Evan Rodrigues is heading into the offseason with a Rookie of the Year trophy. His intangible prize is even better.
“I kind of proved to myself that I could play at this level,” the Sabres center said. “I had a good run here at the end of the year. There’s always areas of improvement that I’m going to work on, obviously, going into the summer, but I think mentally I’m in a good spot, believing in myself.”
After entering the season as a depth winger, Rodrigues worked his way into a starting job at center. During the final weeks, he passed Zemgus Girgensons on the depth chart and got a few minutes of penalty-kill and power-play time.
“I continued to gain confidence as the year went on, getting put in more situations,” Rodrigues said. “I’m just going to try to grow from there, work on becoming a better centerman. Wherever they slot me next year, I’ll be ready to go.”
Rodrigues’ versatility figures to be a bonus heading into an uncertain summer. The Sabres will lose someone in the expansion draft, and changes are coming as they try to end their playoff drought. With Rodrigues proving he can play in Buffalo, he may allow General Manager Tim Murray to make moves that otherwise weren’t possible.
“You never know what happens in the offseason and where the spots are that are open on the team,” Rodrigues said. “Having the ability to play all three forward positions is something that is going to benefit me greatly.”
From a numbers standpoint, Rodrigues didn’t jump off the page. He had four goals and six points in 30 games with the Sabres. Sent back to Rochester after the season, he entered the Amerks’ final weekend with nine goals and 27 points in 46 minor-league games.
But he wasn’t as unpredictable with the puck as other players, and he showed he could be a reliable defender. His speed helped.
“I thought early on I played very responsible, smart,” the 23-year-old said. “As the season went on, I continued to make some more offensive plays, make some more plays with the puck. I thought I showed I could be responsible but still have an offensive side of the game.”
The 5-foot-11, 183-pounder will be better with added bulk. That tops his offseason game plan. Signed to a two-year deal as a free agent out of Boston University, Rodrigues will be a restricted free agent this summer.
“It’s just getting a little bigger and stronger to be more assertive in the D-zone, getting between my man and the net,” he said. “If I do that, I think I have the rest of the tools that I could be a good centerman at this level.”
Rodrigues’ teammates liked what they saw. Though there weren’t many choices in the Rookie of the Year vote (William Carrier was the other main candidate), Rodrigues earned the honor.
“It was a big deal just because I knew it was voted on by the players,” he said. “Obviously, having that respect from them is nice. It was much appreciated.”
There is no denying the Sabres’ late-season stumble was hard on the players. The dressing room wasn’t always a fun place. As Rodrigues soaked in his first extended look at the big leagues, he learned what kind of teammate he wants to be.
“People always say, ‘He’s a good pro,’ or, ‘He’s a good professional,’” Rodrigues said. “It’s something I want to work to become. I think I have some of that in me. I like to be the last guy off the ice. It’s just making sure that 100 percent of your life is dedicated to being the best hockey player you can be.
“Just looking around the room and seeing what it takes to be a full-time NHLer is something that I aspire to be and something that I’m going to really work on this summer.”