Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cole Cassels dual citizenship: Is he competing for a spot on the "wrong" team?

I have no idea which one is Cassels -- but he's somewhere on this
bronze medal-winning Ontario team from the 2012 World U17s.
Image: Hockey Canada

There was considerable surprise when Cole Cassels was named to Team USA's preliminary roster for the 2015 World Juniors. USA Hockey made the announcement just a week after Cassels was handed a 10-game OHL suspension for a hit to the head of Damir Sharipzyanov. (Amazingly, the 18-year-old defenceman didn't miss a game and is currently on Russia's preliminary WJC roster.)

Because the IIHF (strangely) upholds CHL suspensions, Cassels would be ineligible to play the United States' first two games. But for those of you who have been following Cassels' progression this season, he has added to his two-way reputation an offensive upside that -- if not for his current suspension -- would put him among the OHL's top five scorers

It'll be interesting to see whether USA Hockey retains him on their roster. With the United States' second game coming against Germany, they'll only truly miss him for the opener against Finland. And he'll still be able to practice with the team and compete in exhibitions, so it's not as if he'll be coming into the tournament cold.

But the more interesting question is this: If not for his suspension, would the Ohio-born and Connecticut-raised Cassels be competing for a spot on Team Canada instead? Better yet, would he prefer to play for Team Canada?

Cassels' international playing history, while limited, represents a bit of a mixed bag. As the son of former Canuck and Brampton-born Andrew Cassels (he who centred Naslund and Bertuzzi before the West Coast Express), the 2013 draft pick is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States. It's why in 2012, he won bronze with Team Ontario alongside Bo Horvat at the World U17s and then competed in USA Hockey's All-American Prospects Game eight months later.

But it's not as if Cassels chose Hockey Canada over USA Hockey for the World U17s. The United States typically reserves the tournament for players from their year-round National Development Team, precluding Cassels, an OHL player, from even being a consideration for USA Hockey. And at the time, Hockey Canada was still fielding five regional U17 teams, making it a lot easier to crack Team Ontario.

It's interesting to note, however, what happened to Cassels at the U18 level, as he didn't appear in either competition -- the 2012 Ivan Hlinka or the 2013 IIHF tournament -- for either country. With Canada fielding a single U18 team in international competition, centers like Nathan Mackinnon, Sam Reinhart, Nic Petan and Horvat were simply way ahead of him on the depth chart.

But what about his American eligibility as a U18? As with their U17 team, the States reserves the IIHF tournament at that age level for players from their National Development Program. However, in international hockey's other U18s, the Ivan Hlinka, USA Hockey fields an annual team comprised of players outside their Development Program -- those from high school academies, the USHL and yes, the CHL.

Cassels in USA Hockey's All-American
Prospects Game in September 2012.
Perhaps USA Hockey passed on Cassels. But that seems extremely unlikely, especially given their roster at the 2012 Hlinka -- a team with three forwards that were listed below Cassels in Central Scoutings final rankings for the 2013 draft, as well as another three that were unranked altogether.
Alternatively, maybe he passed on them. Coming off a bronze medal with Hockey Canada at the U17s, it's plausible that he was holding out for an international career with the red and white. But what about his participation in USA Hockey's 2012 Prospects Game? Well, it's one thing to take part in an all-star competition for scouting exposure -- quite another to don an American uniform in  international competition when you might be gunning for a spot for Canada in, say...the World Juniors.

As an aside, it's worth mentioning that because the Ivan Hlinka is unsanctioned by the IIHF, playing for the States in that particular tournament wouldn't have actually precluded him from playing for Team Canada in future tournaments (see IIHF eligibility rules here). But if he was holding out for a spot on future Canadian teams, perhaps it was in his best interests to demonstrate his allegiance by passing on Team USA.

Fast forward to this November and Cassels used his dual citizenship to suit up for Team OHL -- a squad of Canadian all-stars -- against Russia. The annual Subway Series is seen by many as a final shot for Team Canada hopefuls to plead their case for a selection camp spot. Unlike USA Hockey's Prospects Game, the CHL's Subway Series rosters are dominated by players who are already drafted.  Subway Series players aren't looking for exposure to NHL scouts; they're looking for a spot on Team Canada.

For all of Team Canada's depth, Cassels would have been a desirable player for their 2015 team. Captain of the Oshawa Generals, he is an established two-way centre whose offensive upside has skyrocketed in his fourth OHL season. In other words, a perfect fit for Canada's bottom-six -- let alone the selection camp roster.

Of course, this is all before Cassels was handed down his 10-game suspension. Despite being held off the podium in the last two years, Canada retains by far the deepest talent pool. That said, Canada can afford not to invite a player of Cassels' calibre. There's no use in Cassels competing for a bottom-six role with players like Robby Fabbri or Jason Dickinson when Hockey Canada could have have one of his would-be competitors for the full tournament.

And to be fair, the United States are no slouch internationally. But simply put, they could use a player like Cassels at limited availability a lot more than Canada.

That said, Cassels is still playing against the odds for a final spot on Team USA. But if he does get the call, can you guess who the United States ends up playing in his first eligible game?

Come New Year's Eve, Canada might find out exactly what Cassels can do at the World Juniors. Trouble is, it might be for the wrong team. I wonder if Cassels feels the same way.



Bo Horvat at the 2014 World Juniors
Canucks prospects at the WJC: All-time list
Hodgson, Bourdon and the Canucks All-Canadian WJC Team

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