Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick- NHLI/Getty
This week we’re looking at some of Mike Gillis’ "bold moves" of the recent past. Already we’ve done our best to take a hindsight-free look at the Keith Ballard trade and the David Booth purchase, and today we’ll look back to last year’s trade deadline when Mike Gillis made the most controversial transaction – actually transactions (plural), the trade was actually two different deals – of his tenure. I’m talking of course about the deal that sent Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer to Buffalo in exchange for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani.
Read past the jump.
Drafting Cody Hodgson with his first round pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft was among the first things Mike Gillis did as Canucks General Manager. Cody Hodgson was much heralded as a Major Junior player with the Brampton Battalion, he dominated OHL Coaches Polls and the opposition at both the Major Junior level and the World Junior Championships.
Then Cody Hodgson hurt his back, his injury was misdiagnosed by team doctors, and Hodgson was called out by Alain Vigneault for making excuses after getting sent back to junior that season. We know now that the relationship between the club and player soured enormously over the subsequent three seasons. Cody Hodgson went through several different agents during that time, and finally brought in Ritch Winter – a key figure in getting rid of Alan Eagleson back in the day – who was apparently enough of a thorn in the side of Canucks management for them to give up on a talented young player.
We know that Hodgson was frustrated with a lack of playing time in the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. We know that Hodgson asked for more ice-time in the days before the 2012 trade deadline (though based on Hodgson’s usage, the writing was already on the wall at that point). We know that Mike Gillis and the Canucks tried to use their knowledge edge to inflate Hodgson’s value on the trade market, selected six young players who they were willing to trade Hodgson for, and ultimately pulled the trigger in February of 2012.
Cody Hodgson is an enormously talented young pivot. He’s got a rifle of a shot and plus offensive awareness and at this point in his career he can put up points in bunches and occassionally make your jaw drop to the floor. Then again he’s not the fastest guy, he’s not particularly good in the faceoff circle and he’s somewhat of a defensive liability at even-strength. Some of the flaws in his game – faceoffs in particular – will probably get ironed out with age, but there’s no doubt that Cody Hodgson is already a productive top-six centreman at the NHL level, and could be a future star.
Hodgson’s trade shocked most Canucks fans and some erstwhile Canucks bloggers too (my inability to see the forest for the trees regarding Hodgson’s future with the club in January and February of 2012 remains my biggest, most embarrassing failure as a Canucks blogger). It was an oddly emotional trade too as Canucks fans had grown attached to Cody Hodgson and attached some magical "clutch" qualities to his performance. In fairness that was easy to do when he was pulling off plays like, say, beating arch-nemesis Tim Thomas with beauty slappers on the rush.
Lots of Canucks fans still hate this trade, and the fact that Cody Hodgson has been so productive in Buffalo this season(*) had rubbed salt in the wound.
(*) Hodgson has put up points on a pretty woeful team, but his WOWY’s are – let’s figure out a polite way of putting this – inauspicious. For example, in 133 even-strenght minutes this season when separated from Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson has two assists and a 39.7% Corsi For Percentage. He’s not a guy who, at this point in his career, drives play or offense on his own.
According to Elliotte Friedman – as reliable an insider source as any in the hockey reporting business – the Canucks put together a list of six players, all on entry-level contracts, whom they were willing to move Cody Hodgson in exchange for.
We still don’t know the identity of the sixth player, but that list included prototypical Alain Vigneault third line centre Brandon Sutter, two young defenseman with upside in Erik Gudbranson and John Carlson, and two massive forwards with possibly some offensive upside in Zack Kassian and Kyle Clifford.
When speaking about the trade since, Mike Gillis has often described Zack Kassian as a type of player who is near "impossible" to acquire on the trade market. Power Forwards – or mythical beasts as we call them around here – are rare, perhaps the rarest player type outside of a legitimate 1A defenseman. Mike Gillis was willing to gamble on the likes of a Kassian or a Clifford developing into an Andrew Ladd-type player – a guy who can is tough to play against, can make space for his teammates, provide your club with an immovable object in the slot, and play in your top-six.
Based on their production in junior and Kassian’s AHL production over the past couple of seasons, it seems to me that he’s a better gamble to morph into the type of player Mike Gillis hopes he can be than Kyle Clifford is (or would’ve been). But forget Kyle Clifford, the gamble here was that Zack Kassian was a player who might be able to add toughness, size and some offensive punch in a top-six role – preferably sooner rathern than later.
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Ben Nelms
I wrote at length about the Canucks’ recent apparent fetishization of "size" when we discussed the David Booth trade yesterday, and that same context applies here. Additionally, it’s a critical to remember that Cody Hodgson rather clearly wanted out of Vancouver, and gave Canucks management more headaches than any player they’ve ever dealt with (according to Mike Gillis), presumably in an effort to achieve just that.
So in retrospect it seems like the Canucks didn’t really have as much choice as they did when they purchased Booth or traded for Ballard. Hodgson’s camp put the Canucks in a situation in which they pretty much had to move the player, and from late December onward the Canucks "showcased" Cody Hodgson with that end in mind.
They managed his competition closely, rarely started him in the defensive end of the ice and they got lucky when he had a massive shooting percentage burst in January (including several timely goals in high-profile games). Canucks management may have had their backs up against the wall in this instance, but they did well to make the best of it.
A final contextual note that I’d mention is that Ryan Kesler suffered a shoulder injury – the same one that he ultimately had an operation to repair this past summer – in early February of 2012. The Canucks were aware that Ryan Kesler was hobbled at the time of the Cody Hodgson trade, and they still completed a deal which weakened their organizational depth down the middle.
Was Cody Hodgson enough of an internal problem that the team was willing to take such a massive risk? Or was Mike Gillis just high enough on Zack Kassian and Jordan Schroeder, that it made the risk a more palatable one? We don’t really know for sure.
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We’ve liberally used gambling analogies throughout this series to describe the gambles and probable decision making processes behind these "bold moves." The Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian swap was a ballsy gamble, but it was also a unique one in that it more closely resembled a round of russian roulette than a standard raise in a game of cards. The Canucks made this trade under some amorphous level of duress which we don’t really have enough information to evaluate.
What we can evaluate, however, is how the deal has worked out for both clubs so far. For the Canucks, Zack Kassian struggled down the stretch a season ago and hardly factored into the team’s first round playoff loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings. Zone-exits were a particular weakness of his game last season and he was a healthy scratch for the deciding game five of that series.
Cody Hodgson meanwhile, struggled initially in Buffalo because of some cruel percentages. But he found his stride and was productive down the stretch playing major minutes on a run that nearly saw the Sabres sneak into the postseason.
This season Cody Hodgson has played legitimate first line minutes for the Sabres against top-six competition, and he’s produced to the tune of 28 points in 33 games despite being on the second power-play unit. Hodgson has even posted an even individual goal differential despite an on-ice save% that sits at .880% (so he’s been pretty unlucky in the defensive end of the rink).
Hodgson is second among Sabres centreman in short-handed ice-time – not bad for a guy who is often criticized for his defense, though Buffalo’s penalty-killing is not good – and while Hodgson remains under-water by the possession numbers, he’s in the black in terms of his team relative Corsi. You have to be careful with relative Corsi though, in this case I’d argue that it’s inflated by the fact that Hodgson spends a whole whack of ice-time with Buffalo’s only serious play-driving skater (a guy named Christian Ehrhoff).
For the Canucks this season, Zack Kassian has been a much improved player. An offseason spent dedicated to fitness has paid off, as has an increased comfort with Vancouver’s systems (his zone-exit problems appear to be over). Kassian is visibly faster on the ice this season, and his possession numbers and WOWY’s look very good, especially considering his defensive-oriented deployment. On the other hand, he’s been out of the lineup for a few weeks now with a back injury and nearly all of his offensive production came when he was skating with the Sedin twins (albeit while they were still in their early season slumber).
A lot of Zack Kassian’s "struggles" this season – he’s a -7 for example, and only has 8 points in 27 games, and 1 assist in his last 15 contests – are a result of tough puck luck. His on-ice shooting percentage sits well below 6.5 and will be due for a correction upon his return to the lineup, while Canucks goaltenders have stopped only .892% of the shots they’ve faced with Kassian on the ice. He hasn’t factored into Vancouver’s special teams much and he’s generally played a third line role.
Further there’s the opportunity cost of having Zack Kassian in your lineup this season instead of Cody Hodgson. The Canucks have played the vast majority of this season without Ryan Kesler in the their lineup. That means guys like Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins, Mason Raymond, Andrew Ebbett and Jordan Schroeder have spent time playing the centre position in the top-six. Think Cody Hodgson might be an improvement over that lot?
So far, I’d say that this deal looks like a loser for the Canucks and Mike Gillis. But those are early returns, and the jury is still out (or at least it should be). In part Cody Hodgson’s desire to be traded is a mitigating factor in our judgement and also it’s honestly still just too soon to tell.
There’s no doubt that Hodgson is an impressive young player, but the underlying data suggests that he still isn’t a guy who drives offensive production or the run of play without help from star teammates like Thomas Vanek and Christian Ehrhoff. In other words, what I’ve said all along about Cody Hodgson stil appears to be true: he’s a productive complimentary player and possibly a future star, but he’s still not a player who can play a major role in helping a good team win hockey games at the NHL level. At least he’s not yet, he very well may get there.
The underlying data on Zack Kassian, on the other hand, suggests that he can drive play at even-strength and he’s certainly shown flashes of ability to play up the lineup. He also has one more season left on his entry-level deal where Cody Hodgson will be a restricted free-agent after this season. It’s still possible – though I’d only put the odds at about 30% – that the Canucks get a legitimate top-six powerforward season out of Zack Kassian while he costs the team less than a million dollars against the cap. That could be extra valuable next season, when the salary cap will descend for the first time in nearly a decade.
With their hands tied, the Canucks showcased Cody Hodgson and ultimately swapped him for a player in Zack Kassian who they felt had a chance to be the rarer talent. Of course that’ll only be the case if Kassian is able to be productive as a top-six forward. It’s still a reasonable gamble I think, and one might argue that they did alright to make the best of a bad situation. But in doing so they left themselves exposed down the middle of their lineup. With Kesler injured for most of this season that’s proven at least somewhat costly.