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 left-winger 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� 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.
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