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What do the Sabres have in Rodrigues?

With his contract set to expire at the end of the season, the Sabres have to decide if soon-to-be RFA Evan Rodrigues is part of their future plans

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Since the beginning of the season (and perhaps even before that), fans of the Buffalo Sabres have been pretty split regarding their feelings on forward, Evan Rodrigues. With just 31 games remaining until the 25-year-old becomes a restricted free agent, how he finishes the 2018-19 season could dictate what type of investment that Jason Botterill will be willing to make in the Boston University product.

After signing with the Sabres as a collegiate free agent at the tail-end of the 2014-15 season, Rodrigues has performed admirably, especially for an undrafted player whom many felt only produced the way he did in the NCAA as a result of skating alongside Jack Eichel. 126 games into his NHL career, it’s clear that he belongs in the big league. What remains unclear is whether or not he is currently viewed as part of the long-term (or even the short-term) plan in Buffalo.

In order to determine what type of deal is realistic for the hybrid forward, we must first dive into his production. At his current rate, he is on pace to to fall short of his per-game point production from last season.

Or is he?

In reviewing his statistical progression from last season, an interesting trend was identified. Now, it’s tough to consider anything he’s done to be a “trend” given the fact that he hasn’t even played a full season of NHL hockey at this point, but what his limited sample size shows is interesting nonetheless.

After posting a meager seven points in his first 24 games last season, he caught fire at the beginning of February, posting 18 points in his final 24 games to close out the 2017-18 campaign. Following a slow start this season (11 points in his first 36 games), he has picked up the pace significantly as of late, registering eight points in the Sabres’ last 10 contests.

If he is able to close out the 2018-19 season the same way he finished last year (a .75 point-per-game clip), he would finish with 42 points in 79 games played. That total would slightly edge-out his production rate from last season. Given his propensity to “get hot” around this time of year, the underlying statistical numbers we’re seeing aren’t exactly a surprise. In terms of WAR per minute, he’s the fourth-most effective forward on the Sabres’ roster at the moment.

His shooting metrics echo the trend represented by the chart above. Over the past 10 games, his proclivity to get into a position where his is able to capitalize on high-danger opportunities has played a massive role in his base statistical uptick.

Through the first 10 games, Rodrigues had virtually zero chances in the slot. While his tendency is still that of a perimeter shooter, the ten-foot reduction is his average shot-distance is encouraging and hopefully a sign of things to come. Another significant outcome of his newfound ability to get into the high-danger areas is a vast improvement in his expected goals average as shown below.

First 10 games:

Last 10 games:

Assuming he is able to solidify his status as a half-point-per-game player, his consistency still remains somewhat of an issue. Rodrigues still has a tendency to go cold for stretches. Dating back to last season, he’s posted point droughts of six games of more on three different occasions. His goal-scoring droughts have been even more alarming. This season alone, he’s had three separate 10-game (or more) stretches without a goal. All players experience cold stretches, and nobody expects him to produce exactly one point every other game, but his tendency to disappear for stretches is a concern.

The next step in determining his projected contract value was to compare him to similarly effective restricted free-agents from last summer. In perusing the data, two players in particular stood out as relatively comparable in this regard.

Mattias Janmark of the Dallas Stars is the first player who closely matched Rodrigues’ production as of last summer. In his two seasons before becoming an RFA as a 25-year-old, he produced at just under a .41 point-per-game pace. Similar to Rodrigues, his growth appeared to have leveled-off in year two. For this reason, the Stars extended him to a one-year “prove it” deal for $2.3 million. His ability to play both center and wing is another factor that compares nicely to Rodrigues’ situation.

The next player on the list is Anaheim Ducks’ newly-acquired forward, Devin Shore. As a member of the Stars’ organization last summer, Shore re-signed with Dallas on a two-year deal for the same value as Janmark, $2.3 million per year. Prior to the start of the 2018-19 season, Shore registered 65 points in 164 games (posting nearly identical totals of 33 and 32 points, respectively in 2016-17 and 2017-18). Obviously, his rough start to this season (17 points in 42 games) inspired the Stars to deal him within the division for veteran forward, Andrew Cogliano (an aging, less productive player).

While similar, Shore and Janmark’s respective paces aren’t quite where Rodrigues is expected to land. Even if he finishes this season at his current clip of .41 points-per-game, his two-year average surpasses the output of both of his aforementioned contemporaries. Still, the comparisons are close enough to make a 1-2 year deal in the same AAV neighborhood of $2.3-2.5 million a good starting point if the Sabres are indeed interested in retaining him on a short-term deal.

Again, how he finishes the year will be a factor in the negotiations. He’s young enough for his camp to use a strong finish as a bargaining chip showing that “the best is yet to come”, but Buffalo does have the leverage considering the vast unlikelihood of him receiving an offer-sheet.

Now the question becomes whether or not that deal makes sense for where the Sabres currently stand as an organization. With a lot of money coming off the books this summer and some serious holes on the wing in terms of overall organizational depth, a deal like this seems like a no-brainer. Buffalo isn’t in a position to turn its nose up at young, productive scoring presences in the bottom-six.

It’s worth noting that Rodrigues isn’t a Botterill acquisition, but an intelligent general manager like him shouldn’t let that effect his decision. Rodrigues fits nicely as part of the solution for the Sabres’ scoring depth woes and barring some outrageous, unprecedented contractual demands from his camp, keeping him in the fold makes all the sense in the world.