Few prospects have had their stock vary as much as Cole Cassels has in the past three years. A former 85th overall pick, Cassels was originally on the radar of fans only due to his bloodlines (he is the son of former Canucks centre Andrew Cassels). In the seasons since, Cassels has gone from a relative unknown to a marquee prospect, and back to a longshot bordering on bust territory. Ranked just outside of the top five a year ago, Cole Cassels checks in at #15 on this year’s Top 20 Prospect Rankings.
Perhaps the easiest way to view Cassels’ progress from the perspective of expectation is to examine where we’ve placed him on our prospect lists since the Canucks drafted him in 2013.
Cassels’ placement on this list says a lot about which direction his career is headed in. As an unknown commodity coming out of the draft, Cassels was ranked 18th by the Canucks Army crew. A good draft+1 season in 2013-14 saw him jump up in the rankings, and a fantastic draft+2 season in 2014-15 saw him continue to climb. This low debut and sudden progression is not surprising. Later round players are often unknown commodities coming out of the draft and can see big jumps in post-draft seasons if they show the requisite progress. We see a similar trend now in 2015 draftees Dmitri Zhukenov (who debuted at 18 as well) and Adam Gaudette (who was unranked one year ago), both of whom used strong draft+1 seasons to vault themselves up the rankings at the 2016 Midterm Rankings and again in these pre-season rankings (spoiler alert!).
Expectations of Cassels crashed midway through the 2015-16 season as he failed to find his footing in the AHL. Though he may still find his way, consecutive rankings at 15th demonstrate how many Canucks prospects we now see as more likely to make an impact in the NHL.
A little over a year ago, Cassels was the talk of the town for what he did in the 2015 OHL playoffs, to the point that I made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he should be everyone’s new favourite prospect. He was coming off a monstrous final season with the Oshawa Generals in which he played a major part in a Memorial Cup win. Cassels was praised in particularly for his play against Connor McDavid, then of the Erie Otters, in the OHL final, where he and his teammates managed to limit McDavid’s production en route to a six game victory.
There was speculation at this point last year that Cassels could even break camp with the Canucks in the fall – or at the very least be called up at some point in the 2015-16 season. That wasn’t in the cards for Cassels though. Unbeknownst to the majority of the Canucks fan base, an abdominal injury suffered partway through the 2015-16 season forced Cassels to rest and rehab when he needed to be adding strength to play against men in the fall. Cassels didn’t have time to catch up and thus he started the year behind the eight ball – a position from which he never fully recovered.
It took Cassels 22 games to score his first AHL goal, and things had gotten so bad at that point that the fact that he scored was worthy of its own article. We had hoped that that it might open the floodgates for him, but that wasn’t the case. After 67 games, he had just two goals and seven points to show for his rookie campaign. He also added another goal in four playoff games.
Such was the notoriety of the young centre heading into the season, much ink has been spilled regarding his progression, or lack thereof. He became a focus of intense scrutiny in the early months, though that eventually faded, leaving fans to ponder whether his best days may already be behind him, premature as that may be in regards to a player that is still just 21. The prevailing thought is that he wasn’t readily, physically or mentally, for the rigours of a professional hockey season, a sentiment echoed by both Utica coach Travis Green and play-by-play man Brendan Burke.
He had a year where he was just trying to stay afloat. He gave us everything he had. We were very direct at our meetings at the end of the year because in the past, he didn’t commit as much off the ice as he should have.
– Travis Green
Green was fully cognizant of Cassels’ injury and rehabilitation heading into the season, and his deployment of Cassels reflected this. A cursory glance at his line assignments over the course of the season show a player who was brought on slowly in his first professional season.
Note: Utica line deployments are an approximation based on the what I was able to see or hear during games. As a rule, Travis Green tinkered with his lines regularly, so the deployment I recorded for each game were based on what seemed to occur most often.
While it may look like very limited opportunity, Cassels slow rehab and general ineffectiveness forced Green to keep the Hartford native buried for a good portion of the season. Early on, he would receive healthy scratches approximately once a week, days that he was instructed to hit the weight room while the team played. This method certainly worked for Jordan Subban, who took off in late November, but it didn’t seem to help Cassels gain any traction. The fact that Cassels was scratched only twice after December 11th had as much to do with the injuries the team faced as it did with personal progress.
It was a tough year for Cole, without a doubt. We had him on a plan for the first three or four months, a workout priority over playing. His games revolved around his workouts. It was a tough summer for him, he had a tough year.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this deployment chart is the handful of games Cassels played in Utica’s top six. To thicken the plot even further, these plum assignments typically came sporadically; not following a string of goals (there was no string of goals) or even a barrage of shots on net (there wasn’t much of that either). They seemed to appear out of nowhere and were perhaps designed to test Cassels’ progress offensively by placing him with good players. During these stints, he was flanked by finishers like Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce and Alex Grenier, rather than the grinders and energy players he typically found himself with in the bottom six. Sometimes these stints would last all game, other times they’d only last a period. Still other times he would rotate, coming out for a faceoff on the top line, then the third line, and then the top line again.
Throughout it all, Cassels found himself playing with nearly every member of the team on some occasion, rarely finding any sort of consistency. Anecdotally, it seems he may have had more linemates, and less time with any particular linemate, than anyone else on the team. Fellow rookie Joe LaBate may be the exception – the two found themselves together upwards of 30 or so times, though rarely after early March, when injuries forced LaBate (who was having an excellent rookie season by comparison) into the top six. Outside of LaBate, Cassels often found himself with players on AHL contracts and PTO’s.
I’ve written before about the effect that inconsistent linemates can have on a players’ ability to get settled, that time in regards to Alex Burrows’ rotating cast of linemates. Former Canucks turned old school analyst Garry Valk spoke of players’ learning their teammates tendencies on the ice, and how that aided in a player’s ability to show consistency. While Burrows was often deployed with rookies who were coming in and out of the lineup, Cassels was often deployed with ECHL level players who were just signed to temporary contracts earlier in the week.
Of course, these are mere observations. There’s no scientific data here to indicate that this had a major negligible effect on Cassels season. But it’s not hard to imagine that it would. It is hard to throw much blame at Travis Green though, who appeared to try to give Cassels some consistency at the start of the season when he was usually deployed with LaBate, Mike Zalewski or Darren Archibald. But that simply couldn’t last when both the Comets and Canucks were sending player after player to the infirmary, and Cassels failed to show the ability to stay in the top six where linemates may have been more consistent.
In terms of production, there really isn’t much to talk about. Two goals and five assists in 67 games is among the worst on the team in points per game, even among rookies. Pseudo-prospect Curtis Valk was nearly able to catch Cassels, putting up six points in just 12 AHL games. With an estimated points per 60 minutes of 0.77, only John Negrin (a career AHL defenceman) and John Kurtz (a borderline AHL grinder) had worse production rates among regulars.
On-ice stats were no more friendly than those of the production variety. At 5-on-5, Cassels had a goal differential of minus-16, and a goal ratio of just 33.3 percent. The only Comets players with less were with the team of a temporary basis: John Kurtz, Brandon Marino, and Michael Pereira, all of which saw plenty of time with Cassels in the latter half of the season.
Our projection system, pGPS, views Cassels in an understandably unfavourable light. From a list of 251 former AHL players that had seasons with a similarity score of at least 95% (the standard threshold I use) to Cassels’ 2015-16 campaign, only 25 played at least 200 NHL games (just under 10 percent). If the similarity threshold is cranked up, the outlook only gets worse. Just 2.6% of the players with at least 97.5% similarity became NHL regulars. Those that did often found there way there through methods other than production, with names like Cam Janssen, Shawn Thornton and Antoine Roussel dotted throughout the list. The most encouraging name that the program spit out is probably Curtis Glencross, who scored nine points in 51 AHL games in 2004-05 before going on to score 275 points in 507 NHL games.
Going into next season, Cassels will be looking to recover some of the goodwill that he lost during his abysmal rookie year in the AHL. Throughout his junior career, Cassels was lauded for his two-way play, and if he can regain that label, it should help to revive the organization’s faith in him, as awareness at both ends of the ice tends to be a boon for players gunning for promotions. He also has a good shot that he didn’t get off nearly as often as he needed to in his rookie year. The tenacity and mean streak (read: “hard to play against”) that endeared him to fans and analysts in junior had been all but vaporized by the fragile mindset that plagued him last season. He may need that back more than anything.
With expectations lowered and a full off-season of good health and complete training, he should be about to get back on track. Travis Green still seems to have faith in Cassels and believes that with a good off-season, he can come in and be a main contributor in Utica. We’ll be hoping for a return to form in Cassels’ future, and that he can use that unfortunate experience to fuel him, rather than sink him.