Evan Rodrigues (71) battles Boston’s Zdeno Chara last season. ©2019, Janet Schultz

Sabres’ Evan Rodrigues confident after showcasing versatility last season

BUFFALO – When Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues began examining some information before his arbitration hearing in late July, he learned something interesting.

“Last year, I started in every single position but first-line left wing,” Rodrigues said Monday inside KeyBank Center. “So that kind of shows that I can play in every position. That just speaks to the belief that I have in myself and the belief that I’m a very valuable NHL player.”

Rodrigues’ versatility might be his greatest asset. It certainly helped him receive a one-year, $2 million award in arbitration.

The speedy Boston University product can play anywhere, from third- or fourth-line winger to No. 1 center. He also kills penalties and often skates on the power play.

Early in the winter, Rodrigues even subbed for top center Jack Eichel.

Rodrigues, 26, oozes confidence. He generated plenty last season, his first start-to-finish NHL campaign.

In addition to earning more ice time and trust from former Sabres coach Phil Housley, Rodrigues scored a career-high nine goals and 29 points in 74 games.

Despite a slow start in which he was healthy scratch and needed 16 games to score, Rodrigues believes 2018-19 did wonders for him.

“I’ve solidified myself as an NHL player and a reliable guy who can be trusted in every situation,” Rodrigues said. “I’m confident in my game.”

Right now, “I don’t think there’s a center in the league that I’m afraid to go up against or line up against,” Rodrigues said.

“I have all the confidence in my ability, I have all the confidence in my defensive ability, I have all the confidence in my speed and my skill to play with everyone in this league,” he said.

Coaches, of course, can utilize Rodrigues everywhere because he does a little bit of everything well. But there is another reason he can easily be moved around.

“Without any show of emotion, he’ll take the role you ask of him,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “Whether it was power play the one day, penalty kill the other night, right side, center – he just goes and does his job. You need some players that can move up and down the lineup and also laterally through the lineup.”

This season, Rodrigues said there are “a lot more” opportunities.

“If things don’t start off the right way, it’s not something I’m going to be worried about,” he said. “I know the type of player that I am and I know I’m talented.”

So far in training camp, Rodrigues has mostly skated on scoring lines.

On Monday, Rodrigues practiced at right wing with center Casey Mittelstadt and Jimmy Vesey, the same position he played in Saturday’s preseason game beside center Dylan Cozens and 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner. In his first exhibition action last week, he centered Skinner and Curtis Lazar.

The style Krueger has spent camp implementing could help Rodrigues create more offense. Instead of bogging his players down in a system, Krueger wants them to rely on their instincts.

“He’s created a framework for us that we’re going to follow but he’s not overwhelming us,” Rodrigues said. “He’s kind of letting us as players … be able to talk to each other as a line and be able to read off each other instead of being like robots.”

The creative Rodrigues has showcased enough offense in the past – he scored seven goals and 25 points in only 49 games in 2017-18 – he likely could grow in that area. His paltry 5.4 shooting percentage ranked last among regular Sabres forwards last year, so that could be due to go up.

Like a lot of other Sabres, Rodrigues sounds refreshed following a long offseason. He and his wife, Christina, purchased a house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in April.

After a grueling season, he could finally spend regular time with his son, Grayson, who was born in October.

“It was really cool and really fun to watch him grow up and grow a personality,” Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues said he wasn’t worried about his arbitration hearing. Of the four Sabres who filed for arbitration, only he received an award. The other players settled their contracts.

“As a player, you believe in yourself,” Rodrigues said. “You put a fight to get what you think you deserve. I think you kind of take the emotion out of it and it’s just business.”

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