Hey look, it's hockey.
The Buffalo Sabres start training camp this week and there are a bundle of interesting story lines. Who will come out the captain? Which young'ins will make the club? Will the status of Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek be a distraction? Will Tyler Myers rebound?
Those are the fun ones. The not fun story is whether center Cody Hodgson will sign a new contract or hold out. The 23-year-old is currently a Restricted Free Agent and has yet to come to terms with the Sabres on a “bridge contract.” Normally, the bridge deal is simply a relatively unproven player getting two or three more years to prove himself while still getting decent dough.
But for some reason, CoHo and the team haven't been able to find common ground. We haven't heard a peep from Buffalo or Hodgson's agent on the status of talks, but Toronto's Nazem Kadri ended up with a deal around two-years, $6 million.
Hodgson is a fascinating case. The Sabres' cupboard was bare a few years ago, but it's pretty stacked now with Tyler Ennis, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Kevin Porter all competing for spots and Ville Leino, Marcus Foligno and Steve Ott as centers when needed.
At the moment, the Sabres could start the season without their top center from last season and wouldn't struggle a bit to replace him.
Does that mean they should try to trade his rights? Should they just bend to his demands on a bridge deal? Or did he prove enough last season to deserve a long term deal?
When the Sabres are considering their options, the first question they'll have to ask is whether Hodgson can be a No. 1 center at some point in the future.
The biggest mark against his chances of being the next Patrice Bergeron or Anze Kopitar is that he is well, well below average defensively. Nearly all of the league's true No. 1's – the types who raise the Cup – are terrific defensively and in terms of puck possession. They can face off with the NHL's best for seven games.
At this point, Hodgson's defense isn't in the stratosphere of Bergeron, Kopitar, Toews, Datsyuk or Crosby.
If you recall, his defensive struggles were cited as a reason for the Canucks' willingness to trade him to Buffalo for Zack Kassian.
And it showed badly last season.
First, the statistics:
Hodgson was on the ice for 3.64 Goals Against per 60 minutes, 1.97 with him off
Goals Against was 18th worst in the NHL, 13th amongst F's
He had a -7.91 Corsi rating per 60 minutes (shots on goal+missed+blocked)
The Sabres allowed 31.0 shots against with Hodgson on the ice and 29.2 off
Shots against was 29th worst in the NHL
He was on the ice for 42.5% of Even Strength (non-SH or EN) goals against
By all statistical measures, he was one of the worst defensive players in the NHL. Sometimes player usage can effect a player's defensive statistics. For example, if Patrick Kaleta is being used 40% of the time in the offensive zone and 60% in the defensive zone, he'll likely be a minus player and have a negative Corsi statistic, even if he's good defensively.
But that was not the case with Hodgson, who played a pretty average 48.4 O-zone start % and ranked 7th amongst Sabres forwards Quality of Competition according to the stats website Behindthenet.ca. Tyler Ennis, Steve Ott, Kevin Porter, Nathan Gerbe, Patrick Kaleta and Jochen Hecht faced tougher competition.
So why were his numbers so bad? Was it because he was playing with the offensive-minded Thomas Vanek? Was there bad luck involved? Plus-minus can be a super misleading statistic because of the of luck factor, reliance on offensive statistics, reliance on goaltending and teammates etc.
An analysis of each goal scored by Sabres' opponents when Hodgson was on the ice in 2013 suggests it was not luck or teammates. Hodgson was largely responsible for the high amount of goals scored against the team when he was on the ice.
Of the 80 goals allowed (non-SHG or EN) against Buffalo, he was on the ice for 34. Using video analysis via NHL.com's gamecenter replays, Hodgson was at least part of 24 of the 34 and highly or 100% responsible for 15 goals against.
Here is an example of a goal in which he would be called “completely” responsible.
Hodgson gets caught staring at the puck and ignores the area in which he's responsible for. Thomas Vanek even points to Little, telling Hodgson to watch the pass from behind the net. Yet No. 19 ignores the advice of his veteran teammate, allowing Winnipeg's scorer a one-on-one with Ryan Miller.
Now an example of a play where he would be considered “highly” responsible. Hodgson simply loses track of his assignment, allowing a wide open one-timed shot. It wasn't completely his fault because Ryan Miller had a stab at it, but it was an inexcusable mistake to allow Gallagher that much room in the defensive zone.
Can he improve defensively?
We hear it all the time: “Player X wasn't a great defender at first but turned out to be a good two-way player, therefore Hodgson can.”
The inherent problem with this is that usually Player X is an outlier. An exception to the rule. Think about the “you don't need a good quarterback to win the Super Bowl because Trent Dilfer won one.”
Age is usually a factor there as well. At age 18, Jonathan Tavares couldn't skate well and was terrible defensively. But he improved with several years in the league. But Hodgson isn't 18 and doesn't have the hockey skill than Tavares does. He's 23 and struggles with several basic tools needed to be a good defender.
The Sabres' young center is not a good skater. Even with his hard work with Gary Roberts, his skating is below average. Watch here as he attempts to keep up on the backcheck and can't keep up. Skating plays a big role in why he struggles to get back into the play and gives opponents extra time to set up when carrying the puck into the offensive zone.
“Hockey sense” is another issue. Hodgson appears to lack the defensive instincts to play center. He struggles mightily to anticipate his opponents' next move. Like a corner back in the NFL, sometimes centers are required to stick on their man without the puck. Opponents easily make one pivot or stride and find room to get the puck.
He isn't the least bit physical, either. The former Canuck fails to tie up opponents and is unable to successfully battle for position in front of the net.
These things aren't learned. They aren't techniques that can be tweaked. They are major issues and ones that could only see slight improvements.
Does this mean the Sabres should part ways with No. 19?
Offense justifying bad defense?
There are more than a few one-dimensional offensive players in the NHL – and some have been wildly successful (see Kane, Patrick). But these types of players either have to be protected by playing the wing with a great center or score at a point per game rate.
The Sabres' centerman has terrific hands, vision and patience in the offensive zone. He's able to see a play develop and keep the puck on his stick long enough to snap a pass or shot with his strong hands.
Watch here as he waits for the exact right time for Pominville to find an inch, then sneaks the puck through defenders to allow his man a chance to score.
No doubt, Hodgson is a tremendous offensive talent.
But he'll have to improve on his scoring totals if he's going to justify such abysmal defense. He netted 34 points in 48 games and scored 2.09 points per 60 minutes at Even Strength, which was 75th in the NHL.
That's with a great deal of his ice time with two of the league's most consistent scorers in Thomas Vanek and Pominville. If he's asked to drive the bus with young offensive players like Joel Armia, will he still score at this rate?
And it's highly questionable whether he can improve on his offensive game.
Think of it this way: He's at the age where scorers tend to be who they're going to be in terms of scoring totals. Look at the point per game (or more) scorers like Stamkos, Ovechkin, Crosby, Kessel and Kane. They have already reached their peak offensively by age 23.
It's difficult to find examples of forwards who, outside of a lucky stretch, took huge leaps forward – which is what Hodgson would need to do in order to get to the status of the aforementioned scorers.
So now what?
All things considered, moving Hodgson while he has a great deal of value and would garner a solid return seems like the best option. The Sabres have so many young players and so much cap room that his production could be replaced via the system or free agency in an eye blink.
But a bridge deal shouldn't be out of the question. There are a handful of No. 2 centers (think Mike Ribero) who are defensively challenged but still offer solid point production and are protected by their coaching staffs with low defensive zone start %, against easy competition and using talented defensive players around them.
And there's always the possibility of him outworking the “norm” when it comes to age vs. improvement. If Hodgson could improve to be at least an average defender, he'd be worth having long term. If not, let him be somebody else's headache. A bridge deal would give the Sabres two more years to figure out if he can turn into that average defender.