Cody Hodgson laughed so hard Tuesday while describing his introduction into the NHL five years ago that he had trouble getting the words out of his mouth. He was a first-round pick in 2008 and top prospect in the Canucks’ organization when he made his debut in an exhibition game against the Ducks.

Hodgson hopped off the bench and realized he was sharing the ice with an all-star team that included Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The operative word is “sharing” because Hodgson certainly wasn’t competing against them. He was too busy admiring them.

“First shift,” Hodgson said. “I was looking across like, ‘Is this real right now?’ After the first shift, when they blow by you because you’re standing there watching them, you realize, ‘Holy crap, they’re the same as everybody else.’ You have to get into the game real quick or it passes you by.”

Hodgson’s message is one to behold as the Sabres battle through the first few weeks of the regular season. Clearly, he learned how to get involved. He scored once on the power play and set up Jamie McBain for another in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Lightning. The Sabres scored twice in the second period after scoring twice in the first three games.

Around here, it passes for progress.

The Sabres should enjoy the overtime point while they can because they’re not going to rack up many if they continue performing the way they have in four games. Tampa Bay dominated for much of the game but had problems beating Jhonas Enroth, who was outstanding. Buffalo was the better team in the second period.

If the game Tuesday proved anything, it’s that Ryan Miller and Enroth should switch duties until Miller signs a contract extension or is traded. Miller, who backed up Enroth while nursing a tender groin, is the better goaltender. But if the Sabres are working toward their long-term future, they should be playing Enroth and shopping Miller.

It would improve Miller’s chances of staying healthy and preserve his trade value. Darcy Regier should speed-dial Philadelphia, which looks vulnerable with a new coach and questionable goaltending. The last thing the Sabres need is Miller stealing games and providing false hope. They need to learn how to win without him.

This is what happens when a team is intent on developing young players in the best league in the world. You can get away with one or two but not five or six. It’s not as if opposing teams are going to wait around. They were outclassed last week in Detroit and Pittsburgh. Miller kept them in the game against Ottawa. They were outplayed Tuesday.

Buffalo had three shots in the first period against Tampa Bay, which is hardly considered a powerhouse in the Atlantic Division. They were getting outshot, 18-4, through the first 33 minutes and 19-6 when Hodgson scored on the power play. Buffalo played better as the game carried along and competed in the third period. And still lost.

It’s not going to get much easier with the Blue Jackets coming to town Thursday and the Blackhawks salivating while waiting for the Sabres to arrive Saturday.

The kids have performed admirably, assuming you accept that they’re being held to a lower standard. In truth, nobody on the roster has been nearly good enough by NHL standards. The effort was there Tuesday. The Sabres simply are not a good hockey team. They’re trying to pass off their JV roster as a varsity team.

I’ll say it again: If they’re too young or not good enough to play in the NHL, they don’t belong in the NHL. They belong in the AHL or back in junior or some Saturday night beer league. Mikhail Grigorenko, for starters, has no business being in the NHL at this stage of his career. He has looked utterly lost.

“You produce or you’re gone in this kind of aspect of the NHL,” home captain Steve Ott said. “It’s something all these guys are learning on the run. Our veterans haven’t been great either. We’re all not producing in the aspect of scoring. We all have to do it together.”

Tampa Bay took a similar approach and had similar results a few years ago before Steve Yzerman was hired as general manager. Former first-round pick Brett Connolly struggled as a rookie and spent last season in the AHL, where he had 31 goals. Yzerman resisted the temptation to promote him last season despite Tampa Bay’s problems.

Connolly had four goals in the preseason this year, tying the team lead, and was rewarded with a bus ticket back to Syracuse. Yzerman wants him even more prepared before he resumes his NHL career. Jonathan Drouin, the third pick overall in June, was sent back to juniors for more seasoning. He’s a gifted player but not ready for the NHL.

Naturally, the Sabres are sending mixed messages. Regier warning fans about suffering has been documented. Ted Black wasted little time getting his message across in a radio interview in which “youth” and “teenagers” flew out of his mouth numerous times. All this about 10 hours after Buffalo lost to Detroit in the opener.

Coach Ron Rolston and his veteran players aren’t interested in hearing about their inexperience. Rolston, to his credit, has refused to embrace excuses. His players subscribe to the notion that anyone playing in the NHL belongs in the NHL. Therefore, winning should be the top priority.

“It’s the same process if you’re a young guy or you’ve been in the league for a while,” Hodgson said. “It’s always frustrating when things aren’t going your way. If they’re on the team, they’re on the team. We’re in this together and trying to pull through. If you do the right things often enough, eventually it’s going to turn around.”