Hodgson key to Buffalo’s future

Cody Hodgson is now a member of the Nashville Predators. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

A lot of talk surrounding the Buffalo Sabres is centred on two types of players: those who don’t actually skate for the team yet, and those who might soon be playing somewhere else.

And even when people aren’t speculating about the possible addition of a franchise centre like Connor McDavid at next June’s draft or the seemingly inevitable departure of a pending unrestricted free agent like right winger Chris Stewart, oftentimes the Buffalo conversation focuses on the influence of a trio of letter-wearing veterans—captain Brian Gionta and alternates Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson—who landed with the team last summer.

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That means 20-somethings like Cody Hodgson can get lost in the mix.

The ultimate success of Buffalo’s complete reboot will largely be determined by the high-end picks the Sabres have either already made (Sam Reinhart, second overall last June) or are on target to make in the next year or two. That said, players like Hodgson, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno will be huge factors in determining just how fast Buffalo turns the corner, and how far it can go upon getting properly directed.

Hodgson has been a particular point of interest for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact he was part of an out-of-the-blue, one-for-one trade between Buffalo and the Vancouver Canucks that sent ruffian Zack Kassian the other way in February, 2012. While Kassian has developed into a rugged third-liner capable of chipping in offence with Vancouver, there remains no doubt that Buffalo made off with the more skilled player.

Two years ago, during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, Hodgson posted the rough equivalent of a 25-goal season on a team that was just starting to crumble. And while his production dropped last year, Hodgson still registered 20 goals on a last-overall squad that was the only outfit in the league that failed to average at least two tallies per game.

Believe it or not, goals have been even harder to come by for Buffalo this year through nine games, and Hodgson has just two points to show for his work. But coach Ted Nolan believes moving Hodgson to the wing permanently—he’s played both on the side and in the middle with the Sabres—might get both the player and team a few more points.

“We want to free him up on the wing where he can take some chances offensively,” Nolan said.

Not that Hodgson needs a ton of room to show what he can do.

“He’s great with the puck,” said new teammate Gionta. “He’s patient, he sees the ice well.”

He’s also got an eye on the big picture. While everybody in the Sabres room seems to be keeping their chin up, nobody is delusional about the current state of the club. To put it in hockey player parlance, it is what it is. Still, Hodgson—who’s signed through the 2018-19 season—said he’s excited about the long-term trajectory of a franchise that has a first-rate owner in Terry Pegula and a stable hockey operations department headed by GM Tim Murray, who’s done some nice work during his 10 months on the job. Of course, it’s the guys in hockey sweaters—not suits—who really determine the worth of an organization and Hodgson is committed to being part of a core that keeps the ever-simmering torrent of negativity you find around losing clubs at bay.

“You need a culture that’s going to be helpful for younger players and for guys coming into the team,” he said.

As someone who turns 25 in February, Hodgson has some years on the freshest Sabre faces, though he still counts himself as a slightly green NHLer trying to glean something new every day. He said one of the things he’s noticed about the 36-year-old Gionta is his uncanny ability to come up with loose pucks in the offensive zone. At the other end of the ice, Hodgson spent a chunk of Tuesday morning’s skate honing his ability to pluck rimmed pucks off the boards in the defensive zone, something he doesn’t have as much experience with because of his time at centre. It’s not the most glamorous skill in the world, but it’s just one more small thing that could help a capable player already in Buffalo’s fold push the team through this rough patch a little quicker.

“He’s still going through his learning curve,” Gionta said, “and he’s got all the talent in the world.

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