There’s no way around it: the Comets have been absolutely decimated by injuries this season, particularly along the forward group. During their Saturday game against Binghamton, they dressed five players (four forwards) on professional try-out contracts, and as recently as three weeks ago they were playing with nine try-out players in the lineup, with two defencemen playing as forwards.
They’ve nursed injuries to the likes of Darren Archibald, Jayson Megna, Griffen Molino, Carter Bancks, Wacey Hamilton, Joseph LaBate, Alexis D’Aoust, and Cam Darcy essentially all at the same time, and all while Nikolay Goldobin, Reid Boucher, and Michael Chaput were up in Vancouver.
As devastating as that list is, it has provided opportunities for some players that have otherwise been further down the lineup. One of those players is Cole Cassels.
Cassels has become an interesting story, not necessarily for the right reasons. This is a guy that came to Utica two and half years ago to a good amount of fan fare and expectations, only to figuratively fall flat on his face, though not without good reason. There were injury problems stemming from an abdominal injury he played with in the OHL playoffs, and then there were mental hurdles that came alongside the struggles he was having on the ice.
Cassels accumulated just two goals and seven points in 67 games that first season. His first professional goal didn’t come until his 22nd game of the season, and the drought became so notable that we published an article when he finally potted one.
Following the campaign, much was made about why Cassels struggled so much. He worked diligently in the off-season to prepare himself for training camp (something he’d been unable to do the previous summer due to his injury recovery), intent on becoming a more essential member of the Comets. Unfortunately, his sophomore season didn’t go too much better, tallying five goals and 11 points in 66 games.
At this point, Cassels essentially became a write-off as a prospect. It was a precipitous fall from grace for a young player that many fans hoped would appear in the NHL in 2015-16 after his stellar final season in junior, or even make the Canucks out of camp.
Ironically, in 2017-18, he did stick with the Canucks out of training camp, though only because he was nursing an injury and was being treated in Vancouver. Once he was well, he was reassigned to Utica to start yet another season behind the 8-ball. He made his season debut in Utica’s sixth game, in the familiar position of centering the Comets’ fourth line.
The first 18 games of his season went largely as the past two years had gone: unproductive. Though he’d become a reliable defensive player, a high leverage faceoff man, and an essential member of the penalty kill, Cassels continued to struggle to produce.
Until December 13th that is.
In early December, the Comets already burgeoning injury problem was exacerbated when Michael Chaput and Nikolay Goldobin were called up to the NHL. Already missing Darren Archibald to a fractured cheekbone, the Comets were missing half their top six, meaning that other players started getting more ice time. Chaput briefly reappeared in mid-December, but was called up again after Christmas. It was on December 29th that Cassels became the Comets first line center.
On TSN 1040 with Halford and Brough on Thursday, Comets coach Trent Cull was asked what he attributed Cassels’ success of late to, and the answer was no surprise: it’s all about the opportunity.
“We [talked] about injuries and callups. With that, the opportunity came and Cole has taken that and done a really good job,” Cull said. “He’s turned into kind of our number one center, but he’s done a really good job of moving pucks, he’s had opportunity in all situations, and special teams, and he’s done a really good job for us.
“Sometimes as a coach, there’s always that player that says ‘I need more ice time’ and I’ll say ‘you gotta work harder to get more ice time’ or ‘there’s certain things you can do’,” Cull added. “Well you know what, it’s been a perfect relationship here because he’s done a really good job, he’s stepped in, and we’ve kept him in that position. He’s been playing with Michael Carcone and Darren Archibald, and those guys are doing a really good job for us right now.”
Cassels and Carcone, in particular, have been magic together for the past couple of months. They’ve been essentially glued together since the 25th of November, playing with a variety of wingers and in several different roles. Through much of the final month of 2017, they’d played in a bottom six role with Griffen Molino, or sometimes with Wacey Hamilton or Alexis D’Aoust. When Darren Archibald returned to the lineup, he, Cassels and Carcone suddenly became the first line, with their previous top line (Goldobin, Boucher and Chaput) entirely up in Vancouver.
As a side note, Michael Carcone has been extremely impressive lately (just look at that spin-o-rama. Look at it!) and, still at just 21-years old, could earn himself an NHL look at some point in the not too distant future.
The three have had such success together that, as Cull mentioned in the interview, they were kept together and in an offensive role even as some players return from the NHL. Now, you can quibble whether Cassels’ unit or Cam Darcy’s line with Goldobin and Boucher is the top line, but both are clearly entrenched in the top six and get plenty of offensive opportunities.
As a result, Cassels’ contributions to his team’s offence have been steadily increasing over the course of the season, and he is now an integral part of the Comets offence on a night-to-night basis.
So where does this leave Cassels in terms of future projection?
Well, that’s a complicated question. The thing is, projection models like pGPS are typically designed to look at the season as a whole and evaluate from there. Across the entire season, his 15 points in 34 games doesn’t move the needle a whole lot. We’re looking at a point per game rate of 0.43, which, for a 22-year old in the American League, is still a bit of a long shot to advance to the next level. His Expected Likelihood of Success is just 11%, only a marginal improvement from his previous seasons in the AHL, and his comparables are prominently fourth line and replacement level players.
But what happens when a player’s season is split in two very distinct halves? I didn’t have any type of formula to determine what a player’s likelihood of success would be at a variety of production rates, so, inspired by Cole Cassels, I decided to build one.
What I ended up with is what I’m calling a Cohort Production Spectrum. This chart details Expected Likelihoods of Success across a spectrum of production rates.
There’s a lot going on here, so I’ll break it down. Unadjusted points per game are plotted along the x-axis – this is used because raw points per game are easy to comprehend. The projection system still uses era and age-adjusted scoring rates, but it’s easier to get the point across plotting the chart this way.
What I’ve done next is taken all of Cassels’ potential matches based on age and size (roughly +/- six months and +/- two inches) to create a sample population, and then using that sample I’ve created a series of production points based on percentiles of the sample. The first ten are every percentiles from the the lowest percentile to the 90th percentile; the next five are each percentile from the 95th to the 99th, and finally one at 0.995. I then established the various production rates or percentages at each of those percentiles. Then I used those production values, in conjunction with Cassels’ age and size values, to determine pGPS results at each percentile. All of this can be seen in the table below.
The blue lines in the Spectrum graph represent cohort size (light blue) and successful matches with 200 or more NHL games played (dark blue). The red line is the Expected Likelihood of Success, with markers and data labels indicating percentages at each percentile.
The green line on the graph indicates Cassels’ current production rate (0.43), intercepts the XLS% line at just over 11%, approximately Cassels’ projection at this point.
(Note: this won’t match up perfectly with Cassels’ current pGPS percentage, because the percentiles are even across all production factors, while a players will vary, i.e. he may be in the 35th percentile for points per game, but the 45th percentile for assists per game. But it will still be close to assigned projection.)
The yellow line, labeled ‘target’ is of interest to us in this discussion. It’s marked at 0.86 points per game, which is the equivalent of the 14 points he scored in 16 games between December 13th and January 17th. Now, you can see what his projection would be like if he sustained that production (or any other rate of production) over the course of a season. In this case, it would land at about 35%, which would place him as the fourth most likely measurable Canucks prospect to stick in the NHL, after Goldobin, Olli Juolevi and Kole Lind (not including Elias Pettersson and Jonathan Dahlen, who have no comparables and thus no projections). That would be quite the turn into from the last couple of seasons.
What happens to Cassels next depends on a couple of things. Does his production continue? At this point it seems possible that he could sustain a similar rate as long as he continues to get prime opportunities, both at even strength and on the power play. How do the Canucks value his results in the last month compared to the previous two years of his pro career? Will this hot stretch be enough to warrant him an NHL look? It’s not unlike the hot streak that earned Mike Zalewski a contract and a call up in 2015-16.
With the final year of his Entry Level Contract half over, Cassels is at least building a case for receiving a qualifying offer and an extension in the off-season. If his new found production continues, then maybe the Canucks are tempted to give him a look in the NHL somewhere down the stretch. He kills penalties and he plays the reliable type of game that Travis Green craves. It’s in the realm of possibility that he could give you at least what Nic Dowd gives you at the NHL level.
This is a storyline that we’ll want to watch as the season progresses. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come.