In the hours leading to the trade deadline Monday afternoon, Paul Gaustad was a dominant figure on the NHL landscape. Folks in hockey circles buzzed about where the Sabres' center might go and how much he was worth, his picture appearing on network shows every few minutes.
When deadline day ended, he wasn't even the most prominent player to leave Buffalo.
The Sabres got busy as the clock ticked toward the trade freeze, making two significant transactions. Buffalo started by moving Gaustad and a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft to Nashville for the Predators' first-round selection this year.
Shortly after that, bags belonging to two more players were unloaded from the Sabres' equipment truck at First Niagara Center. General Manager Darcy Regier made his biggest move, sending the team's top prospect, Zack Kassian, to Vancouver for highly regarded young center Cody Hodgson. Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani also went to the Canucks in exchange for blue-liner Alexander Sulzer.
A trade involving Gaustad was expected. The Kassian deal was not. The Sabres, though, are organizationally weak at center and opted to swap a right wing prospect for a young pivot.
"The center position is the second-most difficult position to fill behind goaltender," Regier said before flying to California for Wednesday's game against Anaheim. "Most teams are struggling to find top-two-line centers. When we started to go through the process of 'where are we going to get centers going forward,' it became a priority."
Kassian has been the buzz in Sabreland since the team made him the 13th overall pick in the 2009 draft. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound forward represented everything the Sabres lacked: size and toughness mixed with skill.
Hodgson drew similar attention among Canucks fans, though the 6-foot, 185-pounder is known for his puck prowess, not his pugnaciousness. He was the 10th overall selection in the 2008 draft. He was on the cover of the Hockey News' "Future Watch" issue in 2009, with the magazine rating him as the second-best player in the world not currently in the NHL.
The 22-year-old playmaker has shown flashes of that promise with the Canucks, recording 16 goals and 33 points in 63 games this season. He's a Rookie of the Year candidate, ranking second in goals and fifth in points among first-year players.
"I'm still in shock right now," Hodgson told TSN. "It's tough to leave Vancouver. It's a great city, very passionate about its hockey."
Hodgson, a Toronto native, played on Canada's world junior team with the Sabres' Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis in 2009. He will compete with Ennis for the center spot on Buffalo's second and third lines.
The duo will be relied upon with Gaustad gone. The center, set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, was the team's prime faceoff man and penalty killer. His departure was expected, and in a weak trade market Regier decided he was going to make a team pay to get the 30-year-old.
"We thought long and hard about whether we needed to trade him and under what conditions to trade him," Regier said. "We set the standard high, and the standard was we had to acquire a first-round pick. If we couldn't acquire a first-round pick in that process, then we were not going to trade him."
One team offered a first-rounder for Gaustad on Sunday night but withdrew it Monday. The market "popped" about 90 minutes before the deadline, Regier said, and the Stanley Cup-pushing Predators made their pitch for Gaustad and a pick.
"When we evaluated our team, we knew we had to get better," Regier said. "If it meant taking a minor step back, we were prepared to do it. It still allows us to run at the playoffs. We're all aware of the odds against us, but Cody will give us a good boost on the offensive side. We certainly lose Gaus' competitiveness and size and thickness, and his ability to play against the other teams' top line."
"I've spent my entire adult life in Western New York, about 12 years but I'm really looking forward to coming to Nashville," Gaustad said in a conference call with Nashville media. "I think it's really exciting for me to be in playoff hockey, hockey that I enjoy, and taking a run at the Stanley Cup. It's tough to leave Buffalo but it's also very exciting to come to Nashville."
The swapping for Sulzer and Gragnani gives both D-men a chance to compete in new environs. Gragnani was locked in as the seventh defenseman in Buffalo, while the 27-year-old Sulzer lagged behind in a similar logjam in Vancouver.
The moves don't change the Sabres' short-term outlook. The 12th-place club hopes to make a playoff push during the final 20 games.
"I want to make a run at it," said center Derek Roy, who was involved in trade chatter but ultimately stayed put. "I have some unfinished business here. I haven't won a championship here. That was my goal from the start was to win one."
After Monday's moves, Regier feels the Sabres' long-term Cup prospects are improved. They will have two first-round picks and two second-round selections in the June draft. Buffalo can keep them or use them as part of a bigger deal for immediate improvement. The Sabres have increased their options with Monday's transactions.
"I don't think we scrap an entire project," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "The fans have to realize that sets you back years. What we're looking for is the right tweaks."
"We've heard it enough this year that it wasn't good enough. I think we've reacted. Whether it's enough time to save the season, we'll see."
Pos: D, Ht: 6-2, Wt: 201
2011-12 stats: 44 GP, 1 G,
11 A, 20 PIM, 10 /-
Pos: C, Ht: 6-5, Wt: 212
2011-12 stats: 56 GP, 7 G,
10 A, 70 PIM, -1 /-
Pos: RW, Ht: 6-3, Wt: 214
2011-12 stats: 27 GP, 3 G,
4 A, 20 PIM, -1 /- (with Buffalo)
Pos: C, Ht: 6-0, Wt: 185
2011-12 stats: 63 GP, 16 G,
17 A, 8 PIM, 8 /-
Pos: D, Ht: 6-1, Wt: 204
2011-12 stats: 12 GP, 0 G,
1 A, 2 PIM, 6 /-
*Shipped center Paul Gaustad, along with a fourth-round draft pick in 2013, to the Nashville Predators in exchange for a first-round pick in this year's draft. Gaustad will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
*Traded rookie Zack Kassian, who has split his time between Buffalo and AHL Rochester this season, along with defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani to the Vancouver Canucks for center Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer. The key to the deal for Buffalo is Hodgson, a 22-year-old who was the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft.