Rochester Americans coach Dan Lambert did not find many centers when he looked at his roster at the start of training camp.
That has worked out very well for Evan Rodrigues.
The former winger has found a home in the middle. With Buffalo also thin at center, Rodrigues will play his fifth straight NHL game Saturday when St. Louis visits KeyBank Center.
“It’s been a nice thing to see Evan being able to step in there and do good things,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Friday. “I don’t want to say I’m surprised, but great intelligence, some good hockey smarts and sense on both sides of the puck, in particular defensively.”
Rodrigues has embraced the role formerly held by injured Johan Larsson. Skating between captain Brian Gionta and left wing Marcus Foligno, the 23-year-old has put up two assists, six shots and an even rating.
“I feel like I’m playing well,” Rodrigues said in HarborCenter. “I’m having some fun, and I’m just enjoying the moment.”
The moment came because of the position switch. Rodrigues entered the year bunched up with fellow wingers Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, William Carrier, Hudson Fasching, Cole Schneider and Alex Nylander. His competition for NHL playing time in the middle is Cal O’Reilly, Jean Dupuy and Dan Catenacci.
O’Reilly failed to produce during his last recall, so the Sabres tapped Rodrigues when Zemgus Girgensons went down. That early season conversation with Lambert was a good one.
“He said that he wanted to try me at center and thinks I have the ability,” Rodrigues said. “The first 10 games or so I played center every game, then from there on out I’ve been going back and forth a little bit. Having that versatility has helped me out.”
On a team that regularly gets outshot by large margins, Rodrigues has found success keeping the puck out his zone. He had a team-best Corsi of 68.18 percent Thursday during a 2-0 win over Colorado, with Buffalo attempting 15 shots while Rodrigues was on the ice and giving up only seven.
He was at 64.71 percent Sunday against Vancouver and 36.36 percent last Saturday against Toronto, which sounds bad but was actually seventh on the team. He struggled Tuesday against Ottawa at 21.74 percent.
“The intelligence that Evan has been able to bring to the line has made it a good solid defensive line with Marcus and with Brian,” Bylsma said. “One of the keys to us playing well defensively is not spending time in the defensive zone and being able to break the puck out, support the puck out of the zone. Evan has done that tremendously well.”
The rookie credits his wingers, who have been linemates for the better part of two seasons.
“It makes me feel a little bit more comfortable and confident,” Rodrigues said. “Those two play really well down low, and they both know where each other’s going to be for the most part. I try to give them some space and try to find open areas so they can find me when they get a chance. I think we’ve been playing pretty well.
“We’re not trying to be too fancy. We’re hitting the blue line, getting pucks in when we don’t have anything. When we have a chance to make a play, I think we’re making it. We’re getting a lot of pucks to the net and we’re getting some chances.”
As expected for a first-year center, Rodrigues has room to grow on faceoffs. He’s won just 36.8 percent, so he spent time working with team-leader Ryan O’Reilly on Friday.
“Obviously, he’s really good at them, so taking draws with him is going to help me out a ton,” Rodrigues said. “I’m just trying to take any little tips that the guys can give me and just continue to improve.”
Rodrigues, who has appeared in eight NHL games over two seasons, skated a career-high 15:47 last game because fourth-line center Derek Grant left with a shoulder injury. Grant will miss this weekend’s home games against the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, so Nicolas Deslauriers will return to center.
Bylsma plans to give more ice time to O’Reilly, Jack Eichel and Rodrigues. The rookie has been earning the minutes.
Said Bylsma: “We’ve seen flashes of good offensive play from him with keeping in mind the good play on the other side of the puck.”