Ralph Krueger tapped the blade of his stick repeatedly on the LECOM Harborcenter ice Thursday morning, signaling for the Buffalo Sabres to increase the intensity of their stride for one final lap before drills began.
Krueger's demands didn't stop there. With the regular season one week away, the Sabres' coach saw this as another chance to push his players in training camp. He put them through an intense practice in preparation for their preseason finale Saturday in Pittsburgh, a game that isn't expected to include Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner or Sam Reinhart.
Krueger will use the final days of training camp to evaluate players on the roster bubble, including defenseman John Gilmour and forward Curtis Lazar, and what specific roles each will fill at the start of the season.
Evan Rodrigues fits into the latter category. The 26-year-old forward has shown he can play center or right wing, and can contribute on the power play and penalty kill. He proved his value during a season in which he went from a healthy scratch to an invaluable piece of the roster puzzle.
"Trying to continue to gain confidence and a belief in myself," Rodrigues said following practice Thursday. "Continuing to give myself more and more confidence. I know I’m a valuable NHL Player. I have a strong belief in myself that I can go up against anybody in this league."
Rodrigues' offensive production from last season can be deceiving. He scored only nine goals among 29 points with a minus-7 rating in 74 games. However, among Sabres who appeared in at least 70 games, Rodrigues ranked fourth in 5-on-5 shot differential, trailing only Skinner, Reinhart and Jason Pominville.
Rodrigues also ranked fourth and seventh among Sabres forwards in ice time on the penalty kill and power play, respectively. He led the team with four shorthanded points and won the third-most faceoffs on the man-advantage. Those contributions earned Rodrigues a one-year, $2 million contract for 2019-2o, a significant raise from the $650,000 salary he was paid last season.
However, Rodrigues' long-term future with the Sabres seemed uncertain one year ago. He did not score a goal in the team's first 15 games and was a healthy scratch in six of 11 games from Oct. 27 through Nov. 19. Rodrigues' first goal of the season occurred against Philadelphia on Nov. 21, which helped the Sabres extend their win streak to seven.
Although Rodrigues scored only one goal in his next 23 games, he averaged more than two shots and 15:46 of ice time while consistently generating scoring chances during that span. He experienced a breakthrough by scoring six goals during an eight-game stretch from Jan. 14 through Feb. 7.
"Obviously it’s a little frustrating to not be in the lineup," Rodrigues said, reflecting on last season. "You work to not only get back in the lineup but stay in the lineup. You always think you should be in the lineup and I thought I did. From that point on, I made sure not to let my game dip and had a strong finish, a strong second half to the year."
Rodrigues' emergence comes at an opportune time for the Sabres. Krueger is short on experienced options at center. Dylan Cozens is returning to Lethbridge and Casey Mittelstadt has been slow to adjust to a new system. If Rodrigues starts at right wing, he can move to the middle to take an important faceoff, and he's able to handle the defensive responsibilities of a center if his linemate is caught in the offensive zone.
Rodrigues provided that sort of stability Wednesday night against Columbus by allowing Skinner and Marcus Johansson more freedom in the offensive zone. Rodrigues also was an important presence on that line since Johansson is being used at center, a position in which he hasn't played full-time since 2011-12 with the Washington Capitals.
"Evan definitely has that flexibility," Krueger said. "I see him on any of the forward positions, in any of the roles. When asked to do, like yesterday, the penalty killing, he embraces it and he does it wholeheartedly. We thought with Jimmy [Vesey] they were a very good followup on [Vladimir Sobotka] and [Zemgus Girgensons]. It gave us some stability where we needed it on the PK. You always like to have some players that are flexible in the way they can fill roles."
Despite having locked up a roster spot, Rodrigues is expected to play Saturday in Pittsburgh. He was back at center during practice Thursday, skating alongside Scott Wilson and Kyle Okposo. Learning new systems on offense and defense has not slowed Rodrigues. Though he has yet to score a goal during the preseason, Rodrigues has performed like an experienced NHL player.
"Real good," Rodrigues said of his preseason. "I’m confident. I feel better than I did last year. I’m obviously looking to get a hot start. I thought our line played really well (Wednesday) and we found some chemistry, especially in the third period. I thought we were really feeding off each other."