This is the first in a two-part series on Sabres goalie prospect Jason Kasdorf.
He was a goalie prospect considered by many to be the proverbial "thrown-in" part of the February 11, 2015 blockbuster trade between the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres, although it's hard to believe that a meticulous GM like the Sabres Tim Murray would simply point to a name on a roster and say, "Meh, throw him in as well."
The Jets/Sabres deal had the big names--Evander Kane and Tyler Myers--and included young vets Drew Stafford and Zach Bogosian, plus there were Buffalo prospects Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux, as well as a first round pick, sent to Winnipeg in the trade. And then there was unsigned goalie Jason Kasdorf who's low draft position and uneven college career at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY left analysts scratching their head asking, "Who?"
TSN's Scott Cullen described Kasdorf as "a curious inclusion in the deal," while others simply didn't think much of, and/or didn't know much about him. Central Scouting Services had Kasdorf as the 10th-ranked North American goalie heading into the 2011 NHL Draft and he ended up going in the sixth round (157th) to his hometown Winnipeg Jets. He was the first of seven goalies taken in that round. Winnipeg drafting Kasdorf was considered somewhat sentimental as this was the first draft for the latest incarnation of the Jets. Having a hometown boy in their inaugural draft, many thought, adds to the feel-good story of the Jets return to Winnipeg.
But the pick, however, shouldn't be construed as purely sentimental.
"Just when the excitement over the return of the Jets to the draft table was beginning to wane, the selection of a home-town hero in the sixth round blew the roof off the Jets draft party," wrote Kyle West of hockey'sfuture.com during his 2011 Winnipeg Jets draft review. "Kasdorf was one of many reclaimed Jets fans who filled the Xcel Center to share their pride in returning to the NHL brotherhood, [but he] was no token Manitoban selected to please the fans."
Prior to the draft Kasdorf was playing in the Jets backyard for the Portage Terriers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, about an hour from Winnipeg. He played two years for Portage and in his second year he lead his team to the league championship with a seven-game series win in the Anavet Cup over the La Ronge Wolves, winners of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. The Terriers headed into the third period of game-7 clinging to a 1-0 lead and ended up winning the game 4-0 as Kasdorf and the Terriers withstood a Wolves' desperation barrage in the latter part of the third.
"It was probably one of the most exciting games I've ever been a part of," Kasdorf told me during an interview yesterday. "It was one of the biggest wins I'd ever had and probably one of the most fun games I'd ever been a part of."
On the heels of that strong season and with the excitement of the 2011 NHL Draft in the rear-view mirror, Kasdorf played a season with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL before he headed east to RPI to begin his college career. He came into the program his freshman year as a third string goalie and began to hone his craft, which included adapting to a different style of play in net.
"In Portage I was very aggressive, maybe a little more scrambly than I should've been," said Kasdorf. It was something that worked in junior but when he got to RPI, Engineers head coach Seth Appert, a former goalie himself, reigned in Kasdorf's aggressiveness a bit and geared him more towards using his 6'3" 180 lb. frame. "My game's a little more thought out now. [Coach Appert] tightened up my game as far as utilizing my size, staying on my feet and staying in the crease more.
"Another area he's helped me with," continued Kasdorf, "is my body position. I used to get pretty bent over which caused me to look smaller in net. He helped me to keep my chest up to appear bigger to the shooters."
Kasdorf was a fast learner. For his freshman season he posted a 14-5-2 record with three shutouts, a 1.62 gaa and .935 sv%. After beginning the season as No. 3 on the depth chart, by January Appert had him as his starter.
"Of any goalie I'd ever coached, [Kasdorf] made the quickest adjustments to college hockey," Appert told me. "He was clearly our No. 3 goalie September 1. He was still our No. 3 goalie on October 15th but he was making strides, closing the gap and making great improvements in his game. By November 15th he was fighting to be our No. 1 goalie and by January 1st he was our No. 1 goalie."
Appert, who helped four of his goalies make it to the NHL, was quick to point out that it was all about Kasdorf's work ethic, and not some "magical touch," that propelled Kasdorf to the starter's role. "Jason's work ethic is impeccable, and he came here with that," said Appert. "It's a special work ethic. We've enhanced how he works, and the manner and the diligence and detail with how he works, but he showed up that.
"Early in the year, instead of sulking about not playing, he'd just walk down the hallway, knock on my door and ask if I'd go out and do extra work with him on Friday's and Saturday's (game days.)"
Oddly enough, just before Christmas break while on his way to the starting job, Kasdorf fell on his shoulder awkwardly while battling for a puck and was on the mend for a few weeks. He would come back and lead a charge that saw the Engineers go from last place to second place in Eastern College Athletic Conference Hockey. Although they would get bounced in the first round of the 2013 ECAC Hockey playoffs and not get a bid to the NCAA tournament that year, they did raise the bar for the following season.
With expectations high and a real good team ready to make an impression in college hockey, Kasdorf's sophomore season would come to an end only two games in as he fell on the same shoulder in a goalie session. It would effectively put an end to post-season aspirations. "We were a team that was capable of going to the Frozen Four, even challenging for the national title," said the coach. "We had a lot of good players, but [Kasdorf] missed [nearly] all of the season."
The injury, as well as his relative obscurity, would form the basis of the questions surrounding his inclusion in the Jets/Sabres trade. Where once there was very coachable young goalie with quantifiable size, plenty of talent and an "impeccable" work ethic, there was now a player who endured injuries that caused him to miss nearly an entire season and possibly derail his development.
Kasdorf would come back fully healed his junior year, however, ready to carry the weight of being the No. 1 goalie, but the team in front of him had gone through some significant changes up front. Two players Appert had mentioned as offensively pivotal were Ryan Haggerty and Mike Zalewski. Both had turned pro in the off season leaving gaping holes on offense. "We needed to win 3-2 or 2-1 last season," said Appert. "We were too thin offensively with losing those guys early to the NHL."
With that in mind, Appert would term the 2014-15 season "a bit of a rebuild" because of the lost offensive production, but the team was starting to play some good hockey until Kasdorf went down with a minor knee injury right around Christmas. "When he went down with the injury, we were headed into a very demanding part of our schedule," said the coach. "We played well during those games but we lost almost every one without him in net. We had trouble recovering from that."
Even when Kasdorf did make it back, it took him a while to regain his form. He was out of rhythm, and was missing the confidence a goalie needs. "Once I got back," he said, "I was very inconsistent, average. My first game back I didn't do well which may have rattled me a bit."
"Jason played great at the beginning of the year," said Appert. "He looked better than he looked his freshman year. But coming back from his (knee) injury he was sloppy in mid-January to early February and it probably took him that month to get his game back."
And on February 11th, he found out he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres.
At the time of the trade, the dream of playing for his hometown team was vanquished, but, he told Ed Weaver of Troy's, For the Record, "I wouldn’t say [I'm] disappointed. I’m excited that Buffalo wants me and they’re a great organization and I’m happy to be a part of it. It’s special being part of a big trade. I had no idea it was going to happen. Then I got the call. It’s exciting. It’s change and change is good.”
Just like when he was #3 on the depth chart his freshman year, Kasdorf didn't take to sulking after the trade. He would bear down on the task at hand eventually leading the ninth-seeded Engineers past a good Clarkson team in the first round of the playoffs, before bowing out to No. 2 seed St. Lawrence.
He would follow that up with a strong performance at the Sabres Development Camp in July which effectively put him on the map. The camp, his fourth after going through three in the Winnipeg organization, included 30 minutes of shutout hockey during the Blue and Gold scrimmage. As a part of the Blue team which won the game 5-2 in front of 17,115 Buffalo hockey fans, Kasdorf faced off against the likes of Jack Eichel, the 2nd-overall pick in June's draft, free agent signee Evan Rodrigues, Eichel's Boston University linemate (who finished second in NCAA scoring last season behind Eichel) as well as some of the best prospects in the organization.
When all was said and done, there was talk that his performance placed atop the list of goalie prospects.
Kasdorf's journey has had some bumps along the way that could have thrown him off course. But instead, he's simply remained focused upon what he can control. "Jason's work is predicated on his habits and he has a real workman-like mentality about how he goes about his daily business," said coach Appert. "He believes in what he does and how he does it."
That workmanlike attitude, as well as Kasdorf's somewhat old-school values, can be traced to his father, who grew up on a farm in Brazil before emigrating to Canada.
Which we'll delve into in the next part