Cody Hodgson may be a large part of the Vancouver Canucks' future, but he is not a part of the NHL team's immediate plans.
Unless Hodgson has a metamorphosis in Alberta this weekend, when the Canucks close their marathon exhibition season with games against the Flames and Oilers, then the 19-year-old junior is destined for the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion on Monday. He would also be a candidate to captain Canada at the world junior championship in Saskatchewan this December, after skating with the gold-medal winning team last year.
"He hasn't done enough at this camp to show that he's ready to play," Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said yesterday. "That's our factual assessment. How we deal with that factual assessment will be one that has Cody's best interest in mind."
Hodgson was named the best player in the Canadian Hockey League last season, and his prospect status in Canucks lore stands with those of Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure. Management anticipated he would earn a roster spot until Hodgson hurt his back in late June and followed with four poor preseason games this month.
"I haven't played to my potential so far," Hodgson said. "Hopefully I'll be able to change their minds."
Hodgson's maturity and intelligence impressed the Canucks, who selected him 10th overall in the 2008 entry draft. He looks and sounds like an NHL player, he just hasn't played like an NHL player. Not yet anyway.
He could also be a prohibitive cap hit this season, with a base salary of $845,000 (all currency U.S.) and bonuses worth $850,000. The Canucks are trying to shed salary to get under the $56.8-million threshold, and Hodgson can do the math.
"The next two games are critically important," the Toronto native said. "I know I can play better than I have before."
Hodgson no longer wants to discuss a back injury that kept him out of the first few days of training camp. He and head coach Alain Vigneault mixed their messages on that subject this week, and the son of a former Ontario cabinet minister is politically aware enough to identify potholes.
Earlier this week, Vigneault said Hodgson had been cleared for contact and that the injury was no longer an issue. As recently as Wednesday, Hodgson was describing tension and stiffness, saying it hampered his ability to explode off his right leg.
He said he suffered the injury, a bulging disc with nerve damage, on June 27, while working out with Canucks director of player development Dave Gagner, who has been his personal supervisor in Ontario. It came after a month-long layoff and two days of exercises, costing him two months of off-season work.
Hodgson is also unwilling to consider the notion of junior hockey, saying he has nothing to prove at that level, and isn't even interested in another appearance at the world juniors. He played 120 games last season, including a foray with Vancouver's farm team, the Manitoba Moose, after his OHL season was complete.
But out of the gate, teenagers are ineligible to play in the American Hockey League, and must be returned to junior. They are also less likely to crack contending rosters, and the Canucks, who advanced to the Western Conference semi-finals last season, have high expectations in 2009-10.
Hodgson said he wants to show the Canucks a "different version" of the player they expected, a centreman who can "hang on to the puck and control the play." He has been tried on the power play and at right wing, but his lack of speed - the only knock on him as a prospect - has been apparent.
Vigneault has made it clear that he intends to preside over a meritocracy, and Gillis is also waffling. Returning veterans and newcomers, all of them older than Hodgson, have opened their eyes.
"We've got a good team here and I think people underestimated [the competition for jobs]" Gillis said. "Some guys have had a year in our program. They have seen the expectations and have risen to the challenge."