One of our favorite things to do as hockey fans and media is to analyze trades. The trade deadline is like Christmas Day, there is so much to discuss and debate. Reputations, ramifications, contracts, draft picks, and on, and on, and on. It's like for one day, the real general managers get together and play fantasy hockey or exchange trading cards like we did when we were kids.
As fun as deals can be, the only rain cloud on a sunny deadline day (or any day there is a trade) is the arguments over who "won" a trade. The speculation about how it will play out can be grand entertainment, but there is no more shallow analysis than a bottom-of-the-screen graphic that says "Who Won The Trade" and several ex-players in suits yelling at each other.
The stupidity in talking about who "won" lies in the simple fact that trades aren't won in a day. And strangely enough, a win or loss in a deal sometimes can be determined by which organization wants to be perceived as the winner of the trade the most.
Enter Zack Kassian and Cody Hodgson. Last deadline, the Buffalo Sabres traded their former first round pick Kassian for Vancouver's ex-first rounder Hodgson. The deal came as somewhat of a shock because both teams had put the label on their player as a future franchise player. Kassian was supposed to be the next Milan Lucic and Hodgson was dubbed a No. 1 center-to-be.
By the time the two teams reached March, each had decided that perception would never reach reality. The Sabres, according to multiple NHL sources, believed Kassian would never commit himself to being the physical player they expected. At the same time, Hodgson's GM saw him as a pain in the back side and his coach didn't trust him to play in his own end.
So after the swap, both the Buffalo and Vancouver media declared victory. But from the time of the trade to the end of the year, the Sabres and Canucks both came out as losers. Hodgson scored just eight points in 20 games and Kassian's play was so poor he was benched during Vancouver's first round series against the Kings.
That said, the ugly final stretch for the two players wasn't enough to kill either teams' pitch that they had made the right decision. The Sabres sold small sample size and a great deal of road games, while the Canucks (and Kassian) promised more in 2013.
So far this season, it's obvious that Buffalo and Vancouver are dead set on winning this trade. Kassian has been playing on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedina line on which Tony Twist could have posted 20 goals. And Hodgson has been playing with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominvillethe same pair that, over the first 20 games of 2011-12, made Luke Adam look like the next Anze Kopitar.
Adam scored 12 points in his first 11 games while playing with the two Sabres scorers. He was then demoted to a lower line because of poor defensive play and effort, then eventually sent back to the AHL. In his first five games this season, Hodgson has three goals, while in the Northwest, Kassian has four goals in six games.
The Vancouver Sun seems to have already declared victory:
"Kassian was arguably the Canucks' best forward through five games. Not only is he asserting himself physically, finishing checks and fighting twice on behalf of his team against the opposition's toughest player, but he is demonstrating poise and vision with the puck that did not seem to exist in his NHL game only last season.
He has done so well that Cody Hodgson's West Coast fan club has stopped bleating, however briefly, about the trade 11 months ago that brought Kassian from the Buffalo Sabres.
Even if Hodgson had loved the Canucks, the team wouldn't swap Kassian back for him now."
The silliest part about this, of course, is that Kassian scored three goals and five points in his first five games for the Sabres last season during a late November call up. Not that fans and media in Buffalo are off the small-sample-size hook, either. Hodgson has been declared a No. 1 center and is said to be significantly faster than last season.
While both players are off to nice starts, it is as absurd to declare a "winner" today as it was back when the two players were traded. Nothing has changed, except both teams are putting their player in the most advantageous situation possible. Kassian's offensive zone starts were at 75 percent at last check, Hodgson's at 56 percent. Both players are getting gobs of power play time. Simply put: their coaches are trying to make them look good.
It's not to say that neither player is good. Both have top-six potential, but both are also still flawed. Last season, Kassian played when he felt like it and was physical when it suited himnot night after night. In fact, it seems to be conveniently ignored that the Windsor, Ontario native was benched at one time in the AHL during the lockout.
His immaturity has also conveniently been forgotten. Kassian was suspended for hitting an off-ice official with a thrown stick in the AHL this season, another notch in a string of troublesome events that includes an arrest and a World Juniors suspension. Five games with two of the best offensive players in the NHL doesn't change any of that.
On Hodgson's side, he has been in the right places at the right times to notch three goals. One came against Carolina on a nifty stick move to put the puck past Cam Ward. But the same concerns the Canucks had about his defense have cropped up. In just five games, Hodgson is directly responsible for at least three goals against. On one, he lost track of star Jeff Skinner in his own end, on another he was pick-pocketed behind his own neta mistake that turned into a wrap-around goaland on a third he inadvertently tipped a zero-chance point shot past his own goalie Ryan Miller, what they call an own goal in soccer. This is in addition to only winning 39 percent of his faceoffs in the early going.
There is no doubt that Kassian and Hodgson have offered their new fanbases reasons to be positive. Hodgson's power play skills seem a perfect fit with Vanek and Christian Ehrhoff. Kassian adds sizeand maybe toughnessto the Sedin line.
Maybe it will all work out and everybody will win. However, there is an equal chance that relying on these two castoffs will crash down on one team if not both.
From the start, this trade was one flawed prospect for another flawed prospect. Otherwise, what team would trade an under-22 first rounder? But neither is going to admit that they received a flawed prospect, and both are going to try their damnedest to make it seem like they "won" this deal.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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