If you ever needed a definition of a heady hockey player, it was Andrew Cassels.
Cassels was a very intelligent player, blessed with terrific hockey instincts. A poor man's Adam Oates, he was one of the best play makers of his generation. He was a creative puck mover, as good a puck distributor on his back hand as on his forehand. He knew when and where to move the puck. And he knew his targets inside out, as he spent countless hours in practice as the set up man for various shooting drills.
Born just outside of Toronto, Cassels could have been mistaken as a European NHLer from the 1980s - he had a reputation of hating to shoot the puck, and of being soft.
Cassels did score 204 career NHL goals (in 1014 NHL games), most of which were tap-ins from rebounds near the crease. He did have very quick hands and great hand eye coordination, and was not usually guilty of over-passing when in tight on the net. He probably could have scored more goals this way but he did not always fight through his check to get to loose pucks.
At 6'0 and 190lbs, Cassels was not big enough to be a number on center, which he was often asked to be in Hartford, his best known NHL stop. He was an easy shutdown for bigger checking centers. A notorious quick starter, as the season wore on he tended to get run down and fatigued, and by playoff time he was not nearly as effective, as his playoff resume might suggest.
Unlike a lot of successful smaller players, Cassels did not have great skating to compensate for lack of size and strength. He had good speed, but he lacked quick acceleration. He also lacked agility and balance, making him easy to push off the puck.
In addition to being intelligent, crafty and creative, he backchecked regularly and even blocked shots. He was a regular on both specialty teams.
Scouts first really noticed Cassels back in 1986, when he was with the Ottawa 67's. With 66 assists and 92 points, he was the Ontario League rookie of the year that season and Montreal made him a 1st round selection in the 1987 NHL draft. The next year Cassels was the OHL scoring champion with 151 points, including an amazing 103 assists.
Thanks to years of watching Wayne Gretzky, fans definitely had an appreciation for skilled play making centers. So the fans were somewhat surprised to see Montreal give up on Cassels after just two pro seasons.
True, his first NHL season was nothing legendary, with just 6 goals and 25 points in 54 games. Still, the Canadiens were in need of offensive centers at the time. They had Guy Carbonneau and Brian Skrudland to check, with a young Brent Gilchrist following in their footsteps. But they lacked a true offensive dynamo down the middle. They may have wanted to give that spot to a young Francophone scoring dynamo who never really panned out named Stephan Lebeau. That and the arrival of veterans Denis Savard and Kirk Muller made Cassels expendable in Montreal. He was traded to Hartford for a 2nd round pick in 1992. Montreal picked Valeri Bure.
Cassels was a good fit in Hartford. By 1992-93 he became the Whalers top line center and a regular on both specialty team units. He formed great chemistry with speedster Geoff Sanderson on left wing.
Cassels enjoyed six solid seasons with the Whalers, but he was not part of the franchise move to Carolina for the 1997-98 season. Instead the newly minted Hurricanes traded Cassels and a prospect goaltender named Jean Sebastian Giguere in exchange for Trevor Kidd and Gary Roberts.
A lot was expected of Cassels in Calgary, and by most measuring sticks he was a disappointment. He lasted only two seasons under Brian Sutter's grinding, chip-it-in, chip-it-out, style of hockey, a style Cassels was not suited for. He posted totals of just 44 and 37 points before he was let go as a free agent.
In the summer of 1999 Cassels was reunited with Brian Burke, who was formerly GM in Hartford. Burke, now GM of the Vancouver Canucks, gambled wisely on Cassels, who put three solid seasons in Vancouver. In his first two seasons in Vancouver, he would lead the team in assists and finish second in scoring.
The Canucks let Cassels walk in the summer of 2002, as the younger Brendan Morrison and Henrik Sedin emerged as top centers. Cassels, wanting to finish his career close to his home in Toronto, signed on with the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he would be reunited with Geoff Sanderson. In his first year he was a surprise hit, scoring 20 goals and 68 points. But injuries derailed his 2003-04 season, as he had just 6 goals and 26 points in 58 games.
Cassels did not want to end his career on that note. After the lost 2004-05 season due to the NHL lockout, Cassels signed on with the Washington Capitals for the 2005-06 season. It seemed like a good fit, with Washington looking for a playmaking center for their young star Alexander Ovechking. But Cassels, who did not play at all during the lockout, had a disastrous season. With the new rules cracking down on obstruction, the game was too fast for the aging veteran. He was released after Christmas.
Cassels played in 16 NHL seasons, for a total of 1015 games, recording 204 goals and 528 assists for 732 points. In seven of his seasons he led his team in assists.