Anyone who spends his summers sweating through Gary Roberts’ high-performance workouts is either a dedicated athlete or a fan of pain. Cody Hodgson doesn’t seem masochistic, so he must want to be a better hockey player.
The Buffalo Sabres certainly think so. They’ve rewarded the 23-year-old with a six-year, $25.5 million contract. They’ve made him their unquestioned No. 1 center. They’re prepared to live with his mistakes while believing the long-term payoff will be worth the miscues.
“When they have that much faith in you, you want to try that much harder and make sure you reward them for that opportunity,” Hodgson said Thursday on the opening day of training camp and the first day of his contract. “I think it’s going to be a good relationship going forward. Six years seems like a long time, but I know it will fly by talking with the other guys. I just have to make the most of it.”
Hodgson’s deal and spot on the depth chart thrust him into the role of leading man for the Sabres. There will be times he’s ready, especially offensively. There will be times he’s overmatched, especially defensively.
“He’s one of those players that in the future is going to be a leader for us,” coach Ron Rolston said in First Niagara Center. “Sometimes we forget he is a younger player, and those things, he’s learning.
“You can see his natural talent, and he’s been able to do that for a long time. That’s very easy for him. Now as he progresses and he’s with us for a long time now, it’s finding the purpose in things. Part of that for him is being a more well-rounded player so he can help us win a Stanley Cup down the road. That’s his job now.”
The Sabres are counting on Hodgson eventually to be their go-to guy. They’ve observed his work ethic and believe he can be a star when his learning curve reaches the top.
“He wants to be counted on,” General Manager Darcy Regier said. “He wants to be recognized in a leadership position. He wants the opportunity to be in positions where you can make a difference.”
Hodgson is exactly where he wanted to be after asking out of Vancouver. He was stuck behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler on the depth chart and wanted a bigger role somewhere. He’s got it.
“You just want to do what you can and complement the players you’re playing with,” said Hodgson, who is centering wingers Thomas Vanek and Marcus Foligno. “We’ve got a really talented group. I think it depends on how well we work together. If we work together as a team, anything can happen.”
Hodgson finished second behind Vanek in scoring with 34 points in 48 games in his first full season with Buffalo. His skills should prove the production wasn’t a fluke.
“To be on a line with him, it’s going to be great to get open,” Foligno said. “I think the biggest thing with Cody is the way he breaks the puck out of the zone. … As a winger, you’ve just got to try to keep up the speed with him and get up the ice as quick as you can because you know he can use you, and he’s really good at one-on-one situations.
“When you have a guy that’s good at one-on-one situations, if you beat someone to the net and he beats a guy, you’re going to outnumber someone and you’ve got a good chance for scoring. He’s very creative like that.”
Hodgson’s defensive shortcomings, however, can overshadow his offensive talent. Opponents averaged 3.64 goals against him per 60 minutes while skating five-on-five. Only 24 players in the league were easier to score against.
The center believes a full training camp and regular practice time with Rolston can help minimize the lapses. The coach replaced Lindy Ruff during the season, and his workouts were limited because of the lockout-shortened schedule.
“We’re going to get a chance to know the systems a little better,” Hodgson said. “Having Ron know right from the start of training camp what we’re doing system-wise, I think we’ll all get on the same page.
“I’ve been working on power, strength, making sure I can muscle guys off pucks. Hopefully, that will translate into good team defense.
“Obviously, you work on those things in the offseason. Hopefully, it translates into the year. You can never tell until you get onto the ice in real games. I did everything I could this summer to make sure I’m prepared.”