Back in February, Mike Gillis shocked the NHL by trading away one of the best rookies in the league for an unproven power forward prospect. The fact that this came at a time when the Canucks were supposed to be buyers gearing up for the playoffs baffled and even angered a lot of Canucks fans.
Cody Hodgson was seen by a lot of people — including us at PITB — as part of the solution for the scoring issues that hit the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. He made the third line into a scoring line rather than a checking line and improved the second unit powerplay to the point that I suggested he be moved to the first unit when the powerplay was struggling. He was also one of the main reasons the Canucks had a lot of powerplay opportunities early in the season, as he was the best player on the team at drawing penalties.
But my favourite thing that Hodgson did was make goal posts sing with his blistering slap shot. To put it simply, I liked Hodgson a lot.
So when Mike Gillis sent him to Buffalo for Zack Kassian, I was shocked. After all, the dark times had passed for Hodgson and, while still a longshot, he was in the Calder Trophy conversation after 10 points in 11 games in January saw him named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month.
In the wake of the trade deadline, I was accused of rationalizing the trade and defending Gillis, but all I was trying to do was understand what had just happened. The deal made sense for the future, as the Canucks traded from a position of depth at centre for a position of weakness on right wing and increased their size with the 6’3″ Kassian. They also acquired a young defenceman with upside in Marc-Andre Gragnani for the added price of Alex Sulzer, who was on a one-year deal and couldn’t get into the lineup with the Canucks’ defensive depth.
I thought I saw a way that the trade made sense for the current season as well, particularly in the playoffs. When the Canucks acquired Samme Pahlsson from the Columbus Blue Jackets, he effectively replaced Hodgson as the third line center. Since Hodgson had struggled playing on the wing this season (despite claiming it wouldn’t be a big adjustment), that left him without a spot in the lineup.
By moving Hodgson when his value was arguably at its highest, the Canucks were able to pry Kassian, the Sabres’ best prospect, away from Buffalo. I felt Kassian could, at minimum, contribute on the fourth line in a physical role if he wasn’t ready to contribute in an offensive role. I argued that the trade actually made the Canucks better for this season and that the real gamble was in the future.
I think the argument still makes sense and that, at the time, the trade did improve the Canucks for the postseason. The only problem is that neither of the two players performed as expected.
I’m not saying at all that Hodgson would have made a difference in the series against the Kings. Any claim that he didn’t get an opportunity to develop as a defensive player is flawed: being an effective player in the defensive zone doesn’t mean that you have to play against great offensive players. It means that you need to be effective defensively in whatever position you are placed. Hodgson struggled defensively against some of the weakest competition faced by any player on the Canucks and when he was given more ice time against tougher opponents with the Sabres, he struggled. The Kings would have targeted Hodgson’s line and eaten him alive.
But the truth is that Pahlsson didn’t fare much better, and that makes it much more difficult to swallow making the Hodgson trade at the deadline rather than during the offseason.
In game one, Pahlsson got mainly defensive zone starts and played mostly against the Anze Kopitar line. It did not go well. He had a team-worst minus-10 Corsi rating in that game and was on the ice for 2 goals against, one at even strength and one while shorthanded. In game two, the coaching staff got Pahlsson away from Kopitar and only gave him 4 defensive zone starts at even strength and things turned around: Pahlsson had a plus-7 Corsi and scored a goal.
But by that point, Pahlsson had lost his coach’s trust. In game three, Pahlsson had just 3 defensive zone starts at even strength and only took 1 defensive zone faceoff. In game four, his defensive zone starts were back up to 8, but he took no defensive zone faceoffs. Suddenly, Pahlsson had to be sheltered, though certainly not to the extent of Hodgson.
By game five, Pahlsson was back in a shutdown role, with 10 defensive zone starts at even strength and 7 defensive zone faceoffs, facing mainly the Kopitar or Richards lines. He did fairly well to contain them, but had one major lapse in judgement in overtime, going for a line change before Hamhuis had reached center during overtime, leading to Jarret Stoll coming in on a 2-on-1 and snapping it top corner over Schneider’s shoulder.
Putting all the blame for the series loss on Pahlsson is as silly as saying that Hodgson would have won the series for the Canucks, but a better performance from Pahlsson would have made the Hodgson deal a lot more palatable in the short term.
A better performance by Kassian also would have done the trick, but he played 6 minutes or less in each game, ending up as a healthy scratch in game five. He was simply a non-factor, which isn’t necessarily a negative for his long-term prospects as an NHL player, but it punches a large hole in my theory that the trade made the Canucks a better team this season. I expected Kassian to at least contribute with a regular shift on the fourth line. He didn’t.
While I still think the trade made sense at the time and may still prove to be a good trade for the Canucks, a larger contribution in the playoffs by Kassian and Pahlsson would have made it a lot easier to swallow.
Tags: Cody Hodgson, Samme Pahlsson, Zack Kassian