other OHL team this season, allowing a league-low 157 goals against. They trailed only North Bay in total shots allowed as well, while generating the most shots on goal in the OHL. Put this together, and you have the junior hockey version of the (recently good) L.A. Kings, and Cole Cassels is their Anze Kopitar.
Cassels has played in all situations for the Generals, being a major contributor to their 4th ranked powerplay and a shutdown ace on their league-best penalty kill, and we can also infer that his two-way game is also legitimately great by CHL standards given Oshawa’s team success and Cassels’ major role. Offensively, Cassels has found another gear this season after developing a legitimately good offensive game in 2013-14, finishing 2nd on the Generals and T-15th in the OHL with 81 points in 54 games.
If there is a concern about Cassels offensive production, it’s that less than half of his total points came at even strength. Looking at even strength scoring rate, Cassels was 33rd in the OHL in ES points per game, and scored just 12 goals all year that weren’t on special teams. This would seem to indicate that most of Cassels’ offensive punch was helped by playing 1st unit powerplay minutes with a legitimately elite offensive CHLer in Michael Dal Colle. Of course, there’s also the fact that Cassels was 19 years old at the start of this season, which plays to his advantage too. Scoring 1.5 points per game like Cassels did this year is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as if someone is scoring at that rate at 17 or 18.
A Canuck that had a similar OHL development path as Cassels was Brad Richardson. Richardson was a point-per-game OHLer in his draft year before missing nearly all of his draft+1 season thanks to an injury. Still, due to some physical maturation and improvement, Richardson exploded for 41 goals and 97 points in 68 games as a 19-year old, leading his Owen Sound Attack in scoring. Linden Vey, who’s nearly identical in stature to Cassels, also followed a similar trajectory. Vey scored at an extremely respectable point-per-game pace as a 17 and 18 year old before erupting for 46 goals and 116 points in 69 games in his draft+2 season, leading the Medicine Hat Tigers to a WHL championship appearance.
The most similar current Canuck though is Shawn Matthias. Like Cassels, Matthias possessed a high-end physical game, and like Cassels, Matthias’ offensive game went from pretty poor to very good by the time he was 19. Of course, none of these stats are adjusted for age and era right now, so we’re limited to looking for approximate similarities. We’ll have a more detailed statistical breakdown of Cassels CHL career in our prospect profiles series which will run later this summer.
It’s also worth pointing out that while Cassels’ season was very impressive, he’s still lagging behind Bo Horvat and Jared McCann’s growth curves, as you would expect from first round picks with high-end middle-6-on-a-good-team upside. Statistically speaking, while Cassels’ growth has been a fantastic positive, the fact remains that he hasn’t grown so much that Vancouver is looking at a future core player. The Canucks are still looking at a probable 3rd or 4th liner, though Cassels’ nastiness, physical game, and reputedly plus-level defensive ability definitely put his ceiling closer to an average middle-6 guy.
Most players that accomplish what Cassels did as a 17-year old don’t even grow into the two-way beast that Cassels is at 19, and it looks probable that the Canucks have a future NHLer on their hands. It’s a testament to how far Cassels has come since scoring just 3 goals as an OHL rookie, and a good sign for the future. Cassels will need to continue to improve and translate his game to the AHL next year if he is going to become an NHL regular, so he’s not out of the woods yet as far as development goes.
But first, Cassels has some unfinished business to take care of. His Generals are one win away from a berth in the Memorial Cup, and one of the best OHLers ever stands directly in his way. You can watch Cassels battle Connor McDavid tonight on Sportsnet ONE and 360 at 4:00 PM Pacific. Our OHL allegiances may be with the Soo Greyhounds on this blog, but for tonight, let’s go Generals!