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.