Reunion Tour


They’re getting the band back together at First Niagara Center. In less than a week, real hockey will be back on national television. It’s totally going to count and everything.

Hockey’s hasty return brings a mess of questions a very few real answers until the puck actually hits the ice. It could be a complete mess. It might be a lot of fun. It’s probably going to look something like this.

The Sabres haven’t played hockey since April 7, 2012. That’s a little over nine months without a late-game collapse and frustrating press conferences. The good news is that three-quarters of a year is plenty of time to forget pretty much everything you know about the team, its competition and it’s chances against said competition.

So let’s talk about it. Call it a reunion tour, but I’m eager to get back into the habit of talking about games and players. I’d like to forget about hockey-related revenue and CBA quirks for at least eight years. I want to talk about the Sabres hockey, and the two players that immediately come to mind are Cody Hodgson and Luke Adam.

A methadone clinic opened at One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza in late December. The Rochester Americans came to town, and 19,070 drug addicts filed into First Niagara Center for the mere whiff of professional hockey. It was Hodgson and Adam that gave Sabres fans a glimpse of two very different aspects of Sabres hockey.

Adam already has an established narrative with Sabres fans. He’s damaged goods, the victim of a fast start and time served in the coaching doghouse. He had 10 goals and 20 points in 52 games during an outright failure of a season with the Sabres. He struggled, he regressed and Lindy Ruff didn’t seem to like him very much.

He had a great October and an okay November, but as the season went on he crashed and burned. He went pointless in 20 consecutive games, got discouraged and demoted, then disappeared.

tumblr_mfa7hqfjUI1rqpa8po1_500In 33 games with Rochester this season, he has 8 goals and 18 points. This is the AHL rookie of the year in 2010-11, the guy who scored 62 points in 57 games with Portland. Now, with 71 pro games under his belt, he can barely produce at the minor league level. It’s an alarming regression with little explanation, but his current situation in Rochester is certainly statistically justified.

Against Lake Erie on Dec. 27, Adam gave us more of the same. The box score from that night credits him with a single shot and a +1.

That’s a relatively invisible showing, but what stats can’t show is the shift he dominated Lake Erie, circling the Monsters defense and looping in and out of traffic with ease. He outworked the team from Cleveland along the boards, manufactured a give-and-go and tipped the puck just wide when he found himself all alone in front.

He should have scored. He didn’t, and that’s Luke Adam right now. It was 45 seconds of brilliance wasted. It seems just as likely he becomes a good NHL player as he is the next Mark Mancari. Adam is an unanswered question, a broken piece to the puzzle barely in view right now.

We have a lot less history to cite with Cody Hodgson. The meandering finish to the Sabres’ uninspiring 2011-12 campaign made his 20 games in Buffalo feel, for the most part, incredibly insignificant. He scored 3 goals and 8 points and usually looked uncomfortable.

You could see the wheels turning when he skated, the hockey machine inside him recalibrating and falling into place. There is an overwhelming sense that something big can happen with Hodgson. Far from broken, he’s just starting to figure things out.

His season in Rochester has had its missteps as well. He broke a bone in his hand and only scored four goals. Still, he left behind 19 points in 19 games in Rochester and it was clear that he had no business in the AHL.

That night in Buffalo, his performance fit that narrative perfectly. He scored twice, and the first goal was as simple as it was stunning. On the power play, he stick-handled his way to the net and slid the puck past Monsters goaltender Sami Aittokallio.

It takes the video replay to truly appreciate Hodgson’s work. He embarrassed a passive defense and a minor league goaltender playing a bad angle. It looked easy and, for him, it should be.

One game is far too small a sample size to evaluate anyone, but it illustrates why it’s easy to get excited about Hodgson: He hasn’t given us a reason to second-guess it. Since acquiring the forward from Vancouver we’ve looked to this season, whenever it would start, to show us just what we got in exchange for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani. He’s important because what Hodgson becomes will tell us plenty about where this team is headed, too.

Adam, on the other hand, shows us where the Sabres can go wrong. Something happened to him last year—something bad—and he’s never been the same. There’s plenty of collateral damage in the hockey world. Some players just don’t work on certain teams, but that simply can’t happen to a guy like Cody Hodgson. There’s too much riding on him getting it right in blue and gold.

I think he will, too. I want to be someone who deals in hope and potential with the Sabres. I want to feel like this team can be something special this year. Every year, really. I want Hodgson to be great and Adam to put it all together and eventually contribute.

There’s an overwhelming sense that Hodgson can be the answer this team is looking for down the middle. I want to believe that, mostly because it would be fun but also because, hey, they’re getting the band back together. Maybe they can put on a good show after all.