Kassian eager to show Sabres he’s ready

Even as forward Zack Kassian has begun putting his off-ice troubles behind him, Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier would still prefer the player open his pro career in the minors — like most of the team’s prospects.

And Kassian can appreciate the philosophy.

But that doesn’t mean the 2009 first-round draft pick can’t work on being an exception come October.

”Obviously, I want to try to bypass that and help the Buffalo Sabres win a (Stanley) Cup as soon as possible,” Kassian said Friday. ”But if that’s not the case, I’ll still have to develop my game if I’m at the NHL level or at the AHL level.”

Either way, the 20-year-old began making a good impression long before he hit the ice this week in the Sabres’ development camp at Niagara University.

A year ago, the Sabres had suspended contract talks and were questioning Kassian’s maturity and commitment after he was charged with assault for being involved in a bar fight in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario. The charge was dropped after Kassian completed 25 hours of community service in October, which led to the Sabres signing him to a three-year contract a few days later.

Kassian rededicated himself to hockey this offseason. Rather than staying at his home on Lake St. Clair, he spent the past two months working out with Sabres strength and conditioning and development coaches in Buffalo.

”You have to invest in your future, so I think that was the best bet for me to get out of my hometown,” Kassian said. ”Rather than spending time with my friends or going on the boat or something like that in my hometown, I’m sacrificing that for my career … and take the biggest strides I can to try to crack that lineup.”

Regier is pleased with what he’s seen.

”The work he’s doing now is an indication that he’s moving in the right direction,” Regier said.

And yet there are more steps still to be taken, even though it’s likely Kassian opens next season with Rochester of the American Hockey League.

”It’s not a question of ability. It’s about the maturity around the game. I think the challenge for all players — and this happens to be about Zack — is professionalism, responsibility and consistent work ethic,” Regier said. ”It will be determined by Zack. We’ll see.”

Kassian is the most intriguing and talked-about near-ready NHL prospect attending Sabres camp. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he has the prototypical size of a power forward, and the hard-hitting style to back it up. That’s complemented with a soft offensive touch that makes Kassian a dual threat

He finished his Ontario Hockey League career with 71 goals and 192 points with 358 penalty minutes in 213 games split between Peterborough and Windsor. And Kassian could’ve produced more had he not been suspended by the OHL for 20 games during the 2009-10 season for a vicious hit to the head of Barrie forward Matt Kennedy, who sustained a concussion and a cut that required stitches.

Kassian added another 14 goals, 21 assists and 85 penalty minutes in 44 playoff games, while also helping Windsor win the Memorial Cup championship last year.

He also won a silver medal in January, representing Canada at the World Junior Championship that was held in Buffalo. And he made his pro debut last spring, appearing in three playoff games with Portland, Buffalo’s former AHL affiliate.

The experiences over the past year — and that includes the bar fight — have allowed Kassian to test himself and mature.

”Mostly, I think it’s just about being older,” Kassian said. ”When I first got to the OHL, I just thought it was a game, just like minor hockey: Put on the skates and play and when you’re done, head home.”

There’s more to it now that he’s turned pro.

”There’s been some bumps,” Kassian said. ”But I’m starting to figure that out. And what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”