The only offensive bright spot for the Buffalo Sabres so far this season has been center Cody Hodgson, who has 12 points in 16 games – a pace better than his 34 in 48 games last season.
If you only looked at his offensive production, you'd think everything was just peachy. But the former first-round pick's defense is hurting the Sabres as much as his offense is helping them.
And after another off-season working with Gary Roberts and little-to-no improvement defensively, Sabres fans should be concerned that Hodgson won't ever be good enough in his own end to be the top center the team's management claims he can be.
A few months ago, I researched No. 19's defense, finding that he needed significant improvement to even be considered average in his own end.
Naturally, I've been paying close attention to Hodgson in his own end looking for any signs of a difference. Here's what I've been looking for:
-Is his positioning better?
-Is he more physical?
-Is it harder for his opponents to find room in front of the net?
-Has his effort been better?
Hodgson has one issue that causes struggles in his own end that will never get better: His skating. The Sabres' top center isn't an elite skater and can not make up for mistakes or lack of effort with blazing speed. However, if he does the other four well, his defense can be good enough to be a top six center on a winning team.
Before we get to the video where his problems defensively will be evident, let's take a look at how his defensive statistics compare to last season.
According to the website ExtraSkater.com, Hodgson was seventh in the NHL in On-Ice Goals Against in close situations at 5-on-5 with 24 goals going against Buffalo in 48 games. He was eighth in the NHL in total 5-on-5 On-Ice goals against with 36 in 48 games.
Sometimes On-Ice Goals Against can be deceiving. Horrible goaltending in Tampa Bay and Florida put several decent two-way players on the Goals Against list simply because their goalies were struggling badly to stop the puck. This was not the case in Buffalo. The Sabres had a solid .923 5v5 save percentage in 2013, ranking them 13th in the NHL. This year, it's .918, ranking 18th.
So if Goals Against can be deceiving, what's another measure? Shots on Goal. Especially at the center position, a dominant player can have a big effect on how many shots are taken against his team. And the fewer shots against, the fewer unlucky bounces and presumably the fewer goals.
When Hodgson was on the ice last season, the Sabres were out-shot 370 to 325 (-45) in 640 minutes of 5v5 ice time. That's giving up around 31 shots against per 60 minutes while Hodgson was on the ice. This year? Hodgson is No. 1 in the NHL amongst forward in shots against. Per 60 minutes, he's allowing a whopping 38 shots per 60 minutes – worst on the Sabres by four.
Now, having a shortened season plus 16 game sample of defensive futility when Hodgson on the ice isn't quite enough to say definitively how much of the issues have been his fault. After all, the Sabres have a very young defense (though he has played on the top line all year and spent nearly half his 5v5 ice time with Buffalo's best defenseman Christian Ehrhoff).
This is where we turn to the video.
In my previous piece, it was determined that Hodgson played a large role in about half of the goals he was on the ice for. Is it different this year?
To quote Terrell Owens, no not really.
On this goal, the Anaheim Ducks enter the zone by taking the puck down into the corner. Hodgson floats into the D-zone on the back check and skates toward the puck handler. The problem? There are already three Sabres in the immediate area. You can see here that Hodgson's back is turned to the Ducks' defenseman.
The D-man Sami Vatanen realizes he has the middle of the ice completely free and steps up in the middle of the ice without the slightest deterrent.
Now you see Hodgson skates to the bottom of the circle, possibly anticipating the puck to be dropped behind the net. He seems to have no awareness whatsoever that Tyler Ennis is already in position there or that his assignment is the defenseman. This screen grab captures the moment he realizes it.
The defenseman scores easily on a helpless Jhonas Enroth.
This goal demonstrates that one of the key aspects of strong defensive play – awareness – has not improved in Hodgson's game. It's about as simple a defensive assignment that exists in hockey and No. 19 isn't there.
So his understanding of simple defensive concepts has not improved over one off-season. That may never get better. But Hodgson talked in the off-season about improving his physical presence in the D-zone and effort. Those are two aspects that can be improved simply through a commitment to them.
Hodgson has not committed to them. In this video, a goal by Emerson Etem, the Sabres' center is in the right position, but completely fails to put a body on Etem. If he had minimal physical contact with Etem, there's no chance the Ducks' depth forward scores. Again poor Enroth has no shot.
Maybe the Ducks game was just a bad night.
Or maybe not. Here's another example of a complete lack of effort.
So his physical play and effort has not been better. His positioning and awareness are on par with last season and he isn't making it more difficult on opponents to get positioning.
This is a bad sign for the Sabres.
They signed Hodgson to a six year contract in the off-season with a cap hit of $4.25 million. Sure, it's reasonable for a one-dimensional second or third line center. But dig a little deeper and you can see the issue with signing a defensively deficient centerman in this organization. Their pride and joy prospect Mikhail Grigorenko has been benched several times this season for his lack of effort defensively. While there's still time for Grigorenko to improve, it doesn't appear he'll ever be a dominant two-way player – average at absolute best considering his poor skating ability and lack of drive. So who will play defense?
Take a quick look at the last five Cup winners. Chicago, L.A., Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh,. What do they have in common? Toews, Kopitar, Bergeron, Crosby. All incredible two-way centers. Go back one more and you have Pavel Datsyuk, a Hall of Fame two-way center.
Maybe the Sabres' two-way center is yet to come. Maybe the long-term plan for Hodgson is to make him a No. 2 or No. 3 guy who is kept away from Crosby and Bergeron. But his spot is locked. What if Zemgus Girgensons proves himself worthy of a center spot, then the Sabres draft another center...does Grigorenko get bumped? Do they leave Girgensons at center?
Hodgson's six-year deal could clog up the center position for six years with a player void of defensive skills. In the NHL in 2013, two-way players rule the game. And if the Sabres really want to be tough to play against, how can any player (much less two) at the toughest defensive position be so poor at that aspect of his game?
Because the team is rebuilding and Grigorenko might be better fit for the wing, the situation isn't critical – and Hodgson is still scoring goals. But after another off-season and little-to-no improvement, you have to seriously whether the Sabres' six-year man will be able to be competent in his own end.