Cody Hodgson with perhaps the best goal of the Sabres' 2013 season, March 5 at Carolina.
By Mike Harrington
It was just two weeks ago I wrote a column that said Cody Hodgson did not deserve a long-term contract. The Sabres gave him exactly that Wednesday, awarding a six-year, $25.5M whopper to a 23-year-old who has played just 68 career games in the Blue & Gold.
I still don't like it. But at least I get it too.
GM Darcy Regier told us several weeks ago he's not a fan of young players getting long-term deals and reiterated that stance today, a view certainly advanced by Tyler Myers' struggles after he signed his seven-year, $38 million extension. Hodgson is the Sabres' No. 1 center for now but at worst he's going to be No. 2 someday if Mikhail Grigorenko becames the top dog down the middle. (That's certainly not happening this year at least and probably not next year either).
Hodgson had 15 goals last season, so he projects out to a 26-goal scorer in a full, 82-game season. But he's a defensive liability, at times a passenger in the neutral zone or a turnstile in the defensive zone. He handled questions about those areas head-on today.
He's again worked hard over the summer, training with former NHLer Gary Roberts. The Sabres like his off-ice work ethic and feel that's a sign of maturity. Hodgson said he feels he'll have more power and explosiveness to work off opponents in the defensive end.
"He's very professional, very dedicated and committed to getting better," Regier said today. "He's a very good professional at a young age. In his case, he's a year older or two years older than some guys who did get the long-term deal. He wants to be counted on and he wants to be recognized in a leadership position. He wants the opportunity to be in positions where he wants to make a difference."
Hodgson said he's comfortable with having a system right from the start of the season under Ron Rolston, and don't discount the impact of new assistant Joe Sacco, who had some pretty good centers in the minor leagues that he graduated with to Colorado.
The Sabres are also thinking, probably correctly, that a $4.25 million cap hit for a top center will look like a bargain sooner rather than later. Especially when the cap heads towards $80 million by, say, 2016 or 2017. And that if things aren't going well, it would be a relatively easy contract to trade. They're also thinking it could be like Derek Roy's deal, which looked better as it went along and Roy was putting up 80-point seasons.
Still, I don't like that Hodgson essentially got Adam Henrique money. Yes, Henrique tailed off big-time last year after his big Calder Trophy finalist season in 2012 but he's still produced major moments for a Stanley Cup finalist squad. Hodgson spent some time late last season playing on the fourth line with John Scott.
Maybe the Sabres are using Hodgson as a way to show commitment to Thomas Vanek, who loves having No. 19 as his center and made no secret about that again when I asked him Tuesday. They could say to Vanek, "We signed your guy long-term. Stay on his wing and help him grow." Regier told me today he talked to Vanek yesterday and No. 26 once again said how much he enjoys playing with Hodgson. Hmmm.
Plenty of raised eyebrows around the league at this one, especially since Toronto's Nazem Kadri agreed to a two-year bridge deal (between his entry level and potential free agent contract) for $5.6 million, pretty much what I expected for Hodgson. So did Washington's Marcus Johansson (two years, $4 million) and Mikkel Boedker in Phoenix (two years, $5.1 million). Kadri, however, did have team cap dynamics in play while the Sabres had plenty of cap space for Hodgson.
The Sabres, however, decided to show Hodgson the money. Now he has to show them they were right.