by Tyler Rowe
Like bear cubs who fight for their whole adolescence only to become fast lovers in the bright light of adulthood, so it was with Cody Hodgson and the Vancouver Canucks. They came together, they tussled, they created something beautiful, and just like that, it was over before it started; a beautiful union that for our collective memory will never lose its brief but brilliant gleam. Ok, that’s laying it on thicker than Jesse Spano on a speed crash. But for a short time, 63 games from October 6th, 2011 to February 27th, 2012, Cody Hodgson changed the Vancouver Canucks.
Cody Hodgson began popping up on hockey radars after his first season in the OHL with the Brampton Battalion in ’06-’07. Starting the year as a 16 year-old, Hodgson put up 23 goals and 23 assists in 63 games. It was after his 2nd year in Brampton (Cody got 85 points in 68 games that year) that Hodgson was drafted 10th overall in the 2008 entry draft by the Vancouver Canucks. In his final season in the juniors, he won the Red Tilson award for most outstanding player, going for 43 goals and 92 points in 53 games. He won the CHL player of the year award. He led the World Juniors in scoring on a team that boasted Jonathan Tavares. He was named the smartest player in the OHL in 2 of his 3 years there, and the year he didn’t win, he lost to St. Louis super-stud defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Although he was out with a back injury for much of the ’09-’10 season, slowing his development with the Manitoba Moose, Hodgson had a strong showing when he finally got into the line-up for the Moose in the ’10-’11 season, getting on track for 30 points in 54 games after a bit of a slow start. He looked capable if not a little overwhelmed when forced into action due to injuries to the regular line-up in the 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, and, in September of 2011, it seemed as though the time had finally come for the most exciting first-round draft pick the Canucks had developed since Ryan Kesler (with respect to the deceased Luc Bourdon, who is missed as a player and a person by the organization and the fans to this day) to step into the line-up.
Fresh off missing out on the mug by an hour, the Vancouver Canucks resumed duty in 2011-2012 slowly at first and then with more aplomb—although with less night-in-night-out efficiency than the year before. By February, the team was playing better, and other than maybe adding some defensive depth at the trade deadline (I think this captures the sentiment), things seemed set. No longer were the Sedins, Burrows and Kesler relied upon for the scoring alone. David Booth had come to the Kesler line, and the third line, centered by Hodgson for much of the season, was clicking as well. While the Canucks weren’t putting up the gaudy statistics of ’10-’11, the team had steadied, and Hodgson’s play was a big part of that. Still, he wasn’t going to move north on the depth chart any time soon, at least not as a center. The Sedin brothers would likely re-sign in 2014 with Henrik continuing to be the #1 C, and Kesler still had four years left on his contract as the #2. But the Vancouver faithful had gotten used to the idea that Hodgson would remain the third-line center in what seemed like perpetuity. They had bought into the new team identity, one that could spread the scoring burden across three lines. Plus, “the Sedin brothers wont be elite forever”, they said. “When that day comes, we’ll have Cody waiting in the wings”.
And there was good reason to believe #9 could fill that roll. Before the trade, Cody Hodgson had amassed 16 goals and 33 points playing under 13 minutes per game as a 21 year-old rookie, and he was scoring big goals. The third-line of Hodgson, Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins had 94 points between them (though not always on the same line), and that line was on pace for 50 goals and 120 points collectively. For reference, Dan Cleary, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader of the Detroit Red Wings, a team much vaunted for their scoring depth over the years, had 68 points between them at that time; Nashville’s Jordan Tootoo, Nick Spalling, Colin Wilson group had 80; St. Louis’ Chris Stewart, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner had 76; Frolik, Brunette, and Bolland in Chicago were good for 65.
While the Canucks were not going to be a defensive powerhouse running a third-line center like Hogson with questionable skating and not a lot of sandpaper to speak of, there was the knowledge that if his game translated in the playoffs, there wasn’t a defense in the league that had the resources to shut down Hodgson and his “Triple-H Line”-mates while they were already busy with the Sedins, Burrows, Kesler and Booth.
When the Vancouver Canucks traded two 4th-round draft picks for Columbus veteran shutdown center Sami Pahlsson on deadline-day, the warning bells still had not gone off, at least not for me. I saw the Canucks beefing up their 4th line (one that would run three defensive centers in Max Lappiere, Manny Malhotra and Pahlsson), and giving the Canucks another stellar penalty killer to take the pressure off Kesler and Burrows in that respect. With a shutdown line like that, maybe the third line would have to give up some ice-time to get them out more often, but that was still okay—it meant more rest for the top two lines either way. It was a few hours later that we found out why Pahlsson really came in: we would be trading the identity we had just gotten used to for a new one. Except the identity isn’t a new one, its last year’s identity… only better.*
On February 27th, right before noon on the west coast (the public found out about 45 minutes later), Cody Hodgson was traded, along with depth defenseman Alexander Sulzer, to Vancouver’s expansion sister franchise the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani. It’s possible that Kassian is not NHL ready right now* and Gragnani couldn’t crack our top-7 defensemen even if (when) Sami Salo gets hurt again. Many fans think that the Canucks came out of 2012’s only big deadline splash poorer than they went in.* But Mike Gillis knows that defense still wins championships, and Alain Vigneault likes 2-way forwards.
Hodgson’s game was never suited to the bottom-6 in Vancouver. A three-scoring-line squad was not meant to last. And in Buffalo, he’ll have a chance to really shine with legitimate top-6 players at both flanks. When he puts up his first 65-point campaign next season, the rest of the league will know why Vancouver fans were so sad to see him go.
Happy trails, Cody Hodgson. You changed the identity of a cup contender, if only for a while. I hope you’re super awesome in Buffalo.
*Keep it locked to Smug Nation, as we’ll have an article on the trade, another one on M.A. Gragnani, attorney at large, and the new make up of the Vancouver Canucks in the coming days. And in particular, this story’s sister piece, Welcome Home, Zack Kassian.