Canucks fans who were sad to see Cody Hodgson leave on Monday at the trade deadline didn’t have long to wait for him to return to Vancouver. He’s back in town tonight, albeit with the Buffalo Sabres. Also back is Christian Ehrhoff, who left town in the offseason, signing a 10-year, $40 million deal with the Sabres. Both Hodgson and Ehrhoff make me think about how our perceptions of players are formed. In particular, they make me think of David Booth.
When the Canucks drafted Cody Hodgson, I was thrilled with the choice, even though I had never seen Hodgson play. All I had to go on were a few scouting reports, his point totals in junior, a scant few highlight videos on YouTube, and the opinions of commentators that I trust, like Bob McKenzie. But from all of those, I was fairly certain that the Canucks were lucky Hodgson had fallen to the 10th pick.
That opinion solidified over the next year. All I actually saw of Hodgson was at the World Junior tournament, but the accolades rolled in: OHL player of the year, CHL player of the year, smartest player, hardest worker, best penalty killer, etc. Then, of course, there was the back injury and the long recovery. It was heartbreaking to see such a hardworking, humble player like Hodgson have such a setback.
So when he finally solidified himself in the lineup this season, it felt like the culmination of a long, difficult journey. Since I already had the predisposition to like him, his success was such a feel-good story that I was perhaps a little blinded to some of his deficiencies as a hockey player. They’re the same deficiencies that most young rookies have: lack of defensive acumen and core strength. In the offensive zone, he was impressive, and he showed potential to be a strong, two-way centre, but he just wasn’t there yet.
But any mistakes that Hodgson made in the defensive zone, I brushed aside as being no big deal: they were just rookie mistakes.
When the Canucks acquired Christian Ehrhoff, I was similarly thrilled as when they drafted Hodgson. Ehrhoff was coming off a 42-point season with the San Jose Sharks, including 5 powerplay goals. The highlights I had seen were impressive: a great skater who could jump up into the rush and had a great shot. I read about Sharks fans calling him Errorhoff and questioning his ability in the defensive zone, but I shrugged off those reports and decided I would see for myself.
The problem was that it was too easy at first to also shrug off his defensive miscues in Vancouver. They were more than offset, I opined, by his offensive ability and his prowess on the powerplay. But, over time, that opinion shifted, both for myself and for the Canucks fanbase. By the time he left town, refusing to sign a contract for a similar amount to that of Kevin Bieksa, I reasoned that his defensive lapses were simply too costly.
In the words of Harvey Dent, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
When you don’t see a player night in and night out, they’re essentially just a pile of stats and highlights crafted together in your imagination. You create a mythology of a certain player based on what little you’ve seen in actual games, on TSN Sportscenter or Sportsnet Connected, or on highlight reels on YouTube. Or worse, you add in how he plays in a video game to the mix. A defenceman who can score 40+ points in a single season or a prospect named the CHL Player of the Year becomes an idealized figure.
But every player has flaws. You just don’t see them unless you watch those players night after night. It’s the same reason why Roberto Luongo is frequently vilified by a certain segment of Vancouver fans. His flaws are magnified because we see him so much. When a mediocre goaltender comes into town and has one good game, seemingly outperforming Luongo, we get frustrated, wondering why he gets paid so much money. When that mediocre goaltender gets shelled for 6 goals in his next game, we don’t see it.
This brings me to David Booth. When he was first acquired, I was thrilled. Booth has a reputation for being strong on the puck and was able to produce offensively on a below-average Florida Panthers team. He had a 31-goal, 60 point season in 2008-09 and it was easy to dismiss his subsequent offensive drop-off on the difficulties coming back from a concussion.
The highlights I had seen showed a powerful skater with slick hands, a good wristshot, and a nose for the net. I had created a version of David Booth in my imagination that portrayed him as the perfect linemate for Ryan Kesler. It was tough seeing Mikael Samuelsson leave Vancouver in the trade, but the Canucks got younger in the deal and jettisoned Marco Sturm, who was pretty clearly not working out.
After some initial struggles, Booth started winning over the fans with his hard work, ability to get to the front of the net with authority, and, most importantly, finish.
But now he has been with the team long enough for some flaws to show. He has been criticized in some corners for being too limited. When he has the puck in the offensive zone, he generally has just one thing on his mind: going hard to the net and shooting the puck. He’s not a passer, he’s not a finesse player, and he’s not incredibly patient with the puck. He has also shown a tendency towards streakiness, scoring goals in bunches and then going on a long drought.
Heading into tonight’s game against the Sabres, Booth hasn’t scored in 8 games and he’s been demoted down the lineup a few times. The flaws in his game that we couldn’t see when we just had a pile of statistics and highlights are showing up now that we see him game after game, night after night.
In some ways, that’s okay. Booth is who he is and he’s still an effective player at pushing puck possession into the offensive zone. And not all of his flaws are actually flaws. I would argue that his single-mindedness of going hard to the net isn’t a flaw; it’s a feature. The Canucks need a player like Booth who will head straight for the dirty areas of the ice at all times. If that’s the type of player he is, then it’s simply up to Alain Vigneault to put him in situations that use that ability to its full effect.
That’s why Hodgson was sheltered when he was with the Canucks. That was the best way to use his abilities at this point in his career. It’s also the same reason that Ehrhoff started so much in the offensive zone when he was with the Canucks. Vigneault recognized his defensive deficiencies and put him in a position to succeed.
Will Ehrhoff and Hodgson see the same level of success outside of Vigneault’s system? Possibly. Ehrhoff has struggled at times in Buffalo, but is on pace for a 40-point season, or would be if he hadn’t been injured. He has only scored 4 goals this season, however, and just 1 on the powerplay. As for Hodgson, it’s possible that he will be able to adapt to the heavier responsibilities in Buffalo, as he is a very intelligent hockey player, but it won’t be easy.
After all, like all players, he has flaws.Tags: Canucks, Christian Ehrhoff, Cody Hodgson, david booth, Flaws, Sabres