Cody Hodgson is a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy, a highly skilled center with all kinds of offensive upside. He just wasn't the right fit for the Vancouver Canucks anymore.
In a shocking trade of top prospects, the Canucks traded Hodgson, a 22-year-old who had 16 goals and 33 points despite playing less than 13 minutes a night, to the Buffalo Sabres shortly before Monday's NHL Trade Deadline in exchange for Zack Kassian, another first-round pick with an entirely different skill set.
Vancouver, which had added checking center Samuel Pahlsson from Columbus earlier in the day, also got puck-moving, power-play defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani in the deal with the Sabres receiving spare blueliner Alexander Sulzer in return.
The move made sense in the long term given Hodgson, picked No. 10 in the 2008 NHL Draft, was stuck behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler on the Canucks' depth chart. But in the short term it seems more about Hodgson not being well-suited to play a shutdown role as a third-line center. As soon as Pahlsson was added earlier in the day -- for prospect defender Taylor Ellington and two fourth-round draft picks in 2012 -- there were questions about Hodgson's future.
They were answered a few hours later.
"Cody is a really good young player, he's going to continue to develop and be an excellent NHL player, but for our needs immediately and moving forward, we felt that we needed better balance on our team and we needed size and we needed toughness," General Manager Mike Gillis told reporters in Phoenix, where both players are expected to join the team in time for Tuesday's game against the Coyotes. "I think we got more balance in our lineup, more diversified."
Still, it was a shock given Hodgson's status on a contending team.
Center - BUF
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 33
SOG: 103 | +/-: 8
SOG: 103 | +/-: 8
In Vancouver the deal sparked memories of the Canucks trading a young Cam Neely to Boston and then watching Neely become a perennial all-star and one of the game's great power forwards. The irony is this time it's a big winger, who some say is a Neely clone, coming to Vancouver – after the lack of a big, tough forward was exposed by the Bruins and Vancouver native Milan Lucic – and a skill center leaving.
But after watching Hodgson carry a second-unit power play and score timely goals in limited opportunity, some wonder if the Canucks might regret this deal, too.
"I've heard it reported it's about Boston. It's not about Boston," Gillis insisted, referring to Los Angeles, San Jose and Chicago as potential Stanley Cup Playoff obstacles in the West. "They're all big teams. And last year I felt that we didn't get pushed around, but they were grinding series and we need bigger bodies to grind through them and we get one in Pahlsson and we got one in Zack."
If Hodgson was more of what the Canucks already had, Kassian should fill one of the few holes on a team that came within one win of the Stanley Cup last summer and is a strong contender again this season as the NHL points leader at the deadline.
Picked no. 13 in 2009, Kassian brings equal parts skill and grit, and while Gillis downplayed it, the latter has been a question mark for the Canucks since losing to Boston in last summer's Cup Finals.
"There's not much not to like," Gillis said. "He's 6-4, 225 and he just turned 21 a month ago. He put up almost a point a game numbers in the American League, so for a player who is that physical who can do that, it's a rare opportunity you get the chance to get a player like that."
Kassian had three goals and four assists and averaged less than 12 minutes in 27 games with the Sabres, but had 15 goals and 26 points in 30 games with their AHL affiliate in his first pro season.
"I'm shocked, was not expecting this at all," Kassian told TSN. "I like to be physical but at the same time I like to make plays and chip in offensively. I like sticking up for teammates. I like playing the physical game, and just trying to be an all-around player."
That's also what Vancouver hopes it added in Pahlsson.
As impressive as Hodgson's offensive numbers have been, the fact they came while averaging just 12:43 said a lot about head coach Alain Vigneault's hesitance to use the rookie in certain situations. Vigneault talked about searching for more of a prototypical shutdown presence on his third line, something Hodgson wasn't suited or ready to provide.
"It's about balance and it's about being able to play in any situation," said Gillis, adding Pahlsson's addition should free up Kesler and Sedin from matchups against other team's top forwards. "And I think we're better able to play in any situation today then we were."
A 34-year-old impending unrestricted free agent, Pahlsson only has two goals and 11 points in 61 games this season, but comes with a playoff pedigree as a shutdown center and Stanley Cup champion. He was a key part of a checking line with Travis Moen and Rob Neidermayer that played a huge role in Anaheim's 2007 Stanley Cup win, and should get a similar role in Vancouver, especially with Manny Malhotra still struggling to find last year's form.
Pahlsson is minus-6 this season, but that was third best among the regular forwards on a Blue Jackets team that is last in the NHL standings. His 51.1 faceoff winning percentage will rank behind Malhotra (58.2), Kesler (54.2), and Maxim Lapierre (53.7) with the Canucks, but is notably better than Hodgson's 42.8 success rate in the circle.
"(My game from 2007) hasn't changed much," Pahlsson said. "The biggest change has been I haven't been in the playoffs in a few years and haven't won a lot of games lately so it changes my game too. This is a great chance for me to get to the playoffs and get a chance at it again."
The Canucks may be just as happy that he won't be doing it against them, especially good friends Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Pahlsson had four points and was plus-3 while shutting down and outplaying the twins in the second round of the 2007 playoffs and the Sedins admitted in the past to having difficulty going up against Pahlsson, who lives in their hometown of Ornskoldsvik and played three seasons with them for Modo in the Swedish Elite League.
Now the Sedins should help ease his transition to Vancouver.
"They're really good friends of mine," said Pahlsson, who also played with the Sedins on the 2006 Olympic gold-medal winning team. "I look forward to playing with them."