BUFFALO – On a team featuring 11 veterans earning more than $3 million, Evan Rodrigues, a rookie 14 games into his NHL career, was arguably the Sabres’ best player during two wretched road losses last weekend.
“It’s a little disappointing Rodrigues is one of our best players,” Sabres general manager Tim Murray said earlier this week. “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 this morning prior to the Sabres’ tilt against 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.”