Evan Rodrigues' request to get out of Buffalo was well known long before the NHL trade deadline hit last week. When he got the word he was going to the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was an instant trip to the playoffs and a chance at the Stanley Cup.
But strangely enough, Rodrigues arrived for the final three games of a six-game losing streak that was the Pens' longest since 2012. What he saw, however, gave him insight as to why the Penguins won three Stanley Cups from 2009-2017 and have been competing for one in each of the last 12 seasons.
"They just have such a calming presence, there’s no real panic in the room," Rodrigues said before his return game against the Sabres Thursday in KeyBank Center. "We’re obviously going through a little bit of a losing stretch there when I first got here, and even then there was no worry, no panic. It was just kind of get ready for the next game and prepare the same way and eventually it was going to turn. That was the mindset."
It wasn't a hope for victories like in Buffalo. Just a total expectation.
"I think every game they go into, they expect to win and have that calming presence like they’re confident, they have some swagger," he said. "It’s almost a sense of being there before. Whether we get down in games 1-0, 2-0, we think we can come back in any game. It’s nice to see, it’s nice to be a part of."
Rodrigues' average ice time over his first four games with Pittsburgh is 10:20 per game while playing on the fourth line with multiple players. He has no points and an even rating. After notching no shots on goal in his first two games, losses at Los Angeles and Anaheim, Rodrigues had three shots apiece in a loss at San Jose and Tuesday's home win over Ottawa.
"He's one of those utility guys that can play all three forward positions," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after his team's morning meeting. "He can kill penalties, he can take faceoffs. Those guys are valuable. When you need guys to plug into the lineup out of necessity to fill certain roles or certain needs based on where the team is at on a given night, whether it's through injury or otherwise, we've had Evan at all three positions. We used him on the penalty kill and he's played well."
Rodrigues had no real answer why the Sabres continue to struggle. He was certainly one of the players who was underachieving in the Buffalo lineup and he often was a healthy scratch under coach Ralph Krueger.
"It’s a great group in there, the skill is all there, the talent is all there. I honestly can’t put a nose on it," Rodrigues said. "It seems like every time around this year, whether it’s bounces or I don’t know if it’s will, maybe not being there before in the situation, not having the success in that situation, that it just kind of wears on the room. I don’t really know the answer to that, because when you look at on paper, in the room, being in the room – all the talent’s there, all the pieces are there. It’s just kind of executing and making it happen now."
Rodrigues gave it up to the Sabres for being the franchise that took a chance on him as a college free agent after he was Jack Eichel's linemate at Boston University.
"It's the organization that gave me a chance and let me become an NHL player. I’ll always be grateful for that," he said. "The city was nothing but nice to me. I had my first child here. There’s a lot of memories that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life."
Sheary loving his return
Conor Sheary said he was sad to leave the Sabres at the deadline but it's likely that feeling went away quickly when he was reinstalled on Sidney Crosby's wing, just where he was much of the time when the Penguins won the Cup in 2016 and 2017.
"To go to a familiar place and back to where it all started for myself and my career was pretty exciting for me," Sheary said. "The UFA year was just lingering over my head. I think I was always an option to get traded the whole year no matter where we were. I ended up getting moved at the deadline. That's just the way the business works."
Sheary got a big ovation from the fans in PPG Paints Arena and had a goal and an assist in Tuesday's win over Ottawa, his first game back in Pittsburgh after meeting the team in California.
"It was really cool. I got a pretty warm welcome, which was really comforting," he said. "I was excited to be back in Pittsburgh. I met the team on the road, so to be back there playing in front of those fans was pretty cool."
"I was happy for him. He's a good player who played extremely well for us for a number of years," Sullivan said. "He's a guy that his skillset lends to the style of play we're trying to play. That was one of the reasons that attracted us to try to get him back and he's played for us since he's been back."
Like Rodrigues, Sheary said he felt the Sabres were close to a breakthrough but could not sustain their consistency.
"Throughout the two years I was here, the team struggled to score and put together good seasons," he said. "I think we just, for whatever reason, were stuck in a rut and I take a little bit of responsibility for that because I came in to be an offensive guy and help the scoring. For whatever reason, it didn't work."
Sullivan on Kahun
Sullivan had praise for the work of new Sabres forward Dominik Kahun, who had six points in a seven-game stretch with the Penguins before he suffered a lower-body injury Jan. 19 against Boston.
"I think he improved a lot. I give Dominik a lot of credit," Sullivan said. "He works hard at it, works hard at his game. He's a guy that really likes the game and has an appetite to improve and get better. He did a good job for us when he was here. He's a good offensive player."