VANCOUVER, B.C. – Centre Cody Hodgson has gone from someone who looked like a lock to earn a spot with the Vancouver Canucks to a player who finds himself in limbo.
Slowed by a back injury this summer, Hodgson has struggled in his attempt to win a job in the NHL. He’s too young to be sent the American Hockey League and doesn’t think returning to the Ontario Hockey League will help his development.
“The only thing I am focused on right now is making this team,” Hodgson, 19, said Thursday, prior to the Canucks exhibition game against the Anaheim Ducks. “I’m not really worried about anything else.”
It’s been a frustrating training camp for the six-foot, 188-pound native of Markham, Ont., who was the Canadian Hockey League’s top player last year. He suffered a bulging disc during summer training, an injury which kept him out of any contact drills for the first part of training camp.
Since being given the green light to play again, Hodgson has been disappointing on the ice. In his first three exhibition games he had one goal and was a minus-two.
“I feel I can play a lot better,” said Hodgson, who the Canucks selected 10th overall in last year’s draft. “I feel I have a lot more capabilities in me.
“I try not to get frustrated right now but I can play a lot better.”
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault said Hodgson isn’t the first outstanding junior player to struggle when trying to crack the NHL.
“This is a tough league to make,” said Vigneault. “It takes adjustments, whether you are coming out of junior or coming out of the American league.
“Cody, right now, is trying to find his way and trying to become the best player he can be. We can’t expect that in just a week.”
Playing with the Manitoba Moose, Vancouver’s AHL farm team, might be the logical next step for Hodgson. But an agreement between the CHL and the NHL prevents anyone under 20 playing in the AHL until the season is over for their junior team.
Hodgson doesn’t think returning to junior is the solution.
“I have accomplished all I can in junior,” he said. “This is the next step for me, development wise.
“Just being around the guys and seeing how they approach the game, I think I can get used to it and fit right in.”
Vigneault isn’t sure Hodgson wouldn’t benefit from another season of junior.
“I have made that comment, and he’s made that comment, that he has nothing else to prove at that level,” Vigneault said. “Wayne Gretzky dominated the NHL. Every year he came back and he still had something to prove.
“If he (Hodgson) ever goes back to junior, he is still going to have something to prove.”
There are suggestions Hodgson is an example of why the rule about sending young players to the AHL should have some exceptions.
Mike Gillis, the Canucks’ president and general manager, disagrees.
“I think the rules are there for a reason,” said Gillis. “The CHL has been the highest generator of NHL players. They deserve some protection so players can’t be arbitrarily plucked out of their league and sent to the AHL.
“I think occasionally there are very unique situations that occur, that the rule probably doesn’t make sense. They are unique and not the norm.”
Hodgson scored 43 goals and 92 points in 53 regular season games with the Brampton Battalion last year. He added 31 points in the playoffs as Brampton advanced to the OHL final.
When his junior season was over, Hodgson joined the Moose and had two goals and four points as Manitoba lost in the Calder Cup final.
Hodgson also was part of the Canadian team that won the gold medal at the world junior championships, leading the tournament scoring with 16 points, including five goals, in six games.
This summer’s back injury is a disappointment Hodgson wants to put behind him.
“There’s no question it set me back,” he said. “I’m not really looking in the past. I’m looking forward to see what I can do with it now and make the best with what I have right now.
“It’s definitely progressing. I’m getting more power and more stability in it. It seems every game it gets a little more stable.”
With the Canucks’ season not starting until Oct. 1, Vigneault is prepared to give Hodgson time.
“Cody is one of the decision that we are going to have to make,” said Vigneault.
“If he stays here, it’s going to be for the right reasons. It’s because he’s contributing and helping us win hockey games.”