Canucks, Sabres pull off last-minute deadline blockbuster; Hodgson, Kassian, trade places

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Earlier this afternoon, the Canucks acquired Sammy Pahlsson, a move that I suggested might bump rookie centre Cody Hodgson to the wing. As it turns out, that take reached obsolescence in less than two hours: shortly after the deadline expired, the Canucks shocked everyone by trading Hodgson, a local favourite and one of the leading scorers among rookies, to the Buffalo Sabres for power winger Zack Kassian.

The full deal, from the Vancouver Sun: Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer to Buffalo in exchange for Zack Kassian and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani.

When I say it surprised everyone, I mean it. "I'm still in shock right now," said Hodgson to TSN just 5 minutes after learning of the trade. "It's tough to leave Vancouver… it's a great city, very passionate about its hockey."

Kassian was similarly taken aback: "I'm stunned," he said, adding, "I'm very excited to go and contend for a Cup now."

This is a huge, risky deal for each side. Both teams have been exposed of late for their lack of sandpaper, most notably by the Boston Bruins, whose toughness simply overwhelmed two squads that were built around skill. The Canucks, of course, lost a Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins last summer, and the grit factor played a major role.

Kassian provides the Canucks with something they clearly need: a big, nasty, Milan Lucic-type. The winger, drafted 13th overall in 2009, is 6'4", 230 lbs, and known for playing with a physical edge. At the Traverse City rookie tournament last September, Katie Baker noted that Kassian was a man among boys, and he's been a force in the AHL, with 15 goals in 30 games.

Kassian looks to be an NHLer going forward, but it's worth noting that the Canucks' window to win is now, and the winger has only played in 27 games with the Sabres this season, registering 3 goals and 4 assists. His valuable toughness may not be in question, but his NHL readiness is.

While Hodgson is a Calder candidate this season, Kassian has struggled to stay up with a club that sorely lacks what he provides. Kassian says he looks forward to helping the Canucks win a cup, but if that help is a year or more away, Canuck fans will find Hodgson's loss tough to stomach -- their team may have taken a step back.

That said, it's important to remember that the Canucks acquired Pahlsson earlier in the day. The Canucks may lose a little offence, but it may be offset by Pahlsson's defensive superiority, not to mention the way he might be able to free up Ryan Kesler for more offensive shifts. And if Kassian can play, say, alongside Ryan Kesler and David Booth, the Canucks' second line will be a genuine handful.

The addition of Marc-Andre Gragnani is similarly dubious, as the prospect might thrive in the Canucks' system and provides depth, but isn't the right-handed defenseman they needed. He too is raw. Still, he's a plus-10 on a Sabres team that simply hasn't been that good this season, and he may flourish in a system that can make Christian Ehrhoff look like he's worth $40 million.

Meanwhile, Alexander Sulzer is a defenseman.

Continuing on the Sabres side, they get the best player now, but they do it at the expense of trading away a guy with the potential to be a premier power forward in this league going forward. And they definitely don't get tougher.

But Hodgson has the look of a can't miss prospect, and maybe a guy that's worth this kind of leap. Unlike Kassian, he's clearly NHL-ready at this point, fifth in scoring among first-year players, a number that's even more impressive when you consider he's 64th among rookies in icetime and 24th among rookies with more than 40 NHL games in icetime. He'll likely get more opportunity to play top-six minutes in Buffalo than he did in Vancouver, where he was behind All-Stars Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler.

Still, he was used primarily in offensive situations, and the Canucks distrusted his two-way play. Will he falter or flourish with more responsibility in Buffalo? If he flourishes, he could develop into a Steve Yzerman-type player.

Tyler Ennis has been playing centre of late -- will he be moved back to the wing in favour of Hodgson? Hodgson will get a big chance in Buffalo, and if he can improve on what he's shown in Vancouver (and his skating, which remains borderline as an NHLer), it's possible the Sabres have gotten the best player in this deal.

What we have here, clearly, is two elite NHL prospects changing hometowns, and if either one of them fails to live up to expectations, this could be seen as a massive steal for one side in a few years. It's a massive gamble, the sort of gutsy deal that could blow up in either side's face, or turn out quite well for everyone.

We give this trade three Milburys:

Two things to note: first, if the Canucks' scoring dries up in the playoffs again this year, Mike Gillis will have a hard time counselling fans to be patient when they traded away one of their budding offensive weapons. Second, the Sabres and Canucks meet on Saturday, so we'll be able to make short-sighted, snap judgments on this trade very, very soon.

Follow Harrison Mooney on Twitter at @HarrisonMooney

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