The Sabres knew from the start they’d have trouble at center. They handed the top spots to Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis, a pair of talented, inexperienced guys who’d never carried a team. Buffalo readied for growing pains and hoped to overcome them.
When the season ended, the Sabres were out of the playoffs, Ennis was out of the middle and Hodgson was out of gas.
It takes time to grasp the center position, and Buffalo’s biggest preseason question was how well their young centers would perform under the spotlight. As expected, Hodgson and Ennis had statistical highs and head-shaking lows:
• Hodgson was second on the Sabres in goals (15) and points (34), but he was one of the easiest players to score against in the NHL.
• Ennis tied for the team lead in assists (21) and finished third in points (31), but he struggled mightily when the Sabres were trying to stay ahead.
“It’s been a productive year, but there’s always room for improvement,” Hodgson said.
The focus for Hodgson will be defense. The 23-year-old saw goal lights flashing at both ends of the rink all season. His advance stats feature offensive promise and defensive nightmares.
The Sabres averaged 2.91 goals per 60 minutes when Hodgson skated five-on-five, according to BehindTheNet.ca, a website dedicated to hockey statistics. That number put him ahead of star centers such as Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux (2.90), Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom (2.89) and the New York Rangers’ Brad Richards (2.88).
Hodgson connected immediately with wingers Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville when ex-coach Lindy Ruff formed the line during training camp.
“It was a great opportunity that Lindy gave me,” Hodgson said. “I was able to come in and play with some awesome players right away.”
While his offense was stellar, the other side of Hodgson’s game was a mess. Opponents averaged 3.64 goals against him per 60 minutes while skating five-on-five. Of the 689 skaters who appeared in at least 10 games, Hodgson ranked 665th.
In other words, only 24 players in the league were easier to score against.
Hodgson’s defensive lapses also exhibited themselves in the Sabres’ goaltending numbers. Buffalo’s netminders had an .895 save percentage when Hodgson skated five-on-five, the lowest number of any player on the team. Of the 689 skaters who played 10 games, Hodgson’s team save percentage ranked 589th, according to BehindTheNet.
Ennis struggled in the same categories. The goalies’ save percentage when he skated at even strength was .918, which ranked 19th on the Sabres. Buffalo gave up 2.71 goals per 60 minutes when Ennis skated five-on-five, which put him 20th on the team. He failed to keep up as the Sabres scored 1.87 with him on the ice, the same total per 60 minutes as defenseman Chad Ruhwedel.
Ennis was also a disaster in the faceoff circle, winning just 41.9 percent of his draws. Hodgson wasn’t much better at 46.8 percent.
“Sometimes when you’re in a little bit of a slump, you can start questioning yourself and question your ability,” Ennis said. “That’s not the way you’ve got to think. You’re here for a reason, and you’ve just got to battle out of it.”
Ron Rolston ended Ennis’ battle in the middle with seven games left. The coach moved him to left wing, and Ennis entered the offseason unsure of where he’ll skate next year.
“Being able to play both positions is a good thing,” he said. “I’m glad that I can play center and wing. I’m comfortable in both spots.”
Ennis, unfortunately, was not in his comfort zone when the Sabres had the lead. When he skated five-on-five with Buffalo in front, the opponents were twice more likely to score than the Sabres, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.
The site tracks the percentage of goals scored by a player’s team while he is on the ice. Opponents scored 66.7 percent of the goals when Ennis was trying to keep Buffalo in front or expand the lead. Ennis’ total of 33.3 percent ranked in a tie for 438th of the 500 players who skated at least 100 minutes with their team ahead.
He had identical woes at home. Of all the five-on-five goals scored in Buffalo while Ennis was on the ice, the visitors potted 66.7 percent of them, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.
Overall, the opponents scored 58.7 percent of the goals when Ennis skated five-on-five.
As expected, some of the centers’ worst games came against established middle men. Carolina’s Eric Staal tortured Ennis on March 5 in a minus-3 showing for the 23-year-old. Richards and the New York Islanders’ John Tavares sent Hodgson to minus-3 nights.
The Sabres hope Hodgson and Ennis learned from their first season as front-line players. There was a lot to learn.
“I don’t think I’ve been this tired,” Hodgson said. “This year was such a condensed time period where you’re trying to keep learning and the coaching change and all the systems. You just have to continue to keep rolling. At the same time, you’re playing and you don’t have a chance to sit back and analyze it.”
They can now. Most of the numbers aren’t pretty. Some are.
“You’ve got to be optimistic,” Ennis said. “There’s a lot of good pieces, a lot of good, young talent and hard-working guys that want to win. I’m excited about the future.”