Evan Rodrigues wanted out of Buffalo. In December, Rodrigues asked for a trade, but Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill wasn’t able or willing to comply with the player’s request until the final hour before the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline. Rodrigues was mostly a throw-in as the Penguins made a lateral swap of Dominik Kahun for Conor Sheary.
Rodrigues has been a pretty good bonus for the Penguins, so far. Though he’s scored only one point, which was the important first goal of the game on Tuesday, his play has opened eyes. He was especially good in the Penguins 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday.
The Boston University forward signed with Buffalo as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Rodrigues had a quick two-game NHL stint at the end of 2015-16, which was his first professional season. He had two points, including his first NHL goal against the New York Islanders on April 9, 2016, in the final game of the regular season.
The following year, he split time between the AHL and NHL before establishing himself as a lineup regular, beginning in February. Last season, Rodrigues played a full season in the NHL (74 games) and scored 29 points, including nine goals.
Tuesday night, Rodrigues was again a star for the Penguins. His speed was evident as he darted through traffic to control loose pucks, he skated the puck out of the defensive zone to both alleviate pressure and create it. And, he scored his first goal as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I saw a lot of traffic, so I just tried to put it there. I don’t think the goalie ever saw it,” Rodrigues said of his first Penguins goal, which gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead in the first period. “Yeah, I was just throwing it on the net and happy to see that go in.”
Rodrigues has been the best or one of the best Penguin forwards in the last two games. His game brings a spark which the Penguins needed, especially over the past couple of weeks. The 5-foot-11, 182-pound Rodrigues isn’t a big player. His stature nor his play is heavy, which is why he was a healthy scratch on Saturday against the Penguins rival, Washington Capitals.
“(Head coach Mike Sullivan) just told me I was playing well and that Washington was a big physical team. And, he thought the lineup that he was going with would respond to that,” Rodrigues admitted on Tuesday night. “He just told me to keep my confidence, and I was playing well. When I got back in, I just continued to play my game, and I think I’ve done that.”
The eye tests and the advanced stats tell a similar story for the slight Rodrigues. In seven games with the Penguins, Rodrigues’ advanced stats are well above the team average.
“E-Rod” has a 63% Corsi and a 62% expected goals-for ratio. When Rodrigues is on the ice, the Penguins have a 61% scoring chance rate and have had 75% of the high-danger chances. All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
To further amplify those numbers, also consider those stats include most of the Penguins six-game losing streak and several team-wide no-show efforts. As an added little treat, Rodrigues has won 18 of 29 faceoffs, too.
One word of caution, Rodrigues’ Penguins numbers dwarf his average stats in Buffalo, where he was consistently under 50% in most of the above categories.
The book on Rodrigues was speed, versatility, but limited upside. He did score 20 goals and 61 points as a senior at Boston University, but his professional numbers haven’t lived up to those numbers. His best proportional output was 25 points (7g, 18a) in 48 games during the 2017-18 season, in which he also spent eight games in the AHL.
In only a few weeks, Rodrigues has seen the Penguins respond to adversity.
“Just the composure. I think there’s there’s no panic in the room. You know, whether we get down in games or have a bad period,” the Toronto native said. “Whatever it is, we bounce back really well, and we stay confident and continue to play our game. We don’t sway from what we’re good at.”
The last Penguins forward to wear No. 9 was also a throw-in just an hour before the NHL trade deadline. Pascal Dupuis used the trade to spur his career, and his career had a much better second act than the first.
Evan Rodrigues has also clearly been sparked by the fresh start with the Penguins. The adrenaline rush from the trade will wear off, eventually. Rodrigues will settle into his natural role, somewhere. His versatility gives the Penguins another option, and it’s not hard to wonder if he will earn more opportunities at higher spots in the lineup.
Seven games won’t make a career, but he’s off to a good start. Bet he plays against Washington next time, too.