Evan Rodrigues did not expect to be sitting in the press box during the Buffalo Sabres' first three games of the season.
The 26-year-old forward played in all but eight games for the Sabres last season, registering career highs in goals (nine), assists (20) and points (29). Rodrigues' progress and versatility earned him a one-year, $2 million contract with the Sabres in July.
Rodrigues called himself a "valuable NHL player" during training camp and did not appear to struggle during the preseason. Yet, he was a healthy scratch for the season opener, and coach Ralph Krueger opted to keep the same lineup following the Sabres' back-to-back wins against Pittsburgh and New Jersey.
With winger Conor Sheary listed as "day to day" with an upper-body injury, Rodrigues is expected to draw into the Sabres' lineup Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens in KeyBank Center.
"Yeah, definitely," Rodrigues said when asked if he was "shocked" by not playing the first three games. "That was obviously not a situation I thought I’d be in. It happened and now you just keep working."
Rodrigues skated with Jimmy Vesey and Casey Mittelstadt on a line during practice Tuesday. Rather than making wholesale changes, Krueger opted to simply replace Sheary with Rodrigues. That group struggled during its limited ice time Monday in Columbus.
Mittelstadt and Vesey played only 10:27 and 10:46, respectively, and the former failed to register a shot on goal. Rodrigues can play center or right wing, which should allow him to provide support for Mittelstadt, who has experienced growing pains in a new system. Like many young centers in the National Hockey League, Mittelstadt has struggled with consistency in the defensive zone.
Krueger expected Mittelstadt's offensive game to take a step back during the transition. However, the hope is that the Sabres will receive more production from that line against the Canadiens.
"Evan’s been outstanding," Krueger said. "I mean, he’s the one that said to me, ‘Somebody’s going to be in this spot all season long.’ He took it really well. He’s stayed active, he’s been working really hard and his opportunity now comes tomorrow. He’s excited to get back in the lineup. He’s been nothing but supportive to his teammates and to the process."
Sheary, who scored two goals in the season-opening win in Pittsburgh, did not register a shot on goal in 12:05 of ice time against Columbus. He recorded a secondary assist on Marcus Johansson's power-play goal in the second period.
Preparing for the Canadiens
The Sabres recognize they didn't play well enough Monday night in Columbus, but they earned one point during their first bout with adversity. Following a self-evaluation Tuesday morning, Krueger explained to the media that his players failed to respond to the Blue Jackets' aggressive style of play.
Though he and his staff don't expect perfection only three games into the season, they want the Sabres to be quicker to adjust to the different types of teams they'll face. For example, Montreal (1-0-1) relies more on speed and skill than Columbus, which pressures the puck in all three zones.
"We didn’t play the way we need to when a team comes at us like they did," Krueger explained. "We took a while to find our feet. ... We do learn about puck management in those games. We do learn about the competition here in the league every night and that all the teams have different personalities. We'll see a different one against Montreal tomorrow. Being able to adjust to those personalities but staying true to our game is part of the growth we’re going through right now."
In addition to Sheary, the Sabres' injury report included defenseman Brandon Montour (hand), goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (hip) and Zach Bogosian (hip). Montour is expected to miss three more weeks, while Luukkonen and Bogosian are out "indefinitely."
Defenseman John Gilmour is expected to be a healthy scratch for a fourth consecutive game, and the Sabres likely will face the Canadiens without a healthy extra forward. Aside from Rodrigues drawing into the lineup, Krueger did not make any changes to his forward lines or defense pairings during practice.
Krueger isn't expected to name a starting goalie until Wednesday morning following the team's meeting.
Sabres assistant coach Don Granato is expected to be hospitalized with severe pneumonia for "a while" but has made progress, his brother, Tony, told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Tony, who serves as head coach for the University of Wisconsin's men's hockey program, was away from his team for a week to be with his brother and family.
"I needed to be there," Tony told the newspaper. "He had a real bad health scare. He is improving; he's still going to be in the hospital for a while. But I felt comfortable leaving that he was in a good place that he's going to be OK. Ten days ago, I didn't know if he was going to be OK."
Rochester coach Chris Taylor is working as an interim assistant coach in Buffalo during Don Granato's absence.
The Sabres will not hold morning skates on game days at KeyBank Center this season. Instead, the team will meet with a media availability to follow.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres