BUFFALO – The inexperience is their greatest asset and most glaring weakness. It excites and worries Sabres coach Lindy Ruff in the same breath.
His top two centers, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson, are true neophytes, veterans of just a combined 235 NHL games.
Ennis only began playing center regularly late last year, his second full season. The 23-year-old was dynamic, though, compiling eight goals and 19 points over a 12-game stretch.
Hodgson, meanwhile, was skating around 12 minutes a night a year ago as a frustrated rookie in Vancouver. When the Sabres acquired the 22-year-old, he endured a 10-game point drought before finding a groove.
“Our unknown is maybe the youth we have at center ice right now,” Ruff said last week inside the First Niagara Center. “But that youth could really serve us well. I think when Tyler Ennis moved into the middle where he had never been before we didn’t know, either, and that served us well last year.
“We placed a few gambles.”
The talent the former first-round picks possess is undeniable. Ennis already has a 20-goal season as a winger. Hodgson, who has two goals in two games this season, still managed 18 scores in 2011-12.
But something else also convinced the Sabres they could stick with Ennis and Hodgson, that trading veteran pivot Derek Roy was a good move.
Both youngsters want the starring roles badly. They want more responsibility. They believe they’ll thrive with the extra pressure.
“It’s their turn,” Ruff said. “It’s their turn to move up the ladder. It’s their turn to help push us ever higher. I know it’s a big load, but they welcome the opportunity. They welcome the ice time, and I believe both of them can do it.”
Ennis believes every player “wants responsibility.”
“I want more responsibility,” he said. “I want to be the guy they look to. Growing up as a kid you want to be the guy that scores the big goals and plays the big minutes.”
So far, both are playing big minutes.
Hodgson’s skating 19:20 a contest, up from the 12:44 he received with the Canucks last season. In addition to centering the league’s hottest line – Hodgson and slick wingers Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek have already combined for five goals and 13 points – he’s killing penalties.
“I won’t change my game,” Hodgson said about his increased role. “I try to play the same way. … There’s definitely a great opportunity to get going with those guys. You can see the offensive upside just playing with a couple All-Stars. I say opportunity a lot because I know there’s quite a bit at stake, and I know quite a bit can happen if we do well.”
Ennis is averaging 18:33 beside Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, up from the 16:10 he skated last season. The line that dominated the NHL throughout March hasn’t caught fire yet, however. Ennis has one assist.
“There always comes a point when you’re there or you’re placed in that key role,” Ruff said. “Tyler got on a roll last year when that line was put together. Cody, coming here, knew that he was going to get out of that about 12 or 13 minutes of ice time and take a bigger role for us. They both worked hard this summer.”
Playing an NHL-record 48 road games last season, including nine straight in February and March, clearly wore Hodgson down. He got away when the offseason began, spending time at his cottage in Ontario and in South Carolina.
“There’s nothing that can really compare to that, just the overall toll at the end of the year, the travel especially, just being on the road so long and then not being settled,” Hodgson said. “You get here, when you play so many games in a row, it’s quite the experience.
“But it’s something I can definitely learn from because after that, a (shortened) season like this, I’m kind of used to it.”
Hodgson looked recharged playing in Rochester during the NHL lockout. He had five goals and 19 points in 19 games. A broken bone in his right hand also sidelined him 14 contests.
“He looked really good down in Rochester,” Ruff said. “I think it was great he was able to play, and I think they’re both looking forward to playing some bigger roles.”