Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hodgson is smart, clever , playmaking center

By Larry Wigge

You are going into the draft and are looking for a quality playmaking center.

You look for speed. But Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis and Adam Oates weren't the fastest and they were in the top four playmakers of all-time. Only Mark Messier had the speed and power to work his way into the top five. 

The key to scouting playmakers is puck skills and energy and a quarterbacking mentality on the half-boards and deep into the offensive zone. Like a wide receiver, you must have the escapability to pull past a defenseman to make a play. Instinctive. Innate ability.

To see a play happening is like a mindset of a quarterback to seeing a wide receiver working his way to get open. There's more under the center helmet to making a playmaker.

Cody Hodgson is on the ice, his opponents look like pawns on the chessboard. He a creative center who possesses terrific puck skills and a high hockey IQ.

A chessboard? Yes, that picture I get.

"There are a lot of similarities between chess and hockey," said the Toronto, Ontario, native. "You're always planning your attack beforehand and when you're moving up the board you should always attack with more than one piece."

Now, Hodgson is a unique talent.

"When I was younger I would compete in tournaments," smiled Hodgson, who met Pope John Paul II, also a chess master of sorts.

Sometimes you slot one of these playmakers into a role. The Vancouver Canucks drafted the 6-foot, 185-pound center with the 10th pick overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. But, they had Henrik Sedin and a Ryan Kesler playing ahead of Hodgson. So, in the final minutes of trade deadline day they dealt Cody off to Buffalo for some size, great size, in Zack Kassian -- the Sabres had picked the right wing 13th overall in the 2009 draft.

The Sabres won out in this deal because they got the smarter and more clever playmaker.

Hodgson's favorite player when he was growing up Steve Yzerman. In fact, he wear Yzerman's No. 19 today. But, he patterned himself after ...

"Chris Drury is obviously an incredible hockey player," said Hodgson. "From the Little League World Series to a Stanley Cup in Colorado in 2001."

Drury just happened to play behind Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg with the Avalanche. Or another three-center system that worked in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal who won a Cup in 2009.

Hodgson is a complete player. He plays good away from the puck. He scores big goals and he's a good leader on and off the ice. He's the whole package.

Pat Quinn, longtime NHL coach who directed Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup finals in 1980 and Vancouver in 1994, only to lose out in the finals, had seen a lot. In the Under-18 World Championships in April of 2008, Quinn coach Canada's best junior players to the gold -- and had Hodgson as his team MVP, while tying an all-time Canadian scoring record by Pierre-Marc Bouchard with two goals and 10 assists in seven games.

"You always wonder where your leadership will come from in a tournament like this," Quinn said. "Cody had the characteristics of a leader, especially for a guy his age. 

"He's a special young man and he had a lot to do with our success. I've had a lot of guys a lot older than him who don't conduct themselves like he does. We played him against the other teams' top lines and he didn't leave us short in any area."

Hodgson was centering the Buffalo Sabres top line of Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. In 32 games, he had 12 goals and 16 assists, including 25 points (nine goals and 16 assists) over his last 26 games.

To say that Hodgson's instincts take over on the ice is like saying Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis and Adam Oates weren't smart.

Brains run in the Hodgson family. His father, Chris, president of the Ontario Mining Association and a former Ontario provincial Progressive Conservative cabinet minister. His mother, Marie, is executive director of a nursery school and his older brother, Clayton, is a business student at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario.

"What makes a smart player is the ability to read the game, to know where the puck is going to be before it gets there," said Hodgson. "That's what they always said about Gretzky, he's always two steps ahead of everyone else. He can get in and out of the corner before anyone else even knows the puck was in the corner. He stays out of a lot of the physical battles."

Not that Hodgson shies away from physical play. He's just smart enough to know when to avoid it.

He has the big, strong hands of a bricklayer and thick, muscular legs.

"He's a strong skater, strong on his skates and has a thicker body," said Sabres former coach Lindy Ruff. "He's fairly solid. The core area is really what makes a lot of good players go. It's an area where he's really strong."

Teammates talk about Hodgson in international terms.

"He was probably one of the best guys in the tournament and a huge reason why we won the gold medal," Tyler Ennis said. "He was just all-around skill, a really good passer, but he was good all over the place; D-zone, killed penalties and stuff. I just remember him dominating that tournament."

Knowing how to find a good playmaking center is essential.

Cody Hodgson is a clever puckhandler. Just watch him.

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