MINSK, Belarus – Near the end of the NHL season, Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan asked Cody Hodgson to try playing on left wing.
“I never played that before—ever—not minor hockey, junior,” Hodgson said.
Still, it worked well enough that Hodgson broke out of a month-long goal-scoring drought. He had four goals and four assists over the last nine games of the season.
Team Canada coach Dave Tippett asked Hodgson to do the same thing at the world hockey championship, and it has worked like a charm.
With one game left in the preliminary round Tuesday against Norway, Hodgson leads in Canada in goals (six) and points (eight). Being on the wing has something to do with that.
“I think he’s playing with good players, he’s playing on the power play and he’s shooting the puck well,” Tippett said. “As a winger, the centreman has to play a lot down low, it makes it harder for them to get those rushes up the ice, so that’s somewhere where Cody, he’s taking advantage of some of those rush chances.”
Since the start of the tournament, Hodgson has played left wing on a line with centre Nazem Kadri and right-winger Troy Brouwer. Per Tippett’s plan, the right-shooting Hodgson still takes faceoffs on his strong side and assumes the defensive responsibilities of a centre in those situations until he and Kadri can switch.
But not having to worry about the multifaceted, four-corner duties of a centre has freed up Hodgson to think more offensively.
“It’s a different mentality playing on the wing, for sure,” he said. “I’m not engaged in as many battles down low, and it may free you up for a little bit more through the neutral zone, that type of thing.”
Hodgson is scoring on more than just a wing and a prayer. A couple of his goals are on the power play close to the net, and even as Tippett says the 24-year-old is in the right place at the right time, he recognizes there’s something to that.
“The puck’s following him around a little bit, but it’s following him around because he’s in the right spots,” Tippett said. “He shoots quick and his shots are going in.”
This past NHL season was Hodgson’s first as a 20-goal scorer. Not coincidentally it was also the first time he played more than 70 games.
Earlier in his career, the Markham, Ont., native dealt with back problems that could have endangered his career. At this tournament he’s injury-free and playing like it.
“It feels nice,” Hodgson said. “Even this year the broken thumb, broken foot and neck contusion, it was a tough year that way. It’s nice to be fully healthy and playing again.”
Hodgson’s production may be a bit of a surprise, but Tippett earmarked him as a power-play contributor before making the trip overseas. On a team with a lot of young, inexperienced players and a few older ones around to show them the way, Hodgson is in the middle as a player with still plenty of potential he has yet to reach.
At this tournament, Hodgson’s exceeding at least external expectations, and scoring goals at this level is more than general manager Rob Blake perhaps expected.
“It’s different when you get over here to expect what kind of goal-scoring,” Blake said Monday. “But I think he’s been put in that kind of a position here and he’s responded well. I know the coaching staff’s been real happy with him.”
Tippett is happy that Hodgson has capitalized on many of his opportunities so far.
“Just an opportunistic guy that’s getting opportunities on the power play and five-on-five,” Tippett said. “Scorers go through streaks like that where the puck’s going in the net for them. Right now he’s in that streak.”
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