Buffalo sports fans have a tendency to view any new acquisitions to their teams as the 2nd coming of Pat LaFontaine or Jim Kelly.
I could name drop any number of players, but I am sure that you already thought of a couple names as soon as you read that sentence.
Zack Kassian fell into that category with Sabres fans. Not long after hearing of his bar-brawling, suspensions for illegal hits, and watching his YouTube fight clips, Buffalo fans were drooling. Kassian may not have been drawing comparisons to LaFontaine, but fans salivated profusely at the thought of having their own version of Cam Neely or Milan Lucic skating around in the blue and gold, racking up points and bulldozing the competition in the process.
I admit that I was one of those people. I was in shock watching Kassian in his first games with the Rochester Americans. Where was this monster everyone spoke highly of? Kassian was obviously more focused on playing a finesse game; he was overly tentative and passive when it came to physicality.
When the Curse Of Connolly struck the Sabres, and injuries piled up, Kassian received a call-up. He brought the same finesse style that he was trying to hone in the AHL with him to Buffalo. Nobody knew if this version of Kassian was the doing of Ruff-Rolston-Regier, or if it was just his age and inexperience, or if it was just Zack himself. All that the fans knew, was that this wasn’t the violent, point producing, hate machine that they eagerly expected. After 27 NHL games, those who nicknamed him silly things such as “Badassian” and “Kassassin” crumpled in disappointment.
February 27th, 2012. NHL Trade Deadline. Exit Zack Kassian, enter Cody Hodgson.
What have the Buffalo Sabres needed just as much, if not more, than a killer on their team? A slick, play-making center with leadership capabilities. Essentially, one wish was traded for another.
In Vancouver, Cody Hodgson was under a different microscope with the Canucks than Kassian was in Buffalo. With Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler ahead of Hodgson on the depth chart, his room for growth was minimized. Though his ice-time was low, Hodgson was among the league leaders in points per minutes played, and 3rd in NHL Rookie scoring.
A little background: Hodgson was drafted by Vancouver in the 1st round, 10th overall, in 2008. He suffered a back injury during a Canucks off-ice training session in 2009. When Hodgson struggled in the preseason that year, coach Alain Vigneault questioned the seriousness of his injury.
The injury went undiagnosed for months, forcing Hodgson to miss most of his final junior season with the Brampton Batallion of the OHL and a second year with Canada’s World Junior team. The injury was finally diagnosed as a torn muscle prior to the 2010-11 season, which he spent mostly with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose (he played 8 games with Vancouver) before becoming a full-time Canuck this season.
Fast forward to today. Hodgson has now skated 9 games with the Sabres, and has zero points. This has fans already hating on Hodgson. I have seen and heard fans already calling him the newest Tim Connolly. I have seen and heard comparisons to Raffi Torres.
Anyone expressing these sentiments, needs to have their heads examined, and may not be watching the games closely.
Hodgson is only 22 years old. In just a span of 3 weeks, he traveled from one side of the continent to the other 4 times. He was dealt with an unexpected trade. Prior to this week, he had played 15 of his last 20 games on the road. The kid is not only playing in his first NHL season, but dealing with a new home in a new country, new coaches, new teammates, new roles and new responsibilities. And, new fans.
A week ago, Bill Hoppe of the Niagara Gazette asked Hodgson if he even had a couple of hours to himself as a Sabre. “No. I don’t think so. I can’t remember,” he said. “I’ve been figuring out stuff, looking after stuff, canceling car insurance, house payments. It’s fun, though. It’s an exciting time. I’m happy to be here.”
All the while, he has taken everything in utmost stride, maintained a great attitude, and displayed a high level of professionalism. These are reasons why the Canucks fanbase was very upset to see him go, even though he was not with the team very long. Players of Hodgson’s skill and character do not come around often.
Comparisons to Tim Connolly are silly at best. Hodgson has displayed no fear going into the corners, and has not shied away from skating up through the middle of the ice while carrying the puck. Conversely, I saw Connolly flinching as players skated near him at the Craig Charron Charity Scrimmage earlier this season. Hodgson has been described as having a tough, thick body; Connolly can be described as flimsy and frail.
Comparisons to Raffi Torres are even sillier. Torres clearly was disinterested in being a Sabre when he was traded to Buffalo, and carried an attitude of indifference. Hodgson has been nothing but eager since the trade, and has embraced his new opportunity with grace. Torres was nearly 30 years old; Hodgson is still regarded as one of the top prospects in the NHL.
Prior to the trade, Hodgson had 33 points in 63 games, and average of .52 points a game. For comparison, Jason Pominville had the same .52 points per game in his first season, Derek Roy had .38, and Thomas Vanek had .59.
Although he had no points to show for it, when Hodgson initially centered a line with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford, the group notched 5 goals in Hodgson’s first 4 games. The play of Ennis and Stafford has improved considerably since. The Sabres overall have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since the trade. The attitude and energy of the team seems to have vastly improved.
So, I implore you: please, relax Hodgson haters. Its only been 9 games.
He may not be LaFontaine now. He may never reach that level.
Or, he could become the next great Sabres captain and fan favorite. Give it time.