If you can’t beat ‘em (up), join ‘em

By Simon Darnell

Yesterday, the Vancouver Canucks traded prized rookie Cody Hodgson to the Buffalo Sabres for prized prospect Zack Kassian. (Other players were involved, but let’s call this a straight up deal. In fact, for some commentators, this was a chance to reminisce over the ‘good old days’ of hockey trades, when ‘dumping salary’ suggested some kind of scatological economics).

Basically, the Canucks moved a talented, up-and-coming scorer for a tough, bruising up-and-coming power forward. (Not unlike the Montero for Pineda swap that the Yankees and Mariners made this offseason. Sorry, I couldn’t do any more posts on this site without talking baseball).

The point is that this trade can be considered a swap of valuable assets, with each player demonstrating tremendous upside, and even though Canucks’ fans seem to be upset about moving Hodgson – who was clearly growing in popularity – many observers have this deal at worst a push, and maybe even squarely in the Canucks favour.

Before I go any further, three caveats:

1)     I’m a lifelong Canucks fan. None of what follows is objective.

2)     There are several possible explanations for the trade (i.e. Hodgson was buried behind two elite centres and deserved more than 3rd line minutes. There were even rumours, according to the Vancouver Sun, that he may have quietly demanded to be traded).

3)     We’ll never know for sure what Canucks’ management was thinking or strategizing through this deal. Anything they tell the media is just what they think the media – not to mention the fans – need to know.

Yet, with all that said, this trade signifies something profound to me: the continued capitulation in the NHL of speed and skill to size and brawn. Even though player safety and Brendan Shanahan are supposedly top of mind, NHL teams still need to be able to physically dominate their opponents, as much as skate, pass and shoot better. That the Canucks may be going this route gives me pause.

Now in no way did the Canucks become a particularly tough team overnight through this deal, nor did they sacrifice any of their offensive mainstays. But they did take away a pretty important piece of the second power play unit, which begins to illustrate the significance of all this. The Canucks strategy in last year’s Cup finals against the Big Bad Brawling Bruising Brawny Beefy Beantown-ing Bruin-ators was to win with speed and skill. Outskate, outthink, outscore (and outclass). Explicit in this strategy was a willingness to absorb punishment and penalties, and then score on resulting powerplays. And it almost – ALMOST – worked. (God, it still hurts to think about it. Why? Surely I’m over it by now…)

I wanted so badly for this strategy to work in ’11. I found myself thinking of the ‘80s Oilers when watching those Canucks (though not comparing those Canucks to the ‘80s Oilers. Calm down, Edmonton). I found myself remembering how those Oiler teams used to throw line after line of skill and speed over the boards and just overwhelm teams of mere mortals with goals and more goals. They usually left Vancouver with a 9-5 win, and left behind Harry Neale in a catatonic state.

I was also – and still am – genuinely shocked that this approach taken by the Orcas, characterized by Brad Marchand infamously ragdolling Daniel Sedin during the finals, was somehow spun as illustrative of Sedin’s lack of character, and then spawned a serious Canucks backlash as they are currently dubbed a team of whiners and snivellers. (Et tu, Mark Recchi?). These developments only increased my longing for the Canucks to skate and pass their way to the Cup in 2012. With Hodgson producing on the third line, it appeared they were stocked even deeper for a run at doing just that.

Now, though? Haven’t the Canucks just sent a message to the league that they are ready, willing and even able to start playing less like a team of scorers, and more like the Bruins, more like the dishers of physical punishment than the takers, and alas, more like what traditional hockey culture demands? Isn’t this, at its core, an ideological submission by one of the deepest, most skilled teams in the league to all the proponents of intimidating, head-hunting hockey? (If you don’t think so, go watch one of the montages of Kassian’s nascent career that are now going around. How do you spell concussion? Or suspension?)

I concede that the Canucks are doing what they think is best to win. I even think that Mike Gillis is a fantastic GM. It just seems like my dream of overwhelming the Bruins in a Cup re-match this spring by skating circles around them, of having the only team in the league with three elite scoring lines, and of celebrating the triumphant return of winning, skilled hockey, just shuffled off to Buffalo.

Say it ain’t so, Cody.

4 thoughts on “If you can’t beat ‘em (up), join ‘em

  1. I don’t know that it is necessarily a straight up swap from skill and speed to intimidating and head hunting. I’m a huge Canucks fan as well and I’ll admit I was shocked when I heard Hodgson was traded. But I’ve been doing some reading (not on Puck Daddy comments sections but trying to stick to the more informed and level-headed places) and I think there are some valid reasons this trade might not be so bad. A huge difference between the regular season and playoffs is the number of power plays. Whatever you think about the “put away the whistle” business, it makes a difference to how you build your team. Vancouver can win in the regular season, there’s no doubt about that. Look at the past month-ish where they have played pretty much like garbage and end up 1st in the league. But when it comes to the playoffs, do you want someone with more defensive responsibility or someone who can maybe get pushed around a little more? Who knows whether this will be “the key” to the elusive 16th win, I don’t know that there is one key that will be “it.” Either way, I don’t think Vancouver is “joining ’em.”

  2. Great post Simon! You articulated very well my own feelings when I heard about the Hodgson trade. We gave away our young prospect for a goon with a criminal record! As much as last year hurt I, personally, would rather lose playing our style than win playing like the Bruins. Now obviously one player will not make us a goon squad but as you stated, it’s a very overt statement that what we were doing wasn’t good enough….or at a minimum we weren’t good enough at what we were doing. Having just watched Moneyball a couple of days ago I am reminded of Billy Beane’s statement about changing the game with the team he had. Call me a hockey romantic but I would like to believe that if we had won with our style it would have been a rather large feather in the cap of skill and speed over bullies and sucker punches.

  3. This is an interesting take on this, Simon. I think it’s quite telling how the media has framed this trade as a cut-and-dry skill for brawn deal, and how discussion of the trade is typically accompanied by images of the ‘Nucks getting “pushed around” by the Bruins last spring. We should be reminded that all the Canucks don’t necessary wear halos when it comes to gritty or “dirty” play (with all due respect, of course)…and thinking about this leads us to see how the coverage of a particular team can change from night to night. I remember when they were running the Leafs out of town a couple of Saturdays ago, and the post-game analysis was very much foscused on the play of the Sedins, but ALSO the aggressive play of LaPierre, Kesler, Rome etc. It’s pretty fascinating stuff…

    But what’s even MORE interesting is how these discussions come on the heels of the Red Wings home win streak and the “how can they win so much without fighting?” debates that have occupied the minds of hockey pundits both on Coaches Corner and elsewhere.

  4. Simon, if you want to restore your faith in skill versus the rugged/fighting forward, check out my post – http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.com/2012/02/additional-statistics-on-impact-of.html. It provides a study of the past 12 years and shows that teams that fight more often are at a disadvantage. However it does not guarantee that if you fight, you lose. The Flyers won two cups in the 70’s with a team built on intimidation through fighting. But the Canadiens won 6 cups in that same decade while having the least amount of PIMs of all teams.

    If Kassian, a power forward with some skill, can play with discipline then he can help Vancouver in this year’s Stanley Cup run. Nothing wrong with intimidation through speed and hard hitting, disrupting the opposition and getting them off their gameplan. But if he focuses on retaliation and revenge, then the Canucks will be on the penalty kill more often and give up the advantage of more potential power plays. It could be worse – you could be a Toronto fan like me :-)

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