Right wing, left wing. Second-line center. Fourth-line center. Evan Rodrigues has filled more roles in 30 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins than most players will in five years. The player that head coach Mike Sullivan termed his Swiss Army knife isn’t just filling roles until others return from the injured list. No, with opportunity and confidence, Rodrigues is shattering expectations, and he’s done it well enough that he’s forcing Sullivan to rethink his lineup when everyone gets healthy.
Do you remember everyone else? Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel.
Rodrigues’ ability to get shots on net and create scoring chances from the left wing, alongside Sidney Crosby, introduces another interesting potential. Rodrigues is a righty, and Crosby is known to love right-handed right-wingers, but Rust will eventually get back into the lineup.
In the last few weeks, Rodrigues has played on both sides of Crosby, giving us a peek into what is possible. Is LW different from the RW with Crosby?
“Kind of the same. I don’t know. I feel like we–as a unit–on rushes, we crisscross a lot, so sometimes I still end up on the right side. I think for me when he has a puck entering the zone, I might be more of a shooter,” Rodrigues responded to PHN on Friday. ” You know, being on my off wing–being able to one time a puck from there–I think that’s kind of maybe the only difference other than that we’re just playing, trying to find each other, you know, get open for each other. I think each game we get more and more chemistry.”
Rodrigues has not been shy about shooting. He had nine shots on Friday. He had 12 shots against Montreal last week. We’ll omit the snoozer in New Jersey on Sunday night. There’s just something about Newark or the Prudential Center that saps the life from the Penguins game.
In a profession that rewards production, Rodrigues is earning his keep. And that can’t be said for all of the Penguins top-six wingers. Enter Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen. Both are more often absent from the score sheet than included, and Rodrigues is outplaying both.
“I think he’s done fine on the left wing. You know, he’s a guy that he can play every forward position and has in his whole time since he’s been (with the) Pittsburgh Penguins. He does it very effectively,” Sullivan said. “I think the reason for that is because he has good instincts, and he has good hockey sense, and he has the skill sets to be able to adjust from his strong side to his off-side.”
Kapanen has been dropped in the lineup several times over the past couple of weeks as he tests Sullivan’s patience. The dynamic Finnish winger has just 16 points (7-9-16) in 30 games, and most of the points have come in clumps.
He was again demoted on Sunday night to third-line duty, though the word “demotion” is unfair to third-line center Teddy Blueger, who was the best Penguins forward.
Kapanen’s season mirrors his follow up to his 20-goal rookie season in Toronto when he slumped to just 13 goals and found himself regularly sleeping in coach Mike Babcock’s doghouse.
Perhaps Evgeni Malkin’s return will spark Kapanen. If not, Rodrigues is waiting for the opportunity.
Rodrigues on the left wing presents some interesting potentials for Sullivan. Especially with Jason Zucker disappearing into the ether. Zucker has 10 points in 30 games. For armchair GMs who were happy to trade him, or this writer who placed him high on the Penguins trade bait list, his production only feeds into that potential.
But who saw this coming? Could Evan Rodrigues be the player who makes Zucker expendable?
“I think Evan has had a really solid start to this season. He certainly has earned every opportunity he’s been given to this point, and he’s been one of our top performers, quite honestly,” Sullivan said. “And so as we start to get a healthy lineup, he has certainly made the discussion–from a line combination standpoint–interesting from our standpoint, a coaching staff standpoint, and we’ll continue to have those discussions moving forward. The way Evan has performed to this point, he’s made a really strong case for himself.”
There’s something about an underdog we can all get behind. Rodrigues has been a depth forward for most of his six-year career. The Penguins didn’t give him a qualifying offer in 2020 but traded his rights to Toronto in the Kasperi Kapanen deal. The Penguins later signed him to a minimum-salary one-year deal. They signed him to a slightly higher one-year, $1 million deal last summer.
Depth. Versatility. That was expected. Not this.
If you parse Sullivan’s answer just a bit, he said Rodrigues has a solid start to the season. Yep, many players have had an excellent first half of the season. The All-Star game annually had a couple of players who never returned.
Confidence waning, games get tougher, injuries and the hockey gods can all play a role in the crash back to earth, but there’s something more to Rodrigues’ game. The little toe drags to the slot, digging on the wall, and the ability to dish the puck to create scoring chances say this is probably legit and not a flash. He may not be a 65-point player, but a 50-point contributor would put him ahead of Kapanen and Zucker.
There’s also the matter of Bryan Rust, who is an unrestricted free agent next summer, and it appears he will test the market. PHN can confirm the team and player discussed a new contract but didn’t find common ground and tabled further discussions.
If the Penguins choose to keep the full boat, it seems Evan Rodrigues will have guaranteed space next season, but it’s this season that’s we’re covering. The way things are shaping up, Rodrigues is outplaying both Kapanen and Zucker. Perhaps the Penguins will have a really expensive third line, or perhaps it’s time to revisit the Pittsburgh Penguins trade bait list.