Most Cody Hodgson talk in this city centers around two things: the observation that he’s incredible, which is accurate, and the notion that Alain Vigneault has yet to figure this out. Most recently, this came up when Vigneault placed Mason Raymond with Ryan Kesler and David Booth on the second line while assigning Hodgson to centre Byron Bitz and Maxim Lapierre on the fourth. Admittedly, this was a curious move. Whither Mason Raymond?
Here’s what I know for sure: Alain Vigneault knows more about hockey than I do. One of the things that continually bewilders me is the perception that Hodgson’s success has come in spite of him, as though one of the league’s best coaches is unaware that the young centre is a natural scorer. Believe me — he knows and, as Thomas Drance illustrated beautifully awhile back, he clearly knows how to use Hodgson. That in mind, it’s probably smarter to investigate his reasoning in this instance than to assume I know more about running the Canucks than he does.
Here’s another thing I know for sure: when it comes to his forward lines, Vigneault prefers to work in duos, then add a complementary player to each line. For the past two seasons, the second-line duo has been Raymond and Ryan Kesler. This season, however, it would appear that Kesler and David Booth is his preferred pairing, which is great news for Mike Gillis, who acquired Booth with this marriage in mind. (It’s never a certainty that Vigneault will utilize a player the way Gillis projected. Ask Keith Ballard.)
When looking, then, to the complementary guy, it’s hard to see why it should be Mason Raymond — he of 14 points — and not Cody Hodgson, whose 32 points have him fifth among Canuck forwards, four points back of Alex Burrows, who plays with the freaking Sedins.
And let’s be honest here: Raymond has some infuriating tendencies. For every instance where he takes the puck hard to the middle of the ice and is rewarded for it, there are plenty of instances where he instead takes the puck wide, only to get separated from it in the corner or wind up cycling the zone and leaving it for a defender with no time or space. Any Canucks fan with eyes will eventually observe that the play dies on Mason Raymond’s stick in the offensive zone an awful lot. As puck doctors go, he’s Dr. Nick.
But, like Dr. Nick, he also generates a great deal of business. One of the reasons you’re able to observe this “gain the zone, lose the puck” phenomenon so often is that it’s pretty much all Raymond does. He’s a masterful backchecker, meaning that he recovers both his defensive posture and the puck very efficiently after he loses it, and he’s fabulous in transition, meaning the puck is back in the opponents’ end shortly thereafter. When you consider the importance of possession in the Canucks’ system, a player who spends the bulk of his shifts gaining the opposing blue line isn’t so bad, is it?
With Raymond, the second line lives and dies in the offensive zone, where the worst thing that can happen is failing to score.
Then you look at a young player like Cody Hodgson, who has a finish fans wish Raymond had, but struggles where Raymond excels — namely, transitioning and defending. Hodgson’s skating is coming along, but there’s no doubt he continues to do his best work when he starts in the offensive zone and doesn’t have to leave it. With his footspeed at the low-end of NHL quality, he’s not as skilled at getting there on his own.
Like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton, Hodgson is still in that precarious place where his prodigious offensive abilities are clear, but they’re often offset by defensive issues. Because Edmonton is crummy, the young players are afforded the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The Canucks, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being terrible. The next time you’re annoyed that Alain Vigneault won’t cede big minutes to Hodgson, consider that you’re effectively wishing the Canucks were the Oilers.
While there’s little doubt he’ll eventually master this aspect of the game, since it’s a learned skill and he’s a huge nerd, plus he has a history of strong, two-way play in junior, you’d be a fool to want him learning the defensive end of the game while your best offensive player after the Sedins is trying to score. If Kesler has to expend energy covering for Hodgson and chasing in the defensive zone, he’s simply not as effective a scorer. He’s supposed to be good for 40 goals. It doesn’t make much sense to ask him to spend his shifts babysitting a rookie, does it?
In short, the difference between Hodgson and Raymond is quite literally their ability to do legwork. Raymond may not have the same offensive instincts, but he requires far less maintenance and attention. Like Alex Burrows with the Sedins, Raymond may be playing a line above his skill level, but it’s because he makes things easier for the guys that aren’t. Since they’re the stars, that’s a good thing.
Hodgson will continue to get his opportunities and, as the better short-term offensive option, he will continue to be put in scoring situations when the Canucks are in dire need of goals — but over the course of a game, Raymond is the better linemate for Kesler and Booth right now.
Photo Credits: 1. Jeff Vinnick (Getty Images). 2. Jeff Vinnick (Getty Images).Tags: Alain Vigneault should listen to me because I am smart, Cody Hodgson, cody hodgson is a nerd, Raymond