By Bill Hoppe
Through almost two months of professional career, Sabres rookie Zack Kassian hasn’t consistently showcased the same intimidating, physical style he played junior.
Why? What happened to the fearsome junior winger whose wicked hits are posted all over Youtube.com?
Kassian’s trying to become a complete player. So far, it’s working. Kassian had seven goals, 14 points and only 17 penalty minutes in 18 AHL games. When the injury-ravaged Sabres needed a forward late last week, they summoned the 20-year-old from Rochester.
“I think I’m physical. I’m not going out of my way to run around,” Kassian said shortly after his recall. “I’m playing like there’s a puck on the ice. Obviously, you’re playing on the top two lines (in Rochester). I’m getting leaned upon to produce. Whenever you get in those situations, you don’t want to waste it. You want to produce.”
But the old Kassian showed up briefly Tuesday inside the First Niagara Center, when he scrapped ferociously with the New York Islanders’ Matt Martin in the first period of the Sabres’ 2-1 loss, his first NHL fight.
Kassian had an assist is his debut Friday, a 5-1 loss in Columbus. Then he scored Saturday in a 5-1 win over Washington.
He began ramping down his play and evolving last year, when he had 26 goals, 77 points and 67 penalty minutes in 56 contests with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. He was, however, suspended two games with Team Canada at the world junior championship for thumping a Czech defenseman.
Still, Kassian had 291 penalty minutes in his first 157 junior games, 1.9 a game. The OHL even banned him 20 games two years ago for a lethal open-ice hit. Counting last season and the current one, he has 93 penalty minutes in 77 tilts, just 1.2 a game.
“We believe we know what Zack can bring us,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “He’s got a great shot. He is a strong man on the puck. I think he has both elements – a physical side and an offensive side, and offensively, he got off to a great start down in Rochester. I think on the physical side, I think there’s more there.”
In Rochester, Kassian’s been working closely with assistant coach Chris Taylor, a former Sabre and top AHL scorer. He also spent much of the summer in Buffalo under the guidance of Sabres assistant coach Kevyn Adams.
“Kevyn Adams was working with me all summer, and I felt that really worked with just little things – quick hands, stuff like that,” Kassian said. “And then leading into Rochester with Chris Taylor, he’s helped me out a whole bunch and that coaching staff.”
The Sabres, down a whopping nine players last game, got two of them back Tuesday. Winger Drew Stafford and defenseman Robyn Regehr returned after one-game absences.
Winger Patrick Kaleta (lower body), who took the morning skate, sat a fourth game, however, so the Sabres recalled forward Paul Szczechura from Rochester prior to the tilt.
Meanwhile, goalie Ryan Miller took shots with his teammates prior to game and plans to practice fully this morning for the first since Boston’s Milan Lucic leveled him Nov. 12.
“He was looking forward to getting out there and taking some shots,” Ruff said. “I told him I wouldn’t take any today but maybe tomorrow.”
The Sabres have reiterated Miller suffered a concussion, saying doctors from both teams diagnosed him with one. The team also said the neck pain Miller has experienced added to his discomfort but isn’t why he’s missed eight games.
Miller said this Monday: “I don’t know for certain what it was. I definitely felt I took a good impact. I certainly felt that way (like a concussion). We also had some symptoms in my neck. That was proven through some tests. (I) had to wait and let that settle down until a place I could get on the ice. I’ve been good for a few days now. Now I just have to get through good after some intense workouts.”
In other injury, news Sabres winger Cody McCormick (upper body, seven games) skated again Tuesday morning. A contact practice is the next step in his recovery.
Notes: Ruff joking about bumping into Miller on the ice Tuesday morning: “I think he bumped into me. I didn’t get concussed, though.” … The coach, who called Szczechura “Chewy” on Saturday rather than trying to pronounce his name, said it correctly Tuesday. “I practiced it, yeah,” Ruff said. “You could tell. I didn’t call him ‘Chewy.’” … Sabres rookie defenseman Brayden McNabb skated 14:26. His open-ice hit flattened Frans Nielsen in the second period.