It is a good thing there’s more to people than first impressions. Because when it comes to those, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson have a keen ability to completely underwhelm.
Ennis, with a slight frame, wavy long hair and baseball cap pulled low to cover his baby face, looks like a laid-back college kid who decided to take the semester off. “He’s kind of like a small child,” Drew Stafford said of his Buffalo Sabres teammate and road-trip roommate. “The guy doesn’t really know how to clean his house yet, doesn’t know how to really take care of things.”
Hodgson, meanwhile, initially blends into the crowd on and off the ice. For a 22-year-old who’s been gracing hockey magazine covers for years, that’s not the ideal impact.
“I saw him in the summer,” Sabres defenseman T.J. Brennan said, “and to be honest my first thought was like, ‘This guy maybe has too much hype.’ ”
Once people dig deeper, admirable traits emerge.
Behind Ennis’ carefree smile and whispery baritone is an intense competitor who lives for a challenge.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder has already absorbed blasts from the NHL’s biggest players, and he’s bounced up ready for more. “He’s like a 12-year-old sometimes, but he’s pretty much a hockey savant,” Stafford said. “Give him a stick and a pair of skates and he’s a genius.”
Brennan took a closer look at Hodgson during the last four months in Rochester. They played together with the Sabres’ minor-league club during the lockout, and the experience made Brennan believe the hype. Now he’s adding to it.
“Getting a chance to play with Cody on the power play was almost like an honor,” said Brennan, who led the Amerks with 14 goals and 35 points in 36 games. “Some guys are asking me, ‘How are you getting off to a good start, this and that,’ and it’s easy when Hodgson’s on the other side and everyone’s worried about him. He just throws it through two or three guys to me, and I have an empty net.
“He’s really impressive. He just loves the game. When you have passion like that, it almost makes it easy.”
With their talent and competitiveness, Hodgson and Ennis have convinced the Sabres they are ready to become top centers in the NHL. They’ll direct the first and second lines starting today in the season opener against Philadelphia.
“It’s their turn,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “It’s their turn to move up the ladder. It’s their turn to help push us even higher. I know that’s a big load, but they welcome the opportunity. They welcome the ice time.
“I believe both of them can do it.”
It is the first time Ennis and the 6-foot, 197-pound Hodgson will be front and center in the NHL. Once again, they’ll have to overcome underwhelming first impressions.
Ennis, who turned 23 in October, has just 140 games on his resume. Hodgson, who will turn 23 next month, has played only 91. Their short careers have featured flashes of stardom and stretches of mediocrity.
They have not proven they’re ready for the spotlight. They haven’t shown they can handle the daily dose of the opponents’ best, a list that starts with Flyers center Claude Giroux and continues with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Brad Richards and John Tavares.
There are doubters. The duo is ready for them.
“The thing is with Hodgie, we’re both like the same age and we’re both hungry to be great hockey players,” Ennis said. “It’s kind of fun for both of us just to be in the position where if we both succeed and we both play well then the team is going to play well and succeed.
“It’s fun. We like the challenge. Myself, I like adversity, I like trying to beat it. A lot of people probably are thinking smaller, young centers are not going to work, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Ennis is half right about what challenges await. Smaller centers can have success, but young centers often do not, at least when it comes to the ultimate achievement.
In the era between lockouts, the top two centers on Stanley Cup winners entered the season with an average of 638 games played. Combinations such as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg of Detroit (643 games), Crosby and Malkin of Pittsburgh (373), and Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards of Los Angeles (846) learned how to excel through the years and used that experience to earn a championship.
The runners-up from 2006 to 2012 also relied on veteran middlemen in their quest for hockey’s holy grail. Their first- and second-line centers combined for 692 games played. Duos such as Shawn Horcoff and Michael Peca of Edmonton (890 games), Richards and Danny Briere of Philadelphia (881), and Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler of Vancouver (1,130) traversed the sport’s ups and downs before reaching the finals.
The Sabres are asking Hodgson and Ennis to help carry them to the promised land after just 231 games.
“It is a pivotal position,” said Sabres left wing Steve Ott, who played in Dallas alongside Mike Modano, one of the all-time great centers. “It’s hard because you’re going into other buildings where you have a Brad Richards in New York or Sid and Geno Malkin, and those guys are more veteran-based, older guys. They’ve learned the position well.
“Hodgie and Enzo are top-skill level guys. I think you surround those guys with good, veteran players, and it makes their center position a lot easier. I think we have very, very strong wingers that can kind of help out those young centermen as they learn this experience.”
Hodgson is in an enviable spot. He’ll line up in the middle of left wing Thomas Vanek and captain Jason Pominville, the Sabres’ two proven point producers and the leading scorers from last season.
“It’s pretty incredible, a couple of All-Stars,” Hodgson said. “Van and Pommer are at the top of their game, and they’re the ultimate professionals. It’s a pleasure to play with them. They work so well together, and I’ll just try to complement them as much as possible.”
Ennis is excited to be back with Stafford and rookie left wing Marcus Foligno. In 13 games at the end of last season, they combined for an astonishing 21 goals and 49 points.
“The challenge for that line is they’re on the radar now,” Ruff said. “They snuck up on some teams, and they’re on the radar now. The challenge is to push through all that.”
Comfort zone found
Hodgson begins this season more comfortable than he ended the last one. Acquired from Vancouver at the trade deadline, he skated in 20 games with Buffalo and put up three goals and eight points in a whirlwind month.
“It’s nice to have a place and be ready to go and not have to worry about things to start off the year, where you’re going to be and that type of stuff,” Hodgson said. “I’m happy to get going and start new.”
He learned more about the organization and its style of play during the lockout. He excelled in Rochester, recording five goals and 19 points in 19 games.
More important, he got a glimpse of being a No. 1 center in the pros. Vancouver used him on the third line, but the Amerks lined him up against the best in the American Hockey League.
“He’s a game changer,” said Foligno, Hodgson’s linemate in Rochester. “He makes plays at crucial times.”
Observers have been critical of Hodgson’s speed, but he appears to have added quickness.
He was noticeably faster during training camp and the intrasquad scrimmage, which he attributes to working with trainer Gary Roberts and Sabres skating consultant Dawn Braid.
“It was awesome just to get a full regimen under my belt this summer and just come in in great shape,” said Hodgson, who was plagued by back trouble in prior offseasons. “Working with Dawn Braid helps a lot, too. In Rochester, she would come in basically once a week and work with the guys.”
Speed, elusiveness and creativity remain Ennis’ forte. He just needs to stay healthy. He missed 34 games because of ankle sprains last season and had his lockout time in Switzerland cut short with a shoulder injury.
The converted left winger is excited about his season in the middle.
“I just feel kind of free out there,” Ennis said. “Sometimes as a winger I felt kind of limited. I still enjoyed both positions, but being a centerman I just feel like it’s more creative, and that just suits my game.’’
Ruff is going to give Ennis and Hodgson all the freedom they can handle. They will be power-play quarterbacks. They will kill penalties. They will be used for the opening faceoff and sent over the boards during the final minute.
Despite their youth and inexperience, they’re going to be the top two centers. Now they have to prove they can do it.
“It’s everyone’s dream to play in the NHL and play a big role in the NHL,” Ennis said. “The fact that we have two guys that are up-and-coming and excited to play and want to get better every day is pretty exciting. I’m focused, and I can’t wait to play.”