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Evan Rodrigues is not a defenceman

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And that seems like it disappointed some Leafs fans

Carolina Hurricanes v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Evan Rodrigues is a forward, and most of us, myself included, were expecting Kasperi Kapanen to get swapped for a defenceman. Instead Kyle Dubas went for a straight up trade for futures, a basic depth forward replacement and more cap space. Dubas is not done clearing cap space, and at some point, we still expect a defenceman to appear. But for now, Evan Rodrigues is neither Kapanen, nor a defenceman.

Who is he?

Rodrigues just turned 27, which is rare for an RFA. He’s from Etobicoke and grew up playing on the Toronto Marlboros in the GTHL. Unlike most hometown players, he didn’t go the OHL route, he played for four years at Boston University where in his final year he played on a line with Jack Eichel. In 2015, before the Buffalo Sabres drafted Eichel, they signed Rodrigues as an undrafted free agent. This was largely seen as a favour to their about to be new star player.

Rodrigues is 5’11” and 183 lb per Elite Prospects, and when he was 18, he’d only ever played in the OJHL and passed through the draft with no attention paid to him. No one found his 12 points in 36 games in his rookie season in the NCAA attractive, so he didn’t get drafted at 19 either.

Because of his age when he signed — he was 22 — he was on an ELC for only two years. The Sabres re-signed him for a very low $650,000 for two years in 2017, and he finally broke into the NHL in 2017-2018 after playing half in the NHL and half in the AHL the season before.

He only played 48 games in his first full NHL season in part because Andreas Borgman of the Leafs checked him, and left him with a broken hand in September. He didn’t come back until December. At times in that season he played as a centre, at others as a winger. He became injured again near the end of the season.

The 2018-2019 season didn’t see Rodrigues take the step the Sabres might have been expecting, at least not in points, but he was used in a middle-six role and faced an even spread of competition. When he elected arbitration last summer, he was awarded a one-year $2 million contract. Die By the Blade reported that the team had offered $1.5 million and he’s countered with $2.65. As is typical the arbitrator split the difference.

His claims seemed based entirely on how Buffalo used him, not how well he did in that usage, which is similar to the Cody Ceci situation in some ways when Ottawa ended up having to pay him over $4 million because of his usage.

When Rodrigues’ current season didn’t go any better than the last one, again by points, the relationship soured, and like Zach Bogosian, who ended up in Tampa, Rodrigues demanded a trade in the first part of 2020 after being healthy scratched by the new Sabres coach. One thing is clear, Ralph Krueger had no use for Rodrigues.

The Sabres moved him to Pittsburgh at the deadline along with Conor Sheary for Dominik Kahun, making Rodrigues essentially a free throw-in on the deal. Sheary, Kahun and Kapanen are all largely interchangeable players. You can quibble over the minor differences, and assign slightly higher or lower salaries based on special teams skills, but none of them define the line they play on. Pittsburgh seems to have decided Kapanen is the best of the bunch at the right price. They never had a use for Rodrigues either.

Rodrigues scored one goal for Pittsburgh in seven games, and was never played in the playoffs, although he was on the extended roster for the return to play. In one practice where Sidney Crosby was sitting out, Krueger put Rodrigues in on the top line in line rushes, and then scratched him for every game the team played.

So is he any good?

He’s not going to slot into Kapanen’s place seamlessly on the third line. His closest comparison on the Leafs is Pierre Engvall, although Rodrigues is much older. But neither have much offensive ability, and they both seem to have some defensive effects, almost entirely involving limiting shots against.

Engvall is hovering in the void between very good fourth liner and a third liner you use when have to. Engvall’s new deal, $1.25 million for two years, is likely a small overpay. He’s 24, which means he’s not a prospect who is still developing, and his only claim to future growth is how little NHL experience he has.

Rodrigues looks like the same sort of player, and that makes him similar in some ways to Kyle Clifford. You have to believe in Rodrigues’ 2018-2019 season, and the toxic effects of this year in Buffalo to think there’s more than a fourth liner there. But I think it’s absolutely fair to say at worst he is an above-average fourth liner. Players like that just aren’t going to impress you, particularly not with points.

Negative numbers on the bottom are good defensive impact. Positive on the top are good offensive impact.
HockeyViz

The thing to remember when someone posts some charts that show his modest defensive impacts is that he hasn’t been a fourth liner in Buffalo very much. His two full seasons on the Sabres were so different, it’s hard to know if that good year is the real him or if the bad one is. In 2018-2019, he played more minutes against harder competition than he did in 2019-2020. And he was terrible in the year where his job was easier and had better defensive isolated impacts when playing against much better forwards.

It’s really obvious his pandemic season is one he wants to forget, but should we?

Dubas said in his press call that he was concerned, in trading a forward like Kapanen, about leaving Sheldon Keefe in the lurch with no depth. Rodrigues, like Alexander Barabanov, Engvall, Jason Spezza (should he re-sign), Nic Petan and Nick Robertson are the depth, and only one of those players is going to improve dramatically. The Leafs will need a training camp to really understand what they have, and who can play where. So slotting Rodrigues in now is foolish, but so is deciding he was in this deal so Jim Rutherford could outsource a bad news phone call to Dubas.

I think Dubas was serious when he said he wants Evan Rodrigues as depth and wants to sign him to a contract. I don’t expect that $2 million Qualifying Offer to be the deal, however. The Engvall deal has to be seen as the upper limit of what Rodrigues can get paid. Less is better. It’s certainly no loss to the Leafs if this negotiating doesn’t bear fruit, but at the same time, the forward cupboard is very bare, and a winger who can play centre, and who has played higher in the lineup without being a total disaster is not a player you just wave away as useless. They aren’t as easy to find on decent contracts as is it to name some AHLers you hope will be that useful.

We’ll see how the negotiation goes.