Penguins’ Rodrigues Is the NHL’s Most Improved Player

In case you missed it, the Pittsburgh Penguins walloped the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon, with Evan Rodrigues and Bryan Rust posting matching hat-tricks en route to a comprehensive 8-5 win. The rousing performance put on by Rodrigues is just the latest in what’s becoming a long line of solid outings, and the center is becoming an integral part of Pittsburgh’s game-plan this season. In combining his newfound offensive chops with increased attention to detail in the defensive end, Rodrigues has a legitimate claim to being the NHL’s most improved player in 2021-22. Let’s dig in.

Rodrigues Emerging as Legitimate Offensive Threat

As with most breakout players, a little trust goes a long way, and Rodrigues has earned that and more with his play this season. Head coach Mike Sullivan is trotting out Rodrigues for almost 18 minutes a night, nearly two minutes more than Rodrigues’ previous benchmark. In response, Rodrigues has ascended Pittsburgh’s scoring leaderboards in goals (second), assists (fourth), and points (second) during his third season with the Penguins. With more than half a season still left to be played, the 28-year-old looks set to obliterate his previous career highs, now on pace for 34 goals and 69 points over a full 82-game season.

Evan Rodrigues Pittsburgh Penguins
Evan Rodrigues, Pittsburgh Penguins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Further, he’s seen his offensive role expand enormously as a result of being handed the most power-play time of his career, about two-and-a-half minutes per game with the man-advantage. Rodrigues has repaid the Penguins’ faith tenfold, leading the team with five power-play markers through 31 games.

Is his elevated production simply a product of his increased ice-time, or is Rodrigues making efficient work of his deployment? Seems as though it’s a bit of both, with the center prepared to eclipse his offensive career-highs in terms of raw totals, and scoring when adjusted for minutes played.

Primary Assists/600.140.710.98
Individual Expected Goals/600.730.611.11
Rodrigues’ per-60-minutes offensive statistics at 5v5 from 2019-22

While players who experience a rapid uptick in scoring often benefit from an unsustainable streak of finishing, Rodrigues has generated his results while shooting at roughly the same rate as last season. At five-on-five, Rodrigues has converted on 8.22% of his shots, a slight decrease from last year’s success rate of 9.26%. While his overall shooting percentage (SH%) of 12.4% is over four percent higher than his career average of 8.3%, he’s firing enough attempts to provide a buffer against any shooting regression.

As for his teammates, Rodrigues’ on-ice shooting percentage (OiSH%) this season (7.61%) is running slightly hotter than the 7.28% he had in 2020-21. A player’s OiSH% considers the shots and goals of all of the teammates who share the ice with him, as it’s not a barometer of individual success. Thus, Rodrigues’ scoring totals aren’t being inflated by a fleetingly hot run of shooting, he’s earning the increase in points through improved playmaking and shooting which looks set to continue into 2022.

Rodrigues Not Shying Away From Defensive Responsibilities

However, the game of hockey is a two-way street, with all of Rodrigues’ offensive success potentially being outweighed by detrimental defensive play. Luckily, he’s taken that sentiment to heart and helped the Penguins maintain territorial dominance over their opponents.

Related: 3 Penguins’ Trade Targets To Fix Struggling Power Play

At five-on-five, Pittsburgh controls 61.7% of shot attempts (CF%), 61.9% of scoring chances (SCF%), and preserves a 63.9% share of expected goals (xGF%) with Rodrigues on the ice. For those who prioritize actual results over the fancy stats, the Penguins have outscored their opposition 22-12 when Rodrigues plays, representing a 64.7% stake of actual goals. Further, Rodrigues sits 17th among all forwards (minimum 100 minutes at 5v5) in expected goals against per-60 (1.89 xGA/60), demonstrating a truly elite defensive impact early on.

Adding to his case is the fact that the Penguins boast two of the NHL’s three most dominant lines by xGF%, both of which feature Rodrigues. Using a minimum ice-time threshold of 75 minutes played together at five-on-five, the Jason Zucker-Rodrigues-Kasperi Kapanen (69.5 xGF%) and the Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Rodrigues (68.8%) lines rank second and third respectively. The first trio also ranks third in xGA/60 (1.47), the third-most stingiest rate in the league. No matter how you cut it, Rodrigues has been dominant.

Does Rodrigues Keep His Role When Malkin Returns?

Underling the discussions of Rodrigues’ increased involvement within the Penguins’ system is Evgeni Malkin’s imminent return to the lineup. It’s expected that the Russian center takes his usual place on one of Pittsburgh’s primary scoring units, likely relegating Rodrigues to a complementary winger role in the top-six, or to center the third line. Rodrigues’ evolution suggests that he could find success anywhere in the lineup, making coach Sullivan’s decision all the more difficult. As far as problems go in 2022, finding a place to house a breakout star is as tame of a dilemma as any to have these days – count your blessings Pittsburgh.

Data courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, MoneyPuck, and Natural Stat Trick.

Morning Skate newsletter Click To Subscribe