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Buffalo fans will get preview of Kassian's power

TORONTO -- Buffalo hockey fans will certainly enjoy the competition and the pageantry the World Junior Championships will bring to town. But diehard Sabres fans won't just be living in the moment. They'll be paying particular attention to a player who could provide immediate help for the Blue and Gold next season.

Team Canada winger Zack Kassian, Buffalo's No. 1 pick in 2009, is having a breakout offensive season at Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League. At 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds, he's the kind of power forward the Sabres desperately need.

When Minnesota's Thomas Vanek was head and shoulders above the field at the 2003 Frozen Four in HSBC Arena, Buffalo fans were wildly hopeful the Sabres could pick him up. This is different. Fans don't have to hope during this tournament. Kassian is already theirs.

Making this team and playing this event in his future NHL home was one of Kassian's goals once the Sabres sent him back to junior late in training camp.

"Being in Buffalo, it really makes it that much more exciting and gave me that much more oomph to make this team," said Kassian, who doesn't turn 20 until Jan. 24. "I had more determination to take advantage of the chance for people to see me.

"Now that I've made it, my main focus is a gold medal. No matter where it is, it can be in a small little town somewhere across the world, that's my mind-set. It doesn't matter where. It's really nice obviously to have it in Buffalo but now it's about team and doing everything we can to win."

Kassian has 15 goals and 48 points in just 25 games at Windsor. He had 12 goals and 31 points in 38 games for the Spitfires last season as they won their second straight Memorial Cup.

"Everyone that knew me knew I could play that way and I believed in myself that I could score and put up points," Kassian said. "But my first couple of years the situation I was in I was more of a checker. I feel I can produce. It's just been a matter of being given an opportunity."

"He's been great in Windsor and is just bringing his game here," said Team Canada captain Ryan Ellis, who is also Kassian's captain in Windsor. "He's been playing well, skating hard for our team and we're expecting big things for this tournament.

"The first couple years, the OHL is a tough league to come into. Everyone has a feeling-out process. He's really come into his own the last two years and is playing some great hockey now."

Kassian's big frame allows him a chance to get great position in front of the net. And he has good hands in tight as well. He potted a highlight-reel backhand from the edge of the crease during Canada's exhibition win Tuesday over Sweden in the Air Canada Centre, pulling the puck around goaltender Robin Lehner (who has played with Ottawa and at Binghamton of the AHL) and flipping it under the crossbar.

"He's learned how to use his size so much," said Team Canada teammate and fellow Sabres draftee Marcus Foligno, who plays for Sudbury in the OHL. "He's done a great job in Windsor, become really tough to play against."

What has to really please the Sabres is how Kassian has made a huge improvement in his two-way game. He had a minus-17 rating last season. He's at plus-12 this year.

"You don't make pro teams being one-dimensional," said Team Canada coach Dave Cameron. "You have to play both sides of the puck and he's really progressed in that area.

"I've always thought of him as a complete player. This process is about improving, whether it's about your club team, going to the world juniors or becoming a pro. You have to continue to improve. To me, he's on an upward curve."

Next stop for Kassian: Couple of weeks in Buffalo. Next year for Kassian: Full-time role in Buffalo?

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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