The push for the playoffs may not be in view yet for the NHL, but it is creeping closer as days of December get marked off the calendar. Teams across the league have crossed the quarter-season mark and certain players have found new levels to their game. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no exception and have themselves an unexpected breakout player.
Through the Penguins’ first 25 games of the 2021-22 season, forward Evan Rodrigues has crushed expectations and shocked the world. He has caught the eye of many and is becoming the talk of the town in Pittsburgh, and for good reason.
Rodrigues isn’t the best player on the Penguins, and isn’t going to be in conversations for one of the tops in the league, but he has set a new standard for himself. He has turned into a key utility player who can play anywhere needed. From all four forward lines, to playing wing or center, and even opening fire on the power play, “E-Rod” is pacing for a standout season.
Rodrigues by the Numbers
The Penguins are only 25 games into the year, and Rodrigues has already crossed his point total from last season. In 2020-21, playing in 35 games, he scored an even seven goals and seven assists for 14 points. A good handful of those games were played on the first line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, but the numbers wouldn’t mirror that opportunity.
In 2021-22, in 10 fewer games Rodrigues has already surpassed his previous goal and assists count, with eight goals and 10 assists for 18 points. He has never scored 10 goals in a single season, with a career high of nine in 2018-19. It might be a safe bet that he passes that before the new year arrives.
The 2018-19 season with the Buffalo Sabres was a career year for Rodrigues. He had nine goals, 20 assists, and 29 points in 74 games. He is on pace to crush that number this year, so fans should enjoy what could be a mountaintop season for him.
Beyond paper stats, Rodrigues is crushing career highs in analytical stats and holding some of the top numbers in the league. Through 25 games, his Corsi for percentage sits at 62.8%, fourth in the league for players with over 10 games played. According to Evolving Hockey, Rodrigues is seventh among all NHL forwards in goals above replacement at 8.4.
Penguins’ Depth Leader
Heading into the season, it wasn’t immediately clear if Rodrigues would be in the lineup. He re-signed with the Penguins for a single year and had to fight for his spot in the lineup. Early in the season, the team was shattered with injuries and illness, forcing Rodrigues and a handful of other fill-in players to play regular minutes.
Rodrigues had to battle for a spot in the lineup with youngsters Drew O’Connor, Sam Lafferty, and Dominik Simon. While Rodrigues has the veteran status, an aging Penguins team has begun a shift to focus on younger players. The seven-year forward outplayed his younger counterparts and has earned his spot in the lineup.
While Lafferty, Simon and O’Connor still see ice-time on occasion, Rodrigues has garnered most of the attention. The numbers stand out as eye grabbers, and so does his spot in the lineup on certain nights.
The Penguins started the season without their top two centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. After four games, Jeff Carter was placed in COVID protocol, forcing Pittsburgh to be down three of four centers. Being such a Swiss Army knife, Rodrigues was thrust into the first line center position.
This is not at all where the Penguins wanted to be heading into a Saturday night battle against the high powered Toronto Maple Leafs. First line center Rodrigues and the Penguins trounced the Leafs in a 7-1 victory. E-Rod himself had a goal and an assist. Not bad for someone who had to fight for his spot in the lineup.
Something that often goes unnoticed and unseen in a player is their confidence on the ice. If you watch Rodrigues closely night in and night out, you can see him playing with an extra jolt of energy and confidence.
An easy way to spot a player’s confidence is how often they’re shooting the puck and collecting shots on goal. Rodrigues has been no stranger to firing away on goalies this year. He is second on the team in shots on goal with 82. For a little more perspective, only Guentzel has more shots for Pittsburgh this season and Rodrigues took 65 shots all of last season. Rodrigues has failed to record a shot in only one game this year; However, he did pick up two assists.
There is one game in particular that stands out as Rodrigues understanding the state of his confidence, and that’s the Nov. 27 game against the Montreal Canadiens. Sure, the Penguins lost 6-3, but Rodrigues contributed a power play goal and was all over the ice. He was creating chances and coming close to a franchise record for shots in a single game. In a season high 21:17 of ice-time, E-Rod ripped 12 shots on Habs goalie Jake Allen, who ultimately stole the show.
More than confidence, when Rodrigues contributes on the score sheet, the Penguins see success. He’s collected at least a point in 12 games, and despite only one game-winning goal, the team is 7-3-2 when he scores.
It’s been an unbelievable start to the 2021-22 campaign for Rodrigues. He is without doubt the Penguins unexpected breakout player and has earned every opportunity he gets. Obviously no one can see into the future and tell how long this lasts, but for now, the Penguins have to keep striking while the iron is hot by utilizing the utility forward as much as possible, so both the team and player can see success.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.