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Evan Rodrigues is helping the Penguins crash the net

Patric Hornqvist’s departure left the Penguins without their main netfront presence. Is Evan Rodrigues helping to fill that void?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Buffalo Sabres
Rodrigues (9) skates with the puck as Buffalo Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt (37) tries to make a check during the first period at KeyBank Center.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

It’s never easy to watch a championship team get sold for spare parts.

This may not have been the most emotional post-2017 Stanley Cup trade (that honor goes to expansion draft sacrifice/cap dump Marc-Andre Fleury), but Pittsburgh’s announcement on Sept. 24, 2020 was still a painful one: the Penguins asked Patric Hornqvist, who had among his 264 points in Pittsburgh earned both a Cup-winning goal and fan-favorite status, to waive his no-trade clause in order to send him to Florida.

Hornqvist thrived on gritty netfront goals that ran the gambit from hammered-in shots that required minutes-long goaltender interference reviews to sneaky rebound pick-ups. Either way, they often ended with Hornqvist lost amongst a scrum as opposing players dragged him angrily away from their netminder.

No one else on the Penguins was ready to fill that role, a loss that was reflected almost immediately in their unblocked shot statistics. Through the 2019-20 season, the Penguins shot at League-average rates from the crease at even strength— but on the power play they soared well above that, cramming in more shots from the crease on the man advantage than most other teams in the NHL. (That’s a power-play pattern that traces all the way back to the 2014-15 season, when Hornqvist first arrived in Pittsburgh.)

The effect of his departure were immediately visible at even strength for the start of the 2020-21 campaign, where the Penguins’ shot rates from the crease and low slot dipped below the NHL average.

But against the Sabres on Saturday, April 17, Rodrigues’ tally from just outside the crease showed how the Penguins could begin to buck that trend.

With that goal, Rodrigues took one step closer to his single-season career high of nine tallies (from his 2018-19 Buffalo campaign) with his fifth goal of 2020-21. Maybe his expanding role on the team— he’s gone from averaging 11 minutes per game in 2019-20 to 15 in 2020-21— could help the Penguins re-establish a portion of the netfront presence they’ve been missing.

Rodrigues has always done his best work from close-up. Try and track No. 9 in this highlight from the opening minute of a clash with Washington on January 17. Off the face-off dot, he swings to the right to help dig the puck free of a tangle along the boards. Then he looks up and sees Brian Dumoulin preparing a shot from the point, and look where he goes— straight to the crease, where he deflects the puck in for a goal.

This success in the blue paint isn’t an isolated incident. After scoring nine goals for the Sabres in 2018-19, four of which came from the crease, Rodrigues went through a 25-game scoring drought to start the 2019-20 campaign.

When looking at his unblocked shot charts (courtesy of HockeyViz) through those 25 scoreless games, a pattern emerges. Rodrigues was shooting, but he was mostly shooting from around the face-off dot. When he relies on attempts from outside the crease and low slot, he’s a much less successful scorer.

Sure enough, in the game that finally ended his scoring drought, Rodrigues succeeded by persisting in the crease. During a Sabres power play on January 12, 2020, he took a puck from the corner to the crease and hammered away— a level of defense-annoying persistence worthy of Hornqvist himself— until it slipped through Jimmy Howard’s pads and into twine.

Fast forward to his first full campaign in Pittsburgh, and four of Rodrigues’ six goals so far in 2020-21 have come from the crease. He is quite effective in the blue paint, making him a solid addition to both the Penguins’ bottom six and their second power-play unit.

Hornqvist’s unique brand of net-front pestering was both rare and unsustainable. It’s a method of play that takes a huge physical toll, which partially explains why he dipped from 50-point seasons to accumulating just over 30 by his final campaign in Pittsburgh.

The first step to replacing him is to give ice time to other players whose knee-jerk instinct is to head to the crease. That’s something we’ve seen in Rodrigues, which is part of the reason the Penguins’ bottom-six forwards have been successful this injury-ridden March and a good sign for a team looking to re-establish a dangerous presence in the blue paint.