Gillis’ Gamble

Well, at least newly acquired Zack Kassian looks like a hockey player!

Mike Gillis loves to work to a deadline, and he proved that again with a blockbuster trade that only broke about thirty minutes after the deadline expired. What a ballsy deal this was for the Canucks General Manager, who has been the model of conservatism at the trade deadline in the past.

Needless to say, today Gillis departed from him usual approach and sent the well loved and absurdly talented Cody Hodgson to Buffalo, along with depth defenseman Alexander Sulzer in exchange for mammoth forward Zack Kassian, and young offensive defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani. Wow.

Read past the jump!

When you get past the initial shock, and today’s deal is a blind-side hit for many Canucks fans: myself included, this is a very interesting deal for Vancouver. It’s hard to swallow initially because Cody Hodgson was having such a rockstar rookie season, but Gillis’ wager isn’t total madness. 

Yes, Cody Hodgson has all the tools to make it as a bonafide top-line centre, but that’s ultimately not something the Canucks have a need for over the next few seasons. As good as Hodgson looked at times, he was trapped behind Kesler and Sedin on the depth-chart and nothing was going to change that in the immediate future. 

While I still think that too much has been made in Vancouver about the "enmity" between Hodgson’s camp and Canucks head-coach Alain Vigneault, I do think that Vigneault’s "fingers-prints" are all over this trade. I doubt that Vigneault had anything against Hodgson personally though, it’s just that Hodgson’s presence was messing with the deployment structure that the team prefers. Here’s Alain Vigneault exactly two weeks ago describing to Elliot Pap the way the Canucks would prefer to roll their four forward lines:

"We have a pretty good theory on what we’re looking for… If you look at our template from last year, which was pretty effective, we had two offensive lines with Hank Sedin and Ryan Kesler and a real strong line with Manny and whoever would play with him. Most of the time it was Jannik and Raffi and that enabled me to play them head-to-head against one of the other team’s top lines, which freed up either Ryan or Hank to play against a third or fourth line. When we’re capable of doing that, it can make it real challenging for the opposition. So we’re still trying to figure out where the pieces fit, whether that’s the ideal way of doing things or if there is something else out there."

Basically Hodgson’s lack of two-way proficiency forced the Canucks to shelter two of their forward lines. As a result, Ryan Kesler was playing tougher minutes than the team preferred. By replacing Hodgson with Pahlsson, and adding Gragnani (for defensive depth) as well as Zack Kassian (a massive, punishing forward): the Canucks will be able to return to the deployment patterns they used so successfully last season. Heading into the postseason: that makes them a better team.

Thirdly as Cam Charron pointed out earlier today: the Canucks sold high on Cody Hodgson. Hodgson’s possession numbers started strong this season, but over the past several months he was getting absolutely torched at even-strength – despite playing sheltered minutes. His offensive explosion in January, was partly enabled by an 82% ozone start rate and a roughly 30% personal shooting percentage. I have no doubt that Cody Hodgson is going to be a very good offensive player in the NHL for a long time: but at the current juncture he’s a minus possession player who went on a percentage driven roll over a small sample that inflated his trade value.

In the deal the Canucks acquired two young pieces with a fair bit of upside in Marc-Andre Gragnani and more importantly: Zack Kassian. Kassian has played a limited role with the Sabres this season, producing seven points while averaging bottom-6 minutes in 27 games. He’s been deployed mostly against soft competition, but he hasn’t been situationally sheltered and overall he’s a negative adjusted possession player.

In the AHL, however, Kassian has been an absolute force: producing 26 points in 30 games (or .86 points per game). For some perspective, last season when Hodgson was Kassian’s age: he produced 30 total AHL points in 52 AHL games (.57 points per game). Kassian was the thirteenth overall pick in 2009 and is a year younger than Hodgson is, and he also fills an immediate need for the Canucks with his size (he’s listed at 226 pounds!). Kassian’s presence makes the team’s bottom-six more physically formidable from the moment he joins the team and as a power-winger with a tremendous amount of upside: Kassian just fits better on the Canucks roster this season, and beyond. 

The other young player acquired in this deal is Marc-Andre Gragnani, a twenty four year old offensive defenseman who has appeared in 41 games with the Sabres this season. Gragnani has one year remaining on a contract that will pay him 500k this season, and he’ll be a restricted free-agent after that. He’s posted a positive shot differential this season, while being situationally sheltered and playing mostly against soft competition. Still, for the most part his underlying numbers are auspicious, even if his +10 +/- number is something of a mirage (1034 PDO).

It’s not too big a stretch to say that Gragnani could eventually caddy for the Sedins like Ehrhoff did, and become a legitimate point producer from the back-end. The fact that Gragnani is a young defenseman with potential, who has played the right-side in the past – makes him more than just a throw-in in today’s trade.

Ultimately, trading a player with Hodgson’s pedigree is a risky maneuver, which is why today’s trade is so exceptionally bold. While today’s moves have added depth, size and balance to the Canucks lineup: this could still turn out to be one of those tenure defining, lopsided trades that Canucks fans will bring up over one too many drinks for decades to come. But forecasts of doom aside, there is ample reason to be intrigued by Gillis’ gamble today.

  • Well written article and well researched. However, I think a few key points were missed:

    1) Yes, Hodgson was playing sheltered minutes and may have inflated numbers because of that. BUT, we never saw what it would look like if Hodgson played top 6 minutes. This kid got better and better as his confidence and experience simultaneously grew, and AV and co. never gave him the regular opportunity to show what he could do as a top 6 winger (and switching to the wing, especially on a line with Kesler would have decreased the importance of his defensive play)

    2) The timing of the trade. If the Canucks were serious of shopping Hodgson for a sizable, gritty, winger – why not a) try to find out what you could have gotten Hodgson in terms of proven, NHL – ready players that fit this description (i.e. Ott, Penner, Ryan, etc.), or 2) wait until the end of the year to pull the trigger on the best possible deal, rather than force a deal that at best looks like a risky gamble, and at worst looks like a complete gaff.

    3) How disrespectful this trade makes the Canucks franchise look. Hodgson worked his ass off for probably too long in the minors, finally cracked the lineup for the best team in the NHL, earned a third line center roll and helped us win quite a few games single handidly, only to get shipped to a non-playoff team without being told in advance that he was even being shopped, nevertheless traded once it went down….just brutal.

    To me this trade looks like one that a winner won’t be decided for a few years still as Kassian likely won’t hit his stride for a few years to come. To me, this is a huge mistake – to make this type of trade when your team is the best in the league, to tamper with your obviously effective group and bring in a complete unknown, all while you are ramping up for a deep playoff run.

    Thanks for the great read though.

    • Krieger

      I can’t say I agree. It kills to see a guy like Hodgson go, but..

      1) I think that’s the whole point: he was never going to get the top 6 minutes he needed to develop here. I loved watching him play but he really didn’t fit what the Canucks need right now. The few times we did see him playing wing, he really didn’t impress.

      2) How do you know (a) didn’t happen? Besides that, I really don’t like the idea of moving a promising rookie for a guy pushing 30, who might also be a cap issue in the future. As for (2/b), you have to think that the ‘nucks didn’t see Hodgson’s value getting much higher by summer and/or must think Kassian has a real chance of earning a spot on the roster by the post-season. We can hope!

      3) That’s laying it on a little thick. Yeah, it sucks but that’s the business. Considering Gillis has generally been as class act, so far as we know, I think it’s safe to assume this trade came up at the last minute, quite possibly when we failed to get a guy like Ott for a reasonable price. Besides that, I think it’s fair to say that going to a team that desperately needs a centre is probably the best thing for Hodgson right now. If he’s as good as we hoped, he’ll get his chance at the playoffs.

      Again, I hate to lose Hodgson, but I think this was a good trade. Both sides gave away a quality piece that didn’t quite fit and got what they needed. We finally got that young power forward we’ve been lusting after for years. Sure, he might be a bust, but then Hodgson might never have cracked the top-6 here anyway.

  • Gragnani plays left side. He was tried at right side at the beginning of the season. He said he has played left side all his life and prefers there. He had been playing on the left-side with Ehrhoff on his right for most of the season.

    So…still missing that right side D pair.

  • Thanks for the correction Ryan, my bad. I did my due diligence too, went + watched a game from early in the season on Game Centre Live to be sure – saw him playing the right side + assumed it was his natural spot.

    I really wish the NHL listed such things officialy.

  • Mantastic

    A point that everyone is missing is that this move is necessary because the Sedins are limited players.

    The Sedins need the Ozone imbalance to produce as they do

    And They cannot put up these numbers against top d-men,and top lines, therefore they have to play against weaker competition. (unlike true elite talent like Toews and Datsyuk)

    Therefore the Canucks third line needs to play against top talent (AV has said exactly that).

    Hodgson is clearly not the type to play this shut down role BUT he was more then capable to excel against other 3rd line players giving us an edge. Unfortunately, the team is tied to the Sedins.

    Remember the ‘high flying’ Canucks last year were one of the lowest goal scoring teams every to reach the finals

    Also the Sedins are cumulative -10 or something (I know plus minus is filled with noise but -10?!!!)

    They will look back with regret losing Hodgson’s offense

    as it ain’t coming from Paulson. Lapierre or Maholtra!!

    Look for the Canucks to try and win 1-0 or 2-1
    like dallas 07 but –

    Canucks out in the first round (especially if they play LA)!!

  • Krieger

    wow lortimer,

    you don’t know your hockey eh?

    the canucks were the top scoring team last year.

    262 goals
    detroit 261
    philly 259 etc..

    sedins are +42 combined

    you must be trolling.

    • Krieger

      Typical ‘blind’ canuck fan..only looking at the preseason (i.e. regular)..

      check out our PLAYOFF numbers. (the only season that counts for winners)..
      and perhaps you can figure the math out 🙂

  • Krieger

    Nice analogy, I’m thinking the Canucks just became a lot harder to play against with a little more sandpaper to back it up. Cody was out of his role and now thats been filled with pieces the team can lean on considering most situations.

  • Mantastic

    problem with power fowards are their development time. probably the longest developing scoring foward. JVR has a much better draft pedegree than kassian and he still hasn’t panned out.

    it was a very big gamble for gillis for sure.

    • Mantastic

      Yes..but the key question is – “how to get to 16..”

      (the numbers clearly show that scoring goals is more important than stopping them)

      The Canucks (under AV) have yet to show they can
      take their dominant reg. season offense and do it in the playoffs…losing Hodgson is a step backwards

  • Mantastic

    Thanks for the article. There haven been a lot of different perspectives floating around the internet. To each their own.

    But what I haven’t heard discussed is timing. Why now? If he wanted a different make up to this team, why not do it in the summer? Why sign an old aging vet in Marco Sturm if you want a different make up? It’s confusing and misleading, therfore some of us view this trade as a knee-jerk reaction.

    It was stated that one GM specifically was angry about this trade. He called Gillis, Gillis said he wasn’t available. Then word came out, no GM’s knew Hodgson was available. If you are not taking the ‘markets temperature’ of what he’s worth, you can not value him accurately. It’s a fact.

    I liked Cody, thought he had tremendous upside, but I’m more angry about the ‘business’ side of this transaction. I think it’s a panic move, and a very dangerous business decision.