BUFFALO – Instead of merely rehabbing, Sabres center Cody Hodgson used his recent hand injury as an opportunity to recharge and revamp his slumping game.
The 23-year-old worked with the team’s skating coach during his eight-game absence. He said he also watched NHL games on TV to study other players.
So far, Hodgson has seen results. In six games since returning, he has three goals and six points entering tonight’s tilt in Columbus against the Blue Jackets, who’ve won a franchise-best eight straight contests.
“This is what we foresee him doing down the road for us,” interim coach Ted Nolan, whose Sabres have lost five straight, said Friday inside the First Niagara Center.
Hodgson scored a nifty goal in Thursday’s 5-3 loss, stealing the puck from Carolina’s Jay Harrison just outside the blue line before zooming in and beating goalie Anton Khudobin from the right circle.
Nolan traces that goal to Hodgson’s time beside Dawn Braid, the team’s skating coach.
“That’s the way you perceive Cody playing for us, that explosiveness,” Nolan said. “He’s a powerful skater.”
Naturally, sitting 23 days after blocking a shot against Boston on Dec. 19 wasn’t easy. But “just the energy of being back around the guys” has helped, Hodgson said.
“When you’re injured, you kind of appreciate what you do for a living,” said Hodgson, who scored the shootout winner in his Jan. 12 return. “You’re just happy to be able to get back and play. Even if you’re a little hurt or tired or mentally or physically a little bit drained, I think just being able to be out here with the guys … picks you up.”
Hodgson, the No. 1 center most of the season, couldn’t pick up the Sabres’ wretched offense after signing a six-year, $25.5 million contract in September. He performed OK, leading the team in scoring much of the season.
But prior to the injury, he had started slumping, accumulating only six points in 16 games.
Maturity and a strong desire to be a top center helped Hodgson earn his surprising extension. It’s not surprising he used his injury as an opportunity to improve.
Braid helped him adjust a couple things, Nolan said.
“It seemed to help,” Nolan said. “His skating looks a lot better. It looks a little crisper. He looks fresher.”
Watching games made Hodgson realize he had more time to make plays.
“I know it looks easy when you’re sitting in the press box, watching on TV because it looks like everything happens so slow,” Hodgson said. “But when you’re on the ice, it kind of gets sped up in your mind. So you kind of realize you do have a split-second more. You can take your time and make a play.”
Hodgson, who has 11 goals and 25 points in 39 games, used plays around the net as an example. Perhaps, not coincidentally, he scored from beside the net last week and in the slot after exercising some patience.
Sabres captain Steve Ott believes Hodgson’s becoming a “top-echelon” talent.
“You’ve seen … why he’s got that long-term contract at such a young age,” said Ott, who’s playing with Hodgson and Zemgus Girgensons.
Not surprisingly, the Sabres’ offense, on pace to be the worst in the modern era, has started scoring recently. They’ve scored three goals in each of the last five games. Of course, they’ve also allowed 19 scores in the span.
But what’s gotten the offense going?
“You bring back Cody Hodgson … he becomes an important player, makes another line stronger,” Ott said. “You bring Drew Stafford back, healthy Drew, you make that line even stronger. So just the depth throughout the lineup changes the perspective and gives the team confidence when you know you’ve missed those guys.”