Few trade deadlines in Canucks history have ignited a similar controversy. There have been better trades, and even some that arguably shaped the future of the franchise to a larger extent. But what transpired on February 27, 2012 was still a pivotal date in the history of the Vigneault-era Canucks. That it came almost entirely out of left field was simply icing on the cake. Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani may now only register as a minor NHL deal, yet at the time it was anything but.
Drafted 10th overall in the 2008 NHL draft, Cody Hodgson was the highest-drafted Canuck since Daniel and Henrik Sedin in 1999. He also happened to be new general manager Mike Gillis’ first pick at the helm. Despite concerns regarding his skating and below average NHL size, the Canucks brass valued his high hockey IQ and leadership abilities. In retrospect, selecting a defenceman like Tyler Myers or Erik Karlsson (who both went in the next five picks after Hodgson) might have been a better move, but at least the Canucks passed on the player most pundits assumed they would draft – Kelowna product Kyle Beach. The Everett Silvertip forward, who went to Chicago, was one of only four players from the 2008 first round who never played a game in the NHL (I guess there is still technically a chance, but let’s assume his NHL career aspirations are finished).
Initially, however, the pick looked like a genius move by the Canucks. Hodgson had a strong camp with the Canucks, eventually being cut only towards the end of camp. Then, in his draft plus one season, Hodgson recorded 92 points in 53 games for the now-defunct Brampton Battalion, en route to being named the CHL Player of the Year for 2009. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he was also the leading scorer at the world junior tournament in Ottawa with 16 points. On a Team Canada that featured future superstars such as John Tavares, PK Subban, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jamie Benn, TSN’s Bob McKenzie called Hodgson the “best player for Team Canada” at the tournament. With a performance and endorsement like that, Canuck fans were understandably excited by Hodgson’s potential.
His relationship with the Canucks would soon start to sour, however. At training camp in 2009, Hodgson was again a late cut. Although Hodgson had been injured – hampering his already plodding skating style – Vigneault insinuated that he was using the injury as an excuse for his poor performance. The injury – a torn muscle that was originally misdiagnosed as a bulging disc in his back – required extensive rehab and forced Hodgson to miss the 2010 world juniors. But the wedge that it drove between the Hodgson camp and the Canucks would prove to be more of a lingering problem than the injury itself.
Hodgson the Canuck
The centre would begin his first professional hockey season with the Manitoba Moose in 2010. After posting a decent 17 goals in 52 games, Hodgson made his regular season debut with the Canucks and scored his first NHL goal. He even saw some action in the Canucks 2011 playoff run, appearing in 12 games and counting one assist.
The following season, however, would mark Hodgson’s true arrival as an NHL player. He would score 16 goals and add 17 assists and win NHL rookie of the month for January. On a Canuck team that was finding it ever more difficult to score goals, Hodgson was seemingly the only player able to buck the trend. In spite of his ability to produce offence, Hodgson was usually limited to 10-12 minutes of ice time a night. This disgruntled a number of people in Canuckland, including scribe Tony Gallagher. Arguing that the young centre should be granted a more prominent role, he had this to write:
“For anyone who saw Henrik then [in his rookie season] and compared him to Hodgson now, the comparison is laughable. Hodgson is by far the superior player at this particular stage of development, even though the chance of him ever developing to the Sedin level is remote.”
It is now known that the Canucks were already working behind the scenes to arrange a Hodgson trade. His agent, Ritch Winter, authored a staggering 6,400 word essay (rant?) about his client and the media in early 2012, and the Canucks were placing Hodgson in situations aimed at maximizing his value in any potential trade. The deep divisions that had opened up from back in 2009 had reached a tipping point. While Canuck fans were salivating at the prospect of having a Henrik-Kesler-Hodgson top three down the middle for the next few years, the relationship between the young player and the club was fractured. Rumours swirled that Hodgson felt entitled to more ice time, and did not like being stuck behind (at the time) two of the top centres in the game. Eventually, the Hodgson camp asked for a trade.
Minutes before the 2012 trade deadline, Cody Hodgson was traded alongside Alex Sulzer to Buffalo for forward Zack Kassian and defenceman Marc-Andre Gragnani. Immediate reaction to the trade was one of shock and disappointment. Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun even went as far as writing:
“Is this Markus Naslund and Alek Stojanov all over again, only in reverse?”
It certainly had the markings of a similar swap. The Canucks were trading away a young, offensively-gifted player for a big, tough forward (with spare parts also trading places in this case). Rookie Kassian had scored 3 goals and 7 points in 27 games for Buffalo, and the Canucks hoped he could bring a physical element they had lacked the previous spring. Yet for a team that was in something of an offensive decline, trading away a player who was actually producing offence seemed questionable. As a team theoretically loading up at another deep playoff run, trading for a project player made little sense. Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun certainly shared that sentiment.
“What’s unclear is how the Canucks can be stronger today after trading their rookie-of-the-year candidate and second-unit power-play quarterback to the Sabres for someone less developed and who spent half of this season in the minors … For now, he [Kassian] is a fourth-line upgrade who managed just one assist in his previous 17 games for Buffalo.”
That prediction would prove prescient. Kassian would score only one goal the rest of the season, before being held scoreless (and eventually made a healthy scratch) in four post-season games for Vancouver. The club, for its part, would only score eight goals in its five-game series against the Los Angeles Kings. Would Hodgson have helped? It is impossible to know, of course, but at a time when the Canucks needed offensive depth the most, they decided to double-down on size and grit.
The trade was ultimately less consequential for the Canucks than originally assumed. Hodgson would record 34 points in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and sign a six-year, $25.5 million dollar extension with the Sabres later that same year. Whatever offensive prowess he possessed, however, was eclipsed by his defensive shortcomings. His 5v5 CF% in the 2013-14 season was an atrocious 41.2% – fully 4.5% less than his Sabres teammates. On a terrible Buffalo club, Hodgson was one of its worst defensive players. He even earned that most damning of hockey player epithets: lazy. His 2014-15 season was an absolute disaster, scoring six goals and 13 points in 78 games. He played a part of one season with the Nashville Predators in 2015-16, and was out of hockey entirely by that summer.
Kassian, by comparison, is at least still playing in the NHL – just not for the Canucks nor the team they traded him to, Montreal. After receiving treatment for substance abuse, Kassian is now a bottom-six forward for the Edmonton Oilers. He had moments where he would tease Vancouver fans with his skill, but his personal battles and overall talent ceiling hindered him from ever reaching his full potential. His 14 goals and 29 points during the 2013-14 season for Vancouver remain his career high.
As a result of how it eventually played out, some have argued that the Canucks ultimately won the trade. Or, at the least, did not lose it to the extent many predicted. But that is a poor barometer for evaluating the trade. There is nothing inherently wrong about trading young players for immediate help in an attempt to win a Stanley Cup. In fact, had the Canucks acquired a player who could have realistically provided offence for the club – even if that player was a veteran – the deliberative process behind the transaction would have been sound. Instead, the Canucks in effect weakened their own chances of taking a run at a Stanley Cup. Acquiring a project player when the team was trying to win a championship was an organizational misstep. The team certainly might still have lost to the Kings in the playoffs, but having more offensive depth might have also served to somewhat offset the loss of Daniel Sedin in the first three games of the series.
For Canuck fans, the pain and frustration invoked by the memory of the trade has since been partially assuaged by its relatively insignificant long-term impact. But the trade remains a prime example of how we can evaluate transactions and the thinking process behind them. Why a franchise makes a trade is sometimes as important as the result, because it also demonstrates organizational philosophy and perceptions. With the Cody Hodgson trade, the Canucks revealed their disdain for entitled players and their obsession with becoming tougher, yet in attempting to address those issues failed to provide the club with what it needed when it mattered most.
With files from the Vancouver Sun and The Province