It appeared as if the Vancouver Canucks were going to have a quiet yet effective day yesterday at the NHL trade deadline. As the 3:00 pm deadline came and went, the Canucks had made one move, acquiring veteran centerman Sami Pahlsson from the Columbus Blue Jackets for two 2012 fourth-round draft picks.
It's hard to dislike the addition of Pahlsson, who will serve as a depth forward and the defensive-minded center of either the Canucks' third or fourth line. The price the Canucks paid for Pahlsson was quite reasonable and more importantly, subtracts nothing from the team's current chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
But Canucks general manager Mike Gillis was not content to make a minor improvement to his club. Instead, Gillis made the biggest deal of the trade deadline and a move that will have a huge impact on the future of the Canucks and the Buffalo Sabres.
The Canucks traded Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer to Buffalo for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani.
Hodgson was the 10th overall pick in 2008 and the first player drafted by the Canucks in the Mike Gillis era. The start of his career with the Canucks organization was less than ideal. Hodgson suffered a nagging back injury in 2009 that derailed his development and led to a rift between the Hodgson camp which included Cody's father, Chris Hodgson and the Canucks organization.
Despite early setbacks, Hodgson's professional career appeared to be back on track. He was a part (albeit a small one) of the Canucks team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and he was one of Vancouver's best forwards this season. His 16 goals and 33 points ranked him fifth among Canuck forwards.
In my mind, Hodgson was the Canucks' fourth or fifth best forward this year behind Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler and arguably Alex Burrows. Unfortunately for Hodgson, he was also the Canucks' third best center, and his reduced ice time reflected that role and made the rising star expendable.
The other player leaving the Canucks, Alex Sulzer, is at best a fifth or sixth NHL defenceman. He is the least important player in this deal and appears to be more of a throw-in than anything else.
Both players coming to the Canucks from the Sabres are important to Vancouver this season and in the future.
Zack Kassian is a developing power forward who has played only 27 NHL games. He has scored just three goals and four assists in those games. Kassian was the 13th pick in the 2009 draft and has been favorably compared to Milan Lucic among others. As of yet, however, Kassian has showed little of his potential at the pro level.
But what Kassian brings to the Canucks is a skill set that Hodgson could not. Kassian can fight, he can score goals and he can intimidate opponents with his size and toughness. The question is whether he can bring these attributes to the Canucks now, or whether the team must wait years for him to emerge.
Marc-Andre Gragnani is an offensively-gifted defenceman and has played a full four seasons developing in the AHL. His numbers with the Sabres' AHL affiliates, the Rochester Americans and Portland Pirates, are impressive (206 points in 283 games), and the fact that his development has been methodical is only a positive. Defencemen take longer to develop and Gragnani has been allowed to spend time in the minors to hone his game.
Gragnani adds immediate depth on the Canucks' blue line and gives the team a future top-four defenceman. He can play on the Canucks' power play if needed and is an improvement over Aaron Rome, Chris Tanev and Andrew Alberts on Vancouver's third defensive pairing.
The trade is a very interesting one for a number of reasons. Many fans don't know what to make of it and I have to admit, I am one of them. If asking the simple question: "Are the Canucks better after having made this trade?", the answer is not obvious.
It's often said that the team that acquires the best player in a trade wins that deal and Hodgson is undoubtedly the best player in this trade. He's the most developed player right now and his upside is higher than that of Kassian or Gragnani. It is a very real possibility that the Canucks traded away a future point-a-game scorer.
Those who like the deal from a Canucks perspective, however, will point out that Hodgson was redundant as a skilled center on a team led down the middle by Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. As good as Hodgson is, Kassian provides something different: size and toughness.
There were other ways the Canucks could have acquired the immediate help they needed without the long-term risk. Mason Raymond, for instance, whose name was often mentioned as trade bait, would likely have fetched a depth defenceman and a forward with size.
I'm not suggesting that Raymond would have brought the same reward that Hodgson did, I'm simply suggesting that Raymond could have brought back the same immediate help the Canucks acquired in this deal. The difference would have been in upside; Raymond wouldn't have brought back the potential that Kassian and Gragnani bring to the Canucks over the long term.
Considering that the Canucks could have made a similar trade without giving up Hodgson, one wonders if there is more to the trade than first appears. Perhaps the rift between the Hodgson camp and the Canucks' organization that started with Hodgson's back injury was never really patched up. Or perhaps the relationship between coach Alain Vigneault and Hodgson was less than ideal.
We can speculate on these questions, but we won't know any answers for some time to come. The rationale for making this deal, like the success of the trade itself, will reveal itself over time.