BUFFALO – On a team featuring 11 veterans earning more than $3 million, Evan Rodrigues, a rookie 15 games into his NHL career, was arguably the Sabres’ best player during two wretched road losses last weekend.
Let that sink in.
“It’s a little disappointing Rodrigues is one of our best players,” Sabres general manager Tim Murray said Wednesday. “It’s great for him. But I’m not sure that’s what should’ve happened in those two games.”
Still, the strong showings strengthened Rodrigues’ grip on the third- or fourth-line center spot. The Sabres recently demoted center Derek Grant, effectively awarding Rodrigues a spot for the rest of the season.
“He’s earned it,” coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday prior to the Sabres’ 2-1 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning inside KeyBank Center. “We don’t have a lot of other centermen here right now to steal it from him.”
Five months ago, Rodrigues, 23, wasn’t even a center. The Boston University product said he stopped playing the position nine years ago and became a winger.
But with the Rochester Americans in “dire need of a centerman,” according to coach Dan Lambert, he asked Rodrigues to move back before the season.
“He accepted the challenge, accepted the role and ran with it,” Lambert said. “He actually became very, very reliable at both ends of the rink. I think that’s when Buffalo saw that, they thought, ‘Why not give him a shot here?’ He’s looked really good.”
The speedy Rodrigues said he was “optimistic” about the move.
“I thought I was a good winger,” he said. “I thought I had the ability to play wing in the NHL. To be able to do both now is just an added bonus.”
The versatility, of course, has made Rodrigues, a prospect often overshadowed by wingers Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste, a bigger asset. Rodrigues said he split his time between the two positions about 50-50 with the Amerks.
“If I never played it down there, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance at least to showcase myself,” Rodrigues said. “I think that gave me the chance to get up here, and now I kind of just relish the opportunity.”
Rodrigues, who first cracked the NHL as a winger late last season, has thrived because of his “intelligence and hockey smarts,” Bylsma said.
“I don’t want to say he didn’t show that before as a winger,” he said. “It’s just been real evident right from the start, in his first game at center he’s shown a real good capability, smart capability, hockey sense playing on the defensive side.”
Rodrigues centered Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson on Saturday.
With leading scorer Kyle Okposo week-to-week after hurting his ribs, instead of recalling a forward, the Sabres dressed Nick Deslauriers against the Lightning.
Deslauriers, a healthy scratch the four straight games and seven of the previous nine, has zero points this season. Okposo, meanwhile, has 19 goals and 43 points.
The Sabres can’t exactly fill Okposo’s void.
Bylsma said Okposo has the same injury winger Evander Kane suffered opening night, meaning he has broken ribs. Arizona’s Kevin Connauton hit Okposo into the boards in Thursday’s 6-3 win.
The Sabres have already used two of the four late-season recalls they are allowed on Bailey and Rodrigues, Bylsma said. They didn’t think about summoning someone from the AHL for Okposo, he said.
The gritty Deslauriers skated beside center Zemgus Girgensons and Bailey on Saturday.
“He’s needs to be a physical presence,” Bylsma said of Deslauriers. “He needs to be a factor in the game with his body.”
Deslauriers was almost a factor with his stick. He narrowly missed two scoring chances during eight minutes, 50 seconds of ice time, his highest total since Jan. 3.
Bylsma said Okposo will be reevaluated after a week or 10 days.
His loss, of course, is huge.
“It’s tough,” Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly said. “He’s been a key guy all year. To see him go down like that, it’s frustrating, it hurts. It’ll be a tough spot to fill.”
Sabres captain Brian Gionta moved up to Okposo’s spot beside O’Reilly and Kane.
Notes: The Sabres scratched defenseman Justin Falk for the seventh straight game. … The Sabres play a road tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins today at 5 p.m. … Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby has 15 goals and 50 points in 32 career games against the Sabres.