Minnesota Wild enforcer Matt Kassian branches out
GLENDALE, Ariz. – The moment Matt Kassian knew his future in hockey might be as an enforcer came on his first shift in the rough-and-tumble Western Hockey League. He was just 16, suiting up for the Vancouver Giants and trying to catch the attention of NHL teams, when the biggest player on the ice sidled up to him and asked him if he wanted to go.
“He was 6-foot-5, 260 pounds,” Kassian said. “I was still pretty tall, but I was about 215 pounds – still pretty small at that point. I held my own. No one really dominated the fight. I figured it out pretty quick after that.”
Kassian eventually filled out to about the same dimensions as the guy towering over him that night, which all but divined that his path to the NHL would be paved with his fists. He wound up with 42 penalty minutes in 2003-04 for the Giants, and tallied 172 the next year – his first full season of Canadian major juniors. From there, through Houston in the American Hockey League and on to Minnesota, Kassian has been asked primarily to stick up for teammates by standing up to opponents.
But as usual with Kassian – whose gregarious personality and quick wit on Twitter cast him against type – there’s a little more going on than you’d suspect. He was a second-round draft pick of the Wild in 2005, and though no one doubts his role will continue to be as an enforcer, he quietly is adding a few more elements to his game.
He has taken advantage of his opportunities on a decimated Wild roster, scoring his first two NHL goals in Montreal last Thursday and playing a career-high 10 minutes, 12 seconds the next night in Detroit. Kassian found himself in an unlikely position Monday in Denver, firing on a breakaway attempt after receiving a breakout pass in the second period.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of what Matt Kassian is as a player,” coach Mike Yeo said. “I’ve had him for two years. But that doesn’t mean there’s not upside and potential to grow. The guys that are able to move up and develop into more are guys that just have a great understanding of how they play the game. It’s real important for him to do all the things that he’s supposed to do, and add a little bit more here and there.”
That could be particularly important for Kassian and other fighters around the league. Increased concern about concussions could reduce the role of enforcers who have been somewhat marginalized as the NHL moved toward a more open style of play.
According to HockeyFights.com, the NHL is averaging 0.45 fights per game this season and is on pace to finish with almost 100 fewer fights than last year. If the numbers hold, fighting would be at its lowest level since the first two seasons after the 2004-05 lockout.
Kassian is aware he might need to add more to his game as the league moves forward, and on several occasions – particularly in the Montreal game – he has shown promise as a power forward. He banged in two goals near the net, and could have had a third if he’d been able to reach a loose puck with Carey Price out of position.
“I think you see that all around the board (in the game),” Kassian said. “You have to at least be consistent defensively and be smart with the puck. That’s going to be part of it (for enforcers), and that’s something I’m going to continue to try and do.”
He’s been working with the Wild’s coaching staff on puck possession and positioning around the net, and he’s taken advantage of injuries to keep himself in the lineup.
Kassian has dressed in six of the Wild’s past eight games, posting the three highest totals of playing time in his career. His last fight came Feb. 19 against Boston; since then, he’s had as many shots (six) as penalty minutes.
No one expects Kassian to turn into a different breed of player. Yeo quipped on Wednesday that he doesn’t think he’ll see Kassian on another breakaway any time soon, and Kassian knows his biggest strength is still as an enforcer.
But as he’s gotten opportunities to play, he’s trying to use them to grow.
“If you’re really good at something and like it – and I definitely enjoy playing hockey – you’ve got to do what you’re best at,” he said. “For me, it’s about expanding other areas of my game.”
Follow Ben Goessling at twitter.com/BenGoesslingPP.
Category: News & Views