The Vancouver Canucks are loading up for another possible run at the Boston Bruins.
A tad too soft in the Stanley Cup final last June, the Canucks will enter this year's playoffs with some more bite thanks to a productive trade deadline day. General manager Mike Gillis pulled off Monday's boldest move by making Cody Hodgson the centrepiece of a deal with Buffalo that netted rugged winger Zack Kassian.
The teams also flipped depth defencemen in a trade that saw the Canucks add some serious sandpaper to a lineup already overflowing with skill.
At six foot three and 220 pounds, Kassian is a wrecking ball on skates—a player who plays on the edge and occasionally crosses the line, having once been suspended 20 games by the Ontario Hockey League.
At the very least, the 21-year-old could be called on to provide some pushback if the NHL-leading Canucks meet a team as physical as the Bruins again this spring.
Kassian came at a high price. Hodgson recently turned 21 himself and has shown signs this season of why he's a former 10th overall draft pick—scoring 16 goals despite not seeing as much ice time as he's bound to get in Buffalo.
It's clear the Canucks are going all in with their efforts to make amends for last year's Stanley Cup disappointment. Gillis also added some important depth by acquiring two-way centre Sammy Pahlsson from Columbus.
While the Canucks look to be the team to beat once again in the Western Conference, they face competition.
Nashville Predators GM David Poile was the most aggressive buyer in recent weeks—adding forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn on Monday to go with the earlier acquisition of defenceman Hal Gill.
Those deals cost the Predators three high draft picks—a first-rounder and two second-rounders—and young forward Blake Geoffrion.
Poile said it was a high price to pay.
"I think they're higher than maybe the past years," he said. "The parity in the league has made it that way.
"If you know what you want, you've got to pay the price."
It was a relatively slow day with 16 trades involving 32 players—most coming in the final hour before the 3 p.m. ET deadline past. A year ago, 35 players found new homes on the final day of trading.
There simply weren't enough teams out of the playoff races and ready to sell off assets.
Most of the teams that fancy themselves as contenders were able to do some tinkering. Chicago added defenceman Johnny Oduya, San Jose landed forwards T.J. Galiardi and Daniel Winnink, Boston loaded up with veterans Brian Rolston, Mike Mottau and Greg Zanon and the Rangers acquired big defenceman John Scott.
The competition looks especially tough in the Western Conference. Nashville has been a consistent 100-point team since the lockout and advanced to the second round last year before getting bounced by the Canucks.
It's going to be tough to take the next step.
"The Detroit Red Wings, we've been chasing since Day 1 and they're still No. 1 in our division," said Poile. "Vancouver was in the final last year; Chicago won a Cup two years ago and they made a good acquisition today; the St. Louis Blues are tracking as one of the top teams in the league this year; (and) the San Jose Sharks maybe have lost a few games lately but we've played them twice in the playoffs and they've beat us twice in the playoffs.
"I could go on and on. I don't think there's much to separate any of us."
Ultimately, no team was willing to pay the price Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson was seeking for captain Rick Nash.
Howson dropped a bombshell after the deadline by revealing that Nash had requested a trade in late January. Despite making a concerted effort to fulfil that wish, Howson wasn't willing to simply give his best player away.
"Hey, the price was high and I don't apologize for that," he said. "It had to be high."
The trade deadline period was stressful on players and team executives alike. A number of GMs spoke afterwards of the distraction it's become in recent years and suggested they might take a different approach moving forward.
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke is thinking about implementing his own early deadline.
"I think the trade deadline is hard on players but I think it's murder on players in Toronto," said Burke, whose team is 1-7-1 since Feb. 7. "We just had a serious debate on whether next year we're just going to do this 10 days earlier so our players can relax. I don't know if that's the right answer because I don't want to tie my hands if there's something I can do but this is crazy here.
"I don't know how a player can ignore all this stuff and I don't know what we do about it, it's part of playing on a Canadian team. This is the hardest market to play in from that perspective."