Andrew Cassels, who did not take part in a playoff game for nine
straight seasons and who in his 12-year career has appeared in
the same number of playoff matches (21) as the Colorado Avalanche
did last spring, says he wants to finally make his mark in the
postseason. This invites the question: What is he doing with the
Columbus Blue Jackets? The 33-year-old Cassels, an unrestricted
free agent last summer, took a $600,000 pay cut to join a
third-year team that last season had a miserable 57 points. His
answer--he is going through a divorce and wanted to be relatively
close to his children in suburban Toronto--is less confounding
than the Western Conference standings last Saturday morning. The
Blue Jackets awoke to find themselves three points behind the
vaunted Avalanche a quarter of the way through the NHL season.
The notion that Columbus might play games of consequence into
April, or beyond, is not just a dream. The former grind-it-out
Blue Jackets have thrived under this season's stricter
enforcement of the obstruction rule, scoring at a
franchise-record pace and playing brilliantly on special teams.
Through last Saturday, Columbus had 63 goals in 21 games; last
season the Blue Jackets didn't reach that total until the 34th
game. Their power play, ranked 25th last year, stood at third.
Their penalty killing had leaped from 22nd to third as well.
"The difference is Cassels," says Columbus goalie Marc Denis. "No
free agent has had more impact on his new team than he has. The
power play, the penalty killing, our goals-for--it's his
influence. He's raised our confidence level a notch. Now this
team can play a 4--3 game and know it has a good chance to win."
Cassels deflects praise the way he distributes the puck: with a
minimum of fuss. He has been known as one of the half-dozen or so
best passers in the NHL--if he has been known at all, having
played six seasons in Hartford and five in Calgary and Vancouver.
He is neither as slick as the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux
nor as creative as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim's Adam Oates. But
Cassels isn't far behind them. His signature is the no-look pass.
He looks left and dishes right, enticing defensemen to commit
their sticks while freeing the passing lane he wants. The
lefthander has another move in which he waves his stick over the
puck and, abracadabra, it reappears on his winger's tape after
the defenseman positions his stick to block what is invariably
the wrong lane. "Once Andrew's got your stick, he's got you,"
says Blue Jackets coach Dave King. "He doesn't have blazing
speed, but he slows the game down to his speed. He can draw
checkers to him and, just outside the range of their pokechecks,
he gets the pass off."
The prime beneficiary is leftwinger Geoff Sanderson, whose
quickness gives Cassels more space to operate. Theirs is a
symbiotic relationship. With Cassels as his center in Hartford,
Sanderson scored 46 goals in 1992--93 and 41 the next season.
This season Cassels, second to Lemieux in assists through
Saturday with 18, has assisted on nine of Sanderson's 12 goals.
Reunited, they are the low-rent Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri of
the hockey heartland. "A chance to play with Geoff again was
something I took into consideration," says Cassels, who played
six seasons with Sanderson on the Whalers. "A guy you have a
chemistry with, on and off the ice, makes it fun."
But his primary concerns in joining Columbus were his son, Cole,
7, and daughter, Scout, 6. When the Maple Leafs, deep at center,
expressed no interest in him, Cassels looked for a nearby team.
On Aug. 15 he agreed to a three-year deal with the Blue Jackets
that pays him a modest annual base salary of $2.6 million but
gives him the option of becoming a free agent after any season.
He drove 6 1/2 hours after one game to spend time with his kids
and brought them to Columbus for a five-day visit. He seems
pleased with the arrangement and insists this season is not an
extended audition for the Leafs. Cassels says, "I told Doug
[MacLean, the Blue Jackets' G.M.] when I signed that I look at
this as a three-year deal, not a one-year deal." In any case
Cassels has been the deal of the season.
It's Good to Give
Columbus center Andrew Cassels is the rare playmaker who's also a
goal-scoring threat. Below, the leading assist-to-goal ratios
among players with at least five goals this season (through
Player, Team Goals Assists ratio
Andrew Cassels, Columbus 5 18 3.6
Cliff Ronning, Minnesota 5 17 3.4
Steve Rucchin, Anaheim 5 15 3.0
Vaclav Prospal, Tampa Bay 6 17 2.8
Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh 11 30 2.7