Surprise! Cody Hodgson to Centre the Third-Line Against Chicago

Cody Hodgson hasn't played an NHL game since February 26th (a 3-1 loss to Boston), however, he looks to start the Playoffs as the Canucks third-line centre.

Cody Hodgson hasn’t played an NHL game since February 26th (a 3-1 loss to Boston), however, it looks like he’ll start the Playoffs as the Canucks’ third-line centre.

Before his career was side-tracked by a freak back-injury, that was misdiagnosed, and cost him the lion’s share of the 09-10 season – Cody Hodgson was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the game. And why not? At every level he’s had team success, individual success, captained teams and put up impressive point totals.(*) He marries an elite skill level with a fierce competitive streak and, despite quesitons about his skating(**), Hodgson is said to have “intangibles” galore, whatever that means. Yet when it was observed today at the Canucks team practice that Hodgson was centering the Canucks third line – and was likely to start the series against the Blackhawks in that role – it was, without a doubt, a massive surprise.

(*) In 2008-09 he averaged 1.76 points per game and added five goals and eleven assists in six games at the World Jr. Championships.

(**) Writes Justin Bourne, who knows a thing or two about skating: “Cody Hodgson skates a little wide.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, but he doesn’t bring his skates all the way back under his body, which makes for a shorter, less efficient stride”

Among Canucks fans and the media – there has been a lot of hand-wringing about Hodgson’s performance and usage this season. He’s only played 8 NHL games (scoring a lovely goal and adding an assist on a goal that shouldn’t have counted) and was used sparingly. He was miscast in a checking role on the fourth-line, and he averaged only 7:45 TOI per game. He was also utilized in front of the net on the 2nd unit power-play, as opposed to playing on the side boards in a playmaking role. Though he battled admirably in front of the net – as anyone who watched him dominate in junior, or set up beauty goals like this one at the World Championships can tell you – placing him in a ‘net-presence’ role neutered the impact he could make with his passing, his most well developed skill. Clearly he was not being put in a position to succeed with the big club in Vancouver.

With the exception of the month of November(**) Cody Hodgson hasn’t exactly lit up the AHL either. He dealt with another freak injury, courtesy an errant stick in practice from Lee Sweatt that sapped his momentum. In 52 games with the Moose, Hodgson scored 17 goals and 13 assists, while posting a minus 12. The stats don’t tell the whole story – he averaged 3 shots a game, and shot a respectable 10.2%, so he was more productive than his stats might indicate – but they don’t exactly inspire confidence.

(**) In November Cody Hodgson put up 11 points (4G, 7A) and a +8 in 11 games.

What is particularly surprising about Hodgson’s playoff assignment, is that he hasn’t seen any NHL time whatsoever since Malhotra’s ghastly eye injury. In fact his last NHL game was in late February. Since Manny went down, the Canucks have auditioned the following players for the third line centre role, without giving Hodgson so much as a sniff: Alexandre Bolduc, Mason Raymond, Jannick Hansen and Maxim Lapierre. As recently as March 28th – Tony Gallagher wrote there is the belief in the organization that [Hodgson] hasn’t demonstrated he’s ready to play up here.

So what has changed? Why didn’t we see Hodgson get a test run filling Malhotra’s role to finish the regular season? Cap-space probably played a role, but in the window between Malhotra’s injury and Edler’s return – surely the Canucks could have fit $800,000 under the cap!

Interestingly, a knowledgeable Canucks fan who tweets at @shaneMYT asked Jason Botchford of the Province whether or not we’d see Cody Hodgson in the playoffs. Botch’s answer: “No. Coach has zero interest in that. The management disagrees, so there’s a chance.” File that under things that make you go hmm. Is this a case of Gillis over-ruling his head-coach? I’ll be very interested in seeing if Hodgson actually starts – and, more importantly finishes – game one of the Blackhawks series as the teams third-line centre.

In my University days I used to venture from Bay and Charles in Toronto, to Brampton, in order to watch the Duschene/Hodgson version of the Battalion play – so I’ve long been a Hodgson cheer-leader. I’m excited to see him get a real chance in the postseason, and am confident he can perform at an acceptable level. I’m also curious to see how a third-line made up of Hodgson, Hansen and Raymond are deployed by Vigneault. Certainly they are unlikely to fill the “enabler” role of the Malhotra led third-line. The Canucks new look third-line will probably be a modified unit – not quite a scoring unit, and not quite a checking unit. My guess is they’ll be used primarily to forecheck, and hopefully use their speed to generate some issues for Chicago’s third pairing. I’d be very surprised to see a Hodgson led third-line take many defensive zone face-offs against Chicago, so expect Kesler to play the bulk of the difficult minutes in the postseason.