Countdown to Puck Drop – Day 71 – Rodrigues Essential for Sabres

Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.

Today marks Day 71 and we’ll discuss Buffalo Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues. This is fitting because not only is he number 71, he also has his arbitration hearing with the Sabres today. While both sides are more than $1 million apart, it’s imperative he is signed.

Everyone loves a good wing-man.

For Jack Eichel, finding one in his young career has been a struggle. Last season, he seemed to find instant chemistry with new arrival Jeff Skinner. That pair formed a formidable trio with Sam Reinhart. As fun as that line was to watch, loading up the offence on such a shallow team made the rest of the lineup a challenge to take in.

In order for the Sabres to find success this coming season, they need to be able to spread out their offence to try and massage their new depth. An option from within that could be an option for Eichel’s right-wing is Rodrigues.

Evan Rodrigues Sabres
Evan Rodrigues, Buffalo Sabres, Dec. 14, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rodrigues, you say? The same guy whose most common linemates last season were Conor Sheary and Vladimir Sobotka? The guy who mustered nine goals and 29 points in 74 games last season? The same guy whose career-high in goals in a season is nine?

You better believe it.

While it may not be the popular or most exciting move, promoting Rodrigues to the top-line right wing spot could pay huge dividends for the Sabres. Why can we be so sure?

Rodrigues and Eichel Have History

Looking back through Rodrigues’ career so far is not a “fasten your seatbelt” experience. Even perusing his college career is yawn-inducing. Through his first three seasons with Boston University, Rodrigues tallied 21 goals and 39 assists in 105 games.

That all changed in his fourth season. Along came a young curly-haired hockey freak named Eichel. That season, playing alongside the young stud, Rodrigues put up 21 goals and 40 assists in just 41 games. Rodrigues and Eichel had a spark right from the outset.

Rodrigues’ college career changed dramatically with the arrival of Eichel (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

While it’s great that the players clicked in college, the NHL is a completely different animal. The list is long of the players who put up big numbers in college at the age of 21. What has Rodrigues shown that would warrant a tryout on the top line?

Rodrigues’ Responsible NHL Play

Rodrigues’ underlying numbers paint a picture of a solid forward. When starting in his defensive zone, Rodrigues plays a responsible game that moves the puck out of his zone.

His deployment was not ideal to promote offence. As stated earlier, one of his most common linemates was Sobotka. According to Natural Stat Trick, Sobotka’s expected goals for percentage relative to his teammates (xGF%Rel) was negative 11.59 percent. He was completely entrenched at the bottom of the barrel in the NHL. Rodrigues, conversely, had an xGF%Rel of 1.73, pulling up the stats of his mates and driving play consistently. He has also seen his goals above replacement and wins above replacement increase each of the last two seasons.

Rodrigues has seen his impacts increase each of the last two seasons

On top of all this, Rodrigues had the fifth-most defensive zone starts per 60 on the team last season. So he had very challenging linemates and spent a significant amount of time starting in his own end. He still was able to be a positive player and contribute. Without a doubt, his underlying numbers prove his worth. But without a solid track record of offence at the NHL level, can we really feel comfortable giving him top-line minutes?

Rodrigues Can Play the Hyman Role

The Sabres don’t have to look far to find a Rodrigues-esque success story. Similar to Rodrigues, Toronto Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman had a slow start to his college career. During his first three seasons, Hyman put up 13 goals and 22 assists in 114 games for the University of Michigan.

Fast forward to 2019 and Hyman’s deployment has been slightly different from Rodrigues’. Last season, his most common linemates were John Tavares and Mitch Marner. He started 56.42 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone compared to Rodrigues’ 43.85 percent.

Comparing their numbers on Natural Stat Trick shows how remarkably similar both players are in style. Rodrigues even has an advantage in a number of key categories relative to his team. Evolving-Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus chart gives a great visual comparing the two players. While Rodrigues appears to be stronger defensively, Hyman has stronger offensive numbers. These no doubt are affected by each player’s respective deployment.

Rodrigues and Hyman play a similar game

Hyman plays a key role for the Maple Leafs. While the elite, offensive talents take care of scoring the goals, Hyman digs pucks out of the corners, bodies opponents off the puck, and plays responsibly so the skilled forwards can take chances.

Playing Hyman with the likes of Tavares and Marner also enables the Maple Leafs to spread the offence from Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and the rest of their travelling roadshow. Rather than loading up all the offence on one or two lines, the Maple Leafs effectively spread it out and can bring a multi-faceted attack.

Rodrigues can play a small part in Buffalo beginning to spread out their growing offence. Once he is signed, the idea of playing him on the top line should absolutely be on the table. Such a move can open things up for Reinhart and Marcus Johansson to run the middle-six and help give the Sabres a semblance of a balanced NHL roster. Rather than enjoying him as a third-line centre, we can have the opportunity to enjoy Rodrigues as a prominent winger.

Everyone loves a good wing-man, after all.