Cody Hodgson: Two-way force?

“That’s Hod-son. The ‘G’ is silent.”

Given the collective amount of odd Selke Trophy nominees that have popped up over the last 33 years or so, one would think that there’s no good way to gauge defensive play in the NHL. I believe my old theory on this was whether or not a guy was liked, and if he was, he was also a guy who succeeded on defense (so long as he had a positive +/- on a good defensive team).

Defense, particularly for forwards, is more than back-checking and shot-blocking, but those are the visible talents that media and fans get to see night-in and night-out. With the advent of advanced micro-statistics, however, we can, for the most part, tell who was on the ice for each on-ice event. Not just goals, as is traditional, but shots, missed shots, blocked shots, faceoffs, hits, giveaways, takeaways, penalties, and, in some cases, scoring chances.

Knowing this (I’ll concentrate on shots in this post), if I asked you which regular Canuck so far has been on the ice for the fewest shots against over a standardized amount of time, who would you say it is? Ryan Kesler, last year’s Selke Trophy winner as top defensive forward? Manny Malhotra, who was the best defensive forward on the team last season? Henrik Sedin, who eats up all the time in the other team’s zone with his cycling and strong zone play? There’s no shortage of candidates, as Jannik Hansen, Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins are all champions of good defensive work.

But what if I told you that Cody Hodgson might be in that discussion sometime soon? Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Cody Hodgson has allowed just 21.2 shots against him through 12 games thus far. If “shots on goal” isn’t your bag, then he’s allowed 11.9 scoring chances against him per 60 minutes of play, which works out to about a little under four per actual game, behind just Kesler and Higgins among Canuck forwards.

Hodgson’s situation differs slightly from that of Kesler’s or Higgins’, however. While he starts an awful lot of shifts in the offensive zone compared to the defensive zone (at a rate of 56.3%) he’s also faced inordinately tough competition compared to Canuck forwards. Only Jannik Hansen and Manny Malhotra see better competition on a night-in and night-out basis. Hodgson’s shot-defending success has come against some quality names, such as Daniel Briere and Taylor Hall.

The other thing to consider is that Hodgson has jumped around between the second and third lines to start the season. He’s seen limited time with Higgins, limited time with Hansen, and yet continues to keep the shot against counter low no matter where he’s slotted into the lineup. Give all due credit to those Canucks lines to stopping the attack, but it can’t be a coincidence that Hodgson has come away from the first month of the season in the positive in both these situations, given the low total of shots against he sees. He doesn’t kill penalties as of yet, but he could, and if he keeps up his strong two-way play, I’d almost expect it when injuries begin to take a toll on this team come mid-season.

Everything gets blamed on the goaltender in Vancouver these days, we might as well blame the Canucks goalies for Hodgson’s 5-on-5 handiwork flying under the radar. While Hodgson has been solid defensively, Canucks goalies have just an .892 save percentage when Hodgson is on the ice, which is well below average. When you only have a 12-game sample to draw from, the numbers will be skewed either good or bad for most players disproportionately, but it tends to even out. Thus, Hodgson has been on the ice for seven goals against at even strength and therefore has an “even” plus/minus, but if you look instead at his Corsi statistic, which tallies all shot attempts for and against while the player is on the ice and not just goals, Hodgson is at a +44, according to the website Time on Ice. Looking at just shots, Hodgson is at a +26.

When Hodgson’s percentages regress to the mean and everything evens out, he will look much better than he has to the casual eye over the first 12 games. So far, he’s got 3 goals without a shooting percentage that’s elevated or unsustainable at all (10%) so we can confidently suggest that he’s on pace for a 20-goal season. Given his struggles to make the Vancouver lineup in the past, and the two-way play he’s showcased to start this season, the wait was a good thing for Hodgson. Having finally played a full month in the top-9 and had a chance to sink his teeth into his rookie season, Hodgson is finally emerging, albeit quietly.