Tyler Ennis - USA Today sport images

 

Who is the Buffalo Sabres’ #1 centerman?

 

This is one of many questions you probably haven’t asked yourself this summer but also probably should because the fantasy ramifications could be huge. Right now the candidates are Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson, just as they were last season. Before you throw your lunch pail at me and scream, “What about Steve Ott!?!?!” Followed by innumerable expletives, let’s give Ott his due. Ott is the best centerman on the Sabres but he’s not going to be the most productive unless your league counts hits, penalty in minutes and all sorts of other groovy rotisserie stats. We know that though. What we don’t know is who the most productive Sabre centerman will be next season. Will it be Ennis or Hodgson? Stick around for this week’s Cage Match to find out.

 

As mentioned above, this question is nothing new. Going into last season the evidence seemed to be pointing in Ennis’ direction. He finished the 2011-12 season on a tear, scoring 27 points in his final 26 games for the Sabres. Meanwhile, Hodgson, acquired by Buffalo at the 2012 Trade Deadline, managed just eight points in 20 games with his new club.

 

Clearly momentum was with Ennis but then the NHL was locked to start the 2012-13 season and when the league started up again teams didn’t have much time to come together. Coaches were forced to ride whatever chemistry came about as the shortened season began. For Hodgson that meant a prime gig as the top line center between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville who Frozenpool can show us were Hodgson’s predominant linemates last season.

 

hodgson 2

 

Hodgson got off to a quick start on that top line scoring 15 points in 17 games before long time Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff was fired. Ron Rolston was brought in as an interim head coach and he kept that Vanek-Hodgson-Pominville top unit together until Pominville was dealt to Minnesota at the 2013 Trade Deadline. Under Rolston Hodgson managed just 19 points in 31 games. What’s interesting though is how his minutes changed under Rolston.

 

In the first half of last season Hodgson was skating 18:50 per game with 2:18 coming on the power play and a regular shift on the penalty kill. In the second half, under Rolston, Hodgson’s minutes dropped to 17:49 per game as his penalty kill minutes fell precipitously but his power play time nearly doubled up to 3:51 per game as he joined the Sabres’ top power play unit.

 

His numbers hardly reflect this change in deployment. The only explanation is that Hodgson caught lightning in a bottle in the first half while paired with Vanek and Pominville – two notoriously streaky players. Once they cooled off (and Pominville was traded) Hodgson’s well dried up a bit and his scoring pace dropped accordingly. In all likelihood, even considering the spike in minutes in the second half his production under Rolston more correctly represents his skills than does his scoring under Ruff to start last season if for no other reason than the sample size was bigger.

 

Vanek remains a Sabre for now and he and Hodgson will presumably be paired together again next season. This will mean more streaky production, which gives Hodgson a pretty wide range. It’s unlikely he has the consistency at this point in his career to drive the play and force scoring even when Vanek is in a slump so he’s at the mercy of Vanek’s fickle twig. And that’s assuming Vanek isn’t dealt at some point because he’s a serious candidate to be moved at some point next season given his expiring contract and Buffalo’s status as a rebuilding squad.

 

What’s curious is that Ennis’ splits between Ruff and Rolston are remarkably similar to Hodgson’s. Ennis managed 13 points in 17 games under Ruff, while scoring 18 in 30 under Rolston. In all, Ennis didn’t score much differently under Rolston than he did under Ruff and given the short tenure of each coach it’s hard to parse out if the coaches really had much impact.

 

The minutes show that Ruff and Rolston saw Ennis pretty much the same as Ennis skated 18:52 per game with 3:38 on the power play under Ruff and 17:00 per game with 4:14 per game under Rolston. Ennis did lose almost two minutes per game under Rolston, which is something worth considering even though his power play time and production stayed virtually the same.

 

Rolston did mess around with Ennis’ linemates a bit last season. As Frozenpool will show us Ennis’ most frequent linemates last season were Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, which was a line favoured by Ruff.

 

ennis 1

 

Rolston moved Ennis around the lineup frequently, even experimenting with him as a winger. Frozenpool shows us that Ennis bounced around the lineup quite frequently in the second half last season, rarely giving us the Foligno-Ennis-Stafford unit so common under Ruff.

 

ennis 2

 

This change isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Stafford is certainly not an optimal linemate and Foligno, while intriguing is somewhat limited for upside himself. There are issues with getting moved around so much, however.

 

For one, the loss of minutes Ennis saw under Rolston is concerning. Ennis was at his best under Ruff getting the lion’s share of prime offensive minutes. Rolston didn’t cut him down completely but he certainly cut him down.

 

Chemistry is also an issue. Yes, a top player should be able to play with anyone, anytime and produce but we all know the best lines play together often and develop chemistry. Ennis had little opportunity to do so under Rolston.

 

Finally, the whole wing experiment, while intriguing may not be for the best. Poolies would certainly love to see Ennis with wing eligibility. The creation of an Ennis-Hodgson-Vanek superline, which Rolston experimented with, is also highly intriguing. But in the end Ennis is at his best with the puck on his stick, making plays from the middle of the ice. He may be able to adapt to the wing but that could throw a wrench into his development.

 

An interesting wrinkle in all of this is the Ville Leino factor. For whatever reason the Sabres have thus far failed to use the amnesty provision on Leino, which could save them from what appears to be a pretty terrible signing. Leino was productive in his short stint last season though and perhaps that has given the Sabres hope that he isn’t a complete bust.

 

Leino skated for only eight games to close out the 2013 season but he managed six points, skating predominantly alongside Ennis.

 

leino

 

Leino took most of the draws in this arrangement but would shift over to wing afterwards, offering some protection for Ennis (a poor faceoff man), while still allowing Ennis to play the center position. Vanek was featured frequently as a third member of this line, which offers some real potential as Buffalo’s future top line.

 

Nothing is set in stone, of course, and Ennis didn’t necessarily show tremendous chemistry with Leino (five points in eight games), or anyone for that matter, while Rolston was in charge.

 

The smart money would be to go with Ennis. His overall game is offense or bust. He’s not going to be a checker. So long as Buffalo remains a rebuilding team they’ll have no choice but to roll Ennis out there in optimal offensive situations and hope he can score. Whether it’s from the wing or the center position Ennis should be more productive than Hodgson over the long haul.

 

There is some potential for a Stepan-like situation with Hodgson though. While not as prolific offensively (particularly when it comes to skating/speed) Hodgson still has plenty of talent and has a more complete game overall. If Rolston decides he likes Hodgson’s complete game so much that he can’t keep him off the ice, much like Stepan under Tortorella last season, then Hodgson will get the best minutes. We also know that Hodgson has some chemistry with Vanek, who remains the top offensive weapon for the Sabres.

 

Long term is very much a crapshoot as well. Both Ennis and Hodgson have upside but again, Ennis is pure offense, whereas Hodgson has another dimension that the Sabres might need if they want to compete. Ott will take all the tough matchups so long as he remains a Sabre so we shouldn’t be concerned about Hodgson falling into a third-line type of role but if the best reason to get excited for him is his chemistry with Vanek you have to bump him down a notch or two because Vanek will most likely be gone before the season is out.

 

I suppose there are injuries to consider here but I don’t see much separating them in that regard either. Obviously Hodgson has the back issue, which caused great turmoil in Vancouver and could be something serious to consider long term but Ennis is small and has already missed half a season due to injury, are you going to tell me he’s not an injury risk? I say they both come with health question marks that need more time to be answered.

 

Ultimately, I like Ennis, but it’s really close. The reality is that the Sabres may score so little next season (they were 23rd in the NHL last season) that the difference between their top scorer and the next guy may not be all that big. Would you be at all shocked if Ennis and Hodgson both managed within five points of 50 next season? Would you be surprised if they finished within five points of each other once again? These guys are that close right now. Who do you have?

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