By Allan Muir
Everyone knows that the true impact of a trade can only be determined down the road. Time, after all, reveals more truth than does a gut reaction.
But even if we’re scarcely out of the driveway on the Feb. 27, 2012 deal that saw the Buffalo Sabres send Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani to Vancouver for Cody Hodgson and Alex Sulzer, that trade has the look of a winner for both sides, doesn’t it?
It was a nervy deal for both Vancouver’s Mike Gillis and Buffalo’s Darcy Regier, which explains why it came down to the last possible minute at the trade deadline. It was a swap of untapped potential, one that easily could have blown up spectacularly in the face of either team’s front office.
The Canucks were shipping off their top prospect in Hodgson, the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft, a creative playmaker and finisher with clear top-six potential. However, there were questions about his character after a series of injuries and rumors that swirled about demands he’d made to Vancouver’s front office.
Ultimately though, the bigger issue for the Canucks was one of fit. Hodgson was the third-best offensive center on a team that wanted to use two, and his effectiveness suffered when he moved to the wing. He also did nothing to make up for the team’s deficiency of grit that had been exposed during its 2011 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Bruins.
When the Sabres drafted Kassian 14th overall in 2009, the they hoped they’d found a counterpoint to Boston’s Milan Lucic, an inelegant bruiser with a decent set of mitts. They seemed happy with his development and had high hopes, but decided they could let him go in order to address their primary need: top line offense.
The Sabres hoped Hodgson could step onto their top line and boost an offense that ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference at the time of the swap. He finished the season strong, but has really come into his own this year while skating mostly alongside Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Hodgson has never been a volume shooter, but he’s getting more pucks on net off feeds from his linemates. He’s playing at a point-per-game pace (5-4-9) as a result.
“I’m playing with amazing players,” Hodgson told The Canadian Press. “That’s pretty much it. We’re always looking for plays and they’re really creative. They’ve got so much speed and talent and I just try to fit in with them as best as possible.”
While Kassian might not be a natural in front of the camera, he’s found his own happy place skating alongside the Sedins on Vancouver’s top line.
“I think I’m just finding my game at the pro level,” Kassian told the Vancouver Sun. “Obviously last year was just my first year of professional and I was getting my feet under me. Right now, my confidence level is pretty high and I’m doing the things I think, and know, I can do.”
What he can do is drive that 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame hard into the corner or to the net where, once planted, he’s impossible to move. He brings an element the twins have never had before: a legitimately intimidating physical presence with a bit of scoring touch.
Kassian, who came into the year with four goals for his career, already has five in just eight games this season.
Evidence of a player on the verge of a significant breakthrough? Maybe, but it’s more likely that Kassian’s success, like that of Hodgson, is a product of his environment — at least to this point. While he would provide value to the Canucks as a consistent physical presence who can wear down defenses with an aggressive forecheck, he’s putting up good numbers because he’s playing with the Sedins. Not just as a result of their sweet passes (which have led to two of his early goals), but the space they provide him with their puck possession skills.
That’s not a knock on Kassian. In time, he’ll be able to create more on his own, as will Hodgson. But both are young players who are only beginning to tap into their potential. The right opportunity wasn’t there for them with their original teams, but the deal, and some smart player management, put them in a position to succeed.
It’s early, but it looks like both teams can feel pretty good about this trade.