Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hodgson, Kassian, and the cap

I'm a little late to the party on this one - all of three days - but the Hodgson-Kassian trade is something that has been a hot topic, obviously, so what better way to kick off our actual analysis?

There's not much consensus in the media and the blogosphere about whether the Canucks made out well in this trade; everyone seems to agree that it's a skill-for-size deal, but it's so much more than that. Other opinions vary widely; here's a few things I think it's not:

- It's not simply a 'win-now' deal. The Pahlsson trade was 'win-now'; he's a player who will be useful in the playoffs and will likely be gone next year. Kassian's value this year will be limited; granted, he's expected to play in a mostly 4th-line, physical role, but do you think the Canucks are really relying on a 21-year-old to be their key physical guy? If they were so concerned about getting that sort of player, I'd suspect they probably could have gotten a Steve Ott-type player if they were willing to part with Hodgson. Kassian, obviously, gives much more future value. Craig Button has criticized the Canucks for being too obsessed with getting more physical to beat the Bruins; sure, they've done that, but it seems more likely that there's more going on. In a way, I'll grant that Hodgson was not the player the Canucks need right now: a centre who needs ice time, but who isn't quite there yet defensively and is poor on faceoffs.

- It's not the Canucks giving up on Hodgson because of a trade request or bad blood; instead, they saw a chance to cash out on what had been a volatile asset. As Cam Charron put it, they're selling high on him. His past injury problems could re-surface any time. He had a very hot January and his perceived value shot up as if he was becoming the player he was always supposed to be. He may well continue to improve in Buffalo, but he might also fall apart. Back injuries don't just disappear.

Instead, I'll put it to you this way: the deal was all about the cap. Hodgson is making $1.66m this year and next, and will be due a big raise - to somewhere between $3-6 million, depending how he does in Buffalo. As a third-line centre, he's not a great bargain at $1.66m now; as a second-line centre, he won't be a great bargain at $3-6m.

The Canucks are in the enviable position of having lots of NHL talent and plenty of prospects coming down the pipe. Their cap situation is going to be very tight for the foreseeable future. The management knows this, and probably saw Hodgson as a guy who was going to be taking up cap space without much chance that they'd be able to turn a 'profit' (i.e., get enough performance out of him that he would be a salary-cap bargain) on him. Zack Kassian is totally different: he's in the first year of his ELC, which pays him a very modest $870k.

I was lucky enough to meet Laurence Gilman a couple weeks ago - he was discussing the salary arbitration process and Mason Raymond came up as an example. Rather than talking much about how the arbitration went, though, Gilman couldn't stop talking about how thrilled they were to have Raymond in 09-10 when he scored 25 goals for a mere $883k cap hit.

The key wasn't that Raymond potted 25 goals - but that he did it for such a low price. Let's say a typical 25-goal scorer would earn about $4m - Raymond provided it for a $3m discount. The Canucks could then use that cap space to pay for an upgrade from, say, Nolan Baumgartner ($550k salary that year) to Christian Ehrhoff ($3.5m), which is exactly what they did.

So getting productive players for small cap hits can give your team a real bonus. That's what I think Gilman sees in Kassian: his next Mason Raymond - a second/third line winger who can be productive for less than a million bucks.

Sami Salo ($2m) is a UFA this summer and may retire; the Canucks can use the savings on Kassian to replace him with a $4-5m defender. Or the money may be needed simply for raises to Raymond and Gragnani.

So there you have it. Acquiring Kassian isn't just because he's a physical player, and not just because Hodgson wanted out. It could be as much about the money as anything else.

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