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Ex-Sabres Evan Rodrigues, Conor Sheary relish opportunity with Penguins

While the Buffalo Sabres and their newly acquired winger Wayne Simmonds prepared Tuesday for a four-game road trip, two of the team's former players were getting acclimated to their new surroundings.

The process was easy for one of the two former Sabres. Conor Sheary's practice in El Segundo, Calif., was the beginning of his second stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he is expected to be reunited on a line with Sidney Crosby when the team plays the Kings in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Sheary was a member of the Penguins' back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Most of the coaching staff remains the same. However, Evan Rodrigues had spent his entire NHL career with the Sabres before he was traded along with Sheary in exchange for winger Dominik Kahun on Monday.

Rodrigues is expected to debut with the Penguins on Wednesday after he centered a line alongside recently acquired forward Patrick Marleau and Dominik Simon during practice Tuesday. This is the fresh start Rodrigues sought when he requested a trade out of Buffalo on Dec. 31.

"I think it just started from the get-go," Rodrigues told reporters when asked what went wrong in Buffalo. "Obviously starting the season as a healthy scratch you never really get into the groove of things. You’re always playing not to make a mistake, and I think since New Year's, since the turn of 2020, I’ve really turned it on and the puck is starting to go in for me. I’m starting to play the way I know I can play and just looking to continue that."

The 26-year-old has five goals with one assists in 14 games since requesting a trade. He was a healthy scratch in Buffalo 24 times this season after scoring a career-high nine goals in 2018-19, which earned him a one-year, $2 million contract last July.

Rodrigues was unable to carve out a role after having a difficult first training camp under Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, which resulted in Rodrigues playing four fewer minutes per game than last season.

Rodrigues, a pending restricted free agent, wasn't receiving much time on the power play – though he was not on either unit during Pittsburgh's practice Tuesday – and struggles defensively often resulted in him being benched in the third period of close games.

Rodrigues had 26 goals with 45 assists and a minus-30 rating in 192 games after signing with the Sabres as a college free agent.

"Obviously, I was really excited, probably through the roof," Rodrigues said. "When you come to such a storied franchise like this with obviously the success they’ve had in recent years, it’s obviously an exciting time and I can’t wait to get started."

Sheary was acquired by the Sabres with defenseman Matt Hunwick from the Penguins for a conditional fourth-round selection in the 2019 draft. He had nine goals with 10 assists and a minus-4 rating in 55 games with the Sabres this season.

Sheary began last season on Jack Eichel's wing before he was replaced by Jeff Skinner, who went on to score a career-high 40 goals. Though Sheary did not replicate the career-high 23 goals he scored with Pittsburgh in 2016-17, he provided leadership and skill in the Sabres' bottom-six. Sheary scored a total of 23 goals with 30 assists and a minus-22 rating in 133 regular-season games with Buffalo.

"I’ve had the luxury in my career of being on two teams in completely different scenarios," Sheary said Tuesday. "I think with Buffalo they're a young team that has to learn a lot. They have a ton of skill and they’re on the right path. I think when I got here we were already a contender and just the difference in that was a big learning experience for me in how to handle both situations. I’ll take a lot from that experience."

Sheary was also prone to scoring slumps with the Sabres. He scored only one goal in 22 games after having a two-goal performance in the season opener Oct. 3. His play improved over his final month with the team, including two goals in his final six games.

Sheary had six goals with 19 assists in 57 playoff games with the Penguins, including 17 points between their two Stanley Cup runs. The Penguins (37-18-6) entered Tuesday two points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

"I was obviously excited," Sheary said. "There was a lot anxiety that went into yesterday just waiting for a phone call, but when I found out it was Pitt I was super excited. I get to come back to a familiar place, familiar faces. I think it’s an easy transition for me."

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