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Girgensons’ shift to center puts Hodgson out on a wing

Not long after Tim Murray took over as Sabres general manager, he sat down with coach Ted Nolan to discuss Zemgus Girgensons. They decided the rookie’s skills would be best served at center, so they moved him from wing to the middle.

They liked what they saw, but it left them with a dilemma. Center Cody Hodgson, their 24-year-old in the first season of a six-year contract, was suddenly getting third-line minutes behind Tyler Ennis and Girgensons. Buffalo’s brain trust knew that was not best for Hodgson or the team.

“Tim and I discussed what could be a possibility of getting him in the top six forwards,” Nolan said, “and it was shipping him off to wing.”

Hodgson served as Girgensons’ left winger for the final nine games. Judging by the four goals and eight points Hodgson put up, the move was a good one.

Buffalo’s offseason personnel moves will determine where Hodgson plays next year. If they find themselves stacked on the wing, he’ll move back to the middle. If the center spot is strong, he’ll stay on the outside. It’s a solid bet the guy who was supposed to be a long-term solution at center will end up being a first- or second-line winger.

“I like it,” said Hodgson, who had spent most of his life in the middle. “Teddy asked me if I felt comfortable there, and I do. I do feel comfortable, especially with Zemgus. He’s got a lot of speed and opens up so much room.

“Wherever he wants to put me, I’ll play.”

The surprising move could benefit the team and player both offensively and defensively. Hodgson has a rocket for a slap shot, and he was able to use it more often while skating along the boards. His passing skills were highlighted, too, as Hodgson had time to spot teammates cutting toward the middle or the crease.

Hodgson’s main drawback as a player is his defense. While no one in Buffalo excelled in plus/minus ratio (former defenseman Brayden McNabb was the only positive player at plus-1), Hodgson’s minus-26 was fifth worst among NHL forwards. Wingers have fewer defensive responsibilities than centers, so Hodgson’s position change can hide his shortcomings and allow him to think more about offense.

It showed during the final nine games. The point surge after the move allowed Hodgson to lead the Sabres in scoring. He played 72 games and finished with 20 goals, 24 assists and 44 points. Still, it was a step back from the 15 goals and 34 points he had in 48 games during the lockout-shortened previous season.

“Overall, it wasn’t a very good year for anybody as an organization,” Hodgson said. “Everybody wants to get on the same page here and make sure we’re dedicated this summer and getting better. There’s tons of room for improvement everywhere, individually and as a team.”

Hodgson’s main contribution to the Sabres was on the power play. He led the team with 19 points and nine goals, which ranked tied for 21st in the NHL with names such as Martin St. Louis, Jason Spezza and James van Riemsdyk. Hodgson also was at his best against divisional opponents, leading the Sabres with 15 points during their games inside the Atlantic Division.

Hodgson would obviously benefit from a stronger supporting cast, which is what Murray hopes to provide for the offensive group that includes Girgensons, Ennis and Drew Stafford.

“We can make improvements certainly to our bottom six,” Murray said. “I believe that’s very achievable. Can we make improvements to our top six? I think the top six is going to improve by having more support in the bottom six by a guy like Zemgus getting older and more mature, by Hodgson getting older and more mature. Stafford will be going into a contract year. I assume he thinks that’s an important year, and he’s told me that. Ennis is just getting better.

“I think if we help these kids, if we put better players around them, that they are going to be more comfortable and will score somewhat more.”

Hodgson will again spend this summer working out with hockey fitness guru Gary Roberts. With five years left on his contract, Hodgson figures to be an important piece of the Sabres’ rebuild. He’s excited about that.

“You look at the young talent around here and the guys that are coming up, you know we’re going to be good,” Hodgson said. “If it’s next year, the year after that, eventually we’re going to turn this thing around and there’s going to be a lot better days ahead. I want to be part of that.

“We can come in fresh next year with Teddy and get everything sorted out in terms of what he wants and on the same page. That will be huge for us going forward.”


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