No one can get enough of Evan Rodrigues right now, and he is crafting quite the story this season. At 28 years old, Rodrigues was an undrafted player who put up a ton of points at Boston University with Jack Eichel.
Sensing that combination, the Buffalo Sabres signed Rodrigues as a collegiate free agent, but he never really found traction there, spending the majority of his first two professional seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17 playing more games with AHL Rochester than NHL Buffalo. After that came some flashes of promise, Rodrigues combined to score 54 points in the two years from 2017-19 (16G+38A). But even in his best season to that point in 2018-19, Rodrigues was the ninth leading scorer on one of the worst teams in the league, still playing less than 16 minutes per game.
After two more years of bouncing around from Buffalo to Pittsburgh and then briefly to Toronto (where he never played, used in the deal to balance contracts in a bigger trade) and back to Pittsburgh. Rodrigues’ career was at a cross-roads this past summer. He was an unrestricted free agent. He had been on the outside of the lineup looking in for most of the Penguins playoff time in 2020 and 2021. He was brought back to Pittsburgh after not much interest around the league, with no real signs of what was to come.
Now, all of a sudden, Rodrigues has 13 goals and 13 assists in 31 games. There’s balance there, and also in his versatility. He has played all three forward positions at various times, on different lines with all kinds of different players. He’s played power play and on the penalty kill. He’s scored on slapshots, breakaways, wrist shots. He’s generated offense and been a great playmaker, leading the Pens with seven 5v5 first assists. His season has been far from just one great area, Rodrigues has done a little of everything. And now at this point it’s becoming a lot of everything.
Rodrigues’ first career hat trick yesterday against San Jose has now boosted his shooting percentage up to 12.4% this season, higher than his 8.3% career average but it’s only been a recent uptick there. This isn’t a PDO or luck-fuel surge (his 5v5 on ice shooting percentage is a solid but completely sustainable 7.4%), it is a player remarkably and wonderfully being given an increased role and opportunity and making the most of it.
As our buddy Gretz wrote over on NHL on NBC:
Among the 525 NHL skaters that have played at least 250 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season, Rodrigues currently sits….
Total shot attempts share: 4th (61.6 percent)
Goals for share: 38th (64.1 percent)
Expected goals share: 4th (63.9 percent)
Scoring chance share: 4th (61.8 percent)
High-danger scoring chance share: 14th (62.1 percent)
During 5-on-5 play, he has legitimately been one of the absolute best players in the NHL this season.
The turnaround from bit player just trying to find a niche and a home to becoming one of the league’s best players has been astounding. There’s not much of a history of comparable players in recent NHL history for players in their late-20’s that just suddenly blossom into bona fide top flight talent.
There is a long list of players who burst onto the NHL scene at a young age and performed well, before fading away (like Devin Setoguchi or Nikolay Kulemin). There’s also a group of support players who briefly popped off due to an elite playmaking center (Jonathan Cheechoo who once was fed a 56-goal season by Joe Thornton at a young age before dropping off or going way back in the memory banks, Warren Young’s Mario Lemieux-aided 40 goal season), which is easy to explain but does not align with what Rodrigues is doing now either.
Similarly, a player like Fernando Pisani can heat up for an electric playoff but also isn’t a good parallel for this case with Rodrigues. But careers like that don’t really fit a late-bloomer like Rodrigues. Here are some other examples.
Clarkson cracked double-digit goal seasons for the Devils from 2008-11, but then exploded in 2011-12 for a 30 goal, 46 point season with New Jersey in his age-27 season that almost doubled his best years to that point. After that, Clarkson would go onto only score 27 total goals for the rest of his career, which was cut short by injuries. Clarkson is a bit of a “stay away” case study, after his huge breakout he did score 15 goals in the 48-game lockout shortened 2012-13 year (a 26 goal pace over a full season) and then signed a rich $5.25 million deal for seven years with Toronto before the wheels fell off. Clarkson played a much more physical style than a player like Rodrigues but is a prime example of a first productive season out of the blue at an older age.
After coming over to America fairly late as an undrafted signing, Leino had not found much success being traded from Detroit after two mediocre seasons. Then he exploded with a change of scenery to Philadelphia, helping the Flyers in their 2010 playoff run with 21 points (7G+14A) in 19 games. Leino followed that up in 2010-11 in his age-27 season with a career-high 53 point season (19G+34A) and signed a big $27 million six year contract with Buffalo ($4.5m). The magic dried up and Leino only lasted three disappointing seasons with the Sabres (only scoring 10 total goals and 46 points) before being bought out, never to be seen in the NHL again.
As a fellow No. 9 for Pittsburgh, Rodrigues has drawn some comparison to a player a generation before him in Pascal Dupuis. But even that isn’t totally fitting — Dupuis had a 20 goal, 48 point season in 2002-03 for Minnesota. Pre-lockout and for the trap-happy Wild, Dupuis finished second on the team in goals and points that year and was one of the top players for a few seasons on that NHL team, which Rodrigues never was in his early 20’s.
Their paths got closer though, with both Dupuis and Rodrigues experiencing early career struggles and bouncing around from team to team a bit. Dupuis faded in Minnesota and then had forgettable stints with the New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers in the middle of his career before being one of the best and most celebrated recent trade throw-ins to Pittsburgh in 2008.
From 2009-13, Dupuis had great seasons playing with Sidney Crosby and boosted himself back up before a knee injury and subsequent blood clot issues ended his career. Dupuis at age-31 had a career-best 25G, 58 point season as a great example of a player who found a groove and bigger role later in his career than most players.
On and off the ice, the future for Rodrigues will be very interesting to see what happens in the next chapters. It doesn’t look like anything he is doing is a fluke, he is a skill player who is making skilled plays and has a ton of confidence and is getting a lot of ice time. He still has a lot to prove about staying power, and in a tight cap world, what will the external market for Rodrigues be in free agency?
It’s a fascinating question, because there aren’t a lot of cases like this where a scoring winger just bubbles up out of practically no where. NHL teams will still remember cases like Leino and Clarkson and perhaps be rightfully hesitant to make a big commitment to a winger that doesn’t have a ton of history as a long-term, proven NHL scorer. Yet, with each game and point that Rodrigues keeps producing, he is building more of a case as time goes on that he could have more of a Dupuis-like career than a pure “one hit wonder”.
Rodrigues has been on a very unique career path, and his incredible 2021-22 season only adds a wrinkle that could put him in a case study of his own as a player who looks to establish himself as a top player in an unexpected turn of events.