An area of the offseason that is not often discussed is how the Buffalo Sabres have a handful of restricted free agents they need to make decisions on this summer. Such players as Jake McCabe, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Linus Ullmark, Evan Rodrigues and C.J. Smith are a few that need new contracts prior to the start of next season.
While each is their own unique situation, the player that gives Jason Botterill an opportunity to secure a long-term, team-friendly contract is Rodrigues. The 25-year-old continues to be undervalued on the roster and the Sabres would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them.
Rodrigues was signed as a college free agent from Boston University in 2015 by former general manager Tim Murray. A lot of fans assumed it was a goodwill gesture for future Sabre Jack Eichel to sign his teammate and that Rodrigues would be nothing more than a career AHL player.
Instead, he’s played 154 NHL games in parts of four seasons with the Sabres. He’s scored 21 goals and 62 points in those 154 games. Rodrigues has been one of the few bright spots in the bottom six of their roster and has given them the flexibility to play all over the lineup.
Botterill has talked a lot about his desire to bring in players that give them versatility over his three years as Sabres general manager. Rodrigues fits that role perfectly. He can play all three forward positions in the bottom or top six of the lineup. He also has the ability to play on the power play and is one of the club’s best penalty killers. The Toronto-native had the best-shorthanded GAR on the roster this past season according to Evolving Hockey.
His on-ice impacts are some of the best on the team as well. According to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model, he was fifth on the team in xGF/60, sixth in xGA/60, and second in overall xGPM/60. He was also the best player on the roster in Corsi plus-minus per 60 minutes.
Rodrigues was third overall on the Sabres in goals above replacement this season in Evolving Hockey’s model. His even strength impact and excellent penalty differential are two other areas that contributed to his impressive GAR rating. The isolated impact chart below from Micah McCurdy really drives home all of the strong underlying numbers that show up with Rodrigues.
According to the data, he’s three percent better than the league average offensively and eight percent better defensively. You can also see his power play and penalty kill impacts on the right of the chart as well.
The area that gives some people pause in buying into Rodrigues fully is his production. A career high of nine goals and 29 points doesn’t jump off the page. However, when you dive into the numbers a little deeper you can start to see quality production.
This past season, Rodrigues started slow and even found himself in the press box for a few games early in the season. Through the first 30 games of the season, he had only two goals and 10 points. That production rate was well below the standard he set in the 2017-18 season when he scored seven goals and 25 points in 48 games.
Looking into the start of his season I found a few explanations that can be chalked up to Phil Housley’s coaching tactics. In those first 30 games, he averaged a zone-start rate of 21.53. Meaning he started about 79% of his shifts in the defensive zone at even strength. Prior to this past season, he was closer to a 50/50 zone start player that tilted slightly towards more offensive-zone starts.
Not only was Rodrigues falling victim to Housley’s need to drown someone in heavy dZS, but his most common linemates during the first 30 games were also Vladimir Sobotka, Jason Pominville, Zemgus Girgensons, and Kyle Okposo. Not the best situation to expect a player to succeed in.
Over the final 44 games of the season, he averaged a zone-start rate of 51.07 and the production started to come again. Rodrigues went from an average of 1.5 shots per game to 2.1 shots per game. His shooting percentage increased from 4.8% to 7.7% which is right on his career average of 7.6% in the previous two years. In the second part of the season, he scored at a 13 goals and 35 points per 82 games pace. Closer to that 43-point pace he scored at the year prior.
Over the last two years, he’s been one of the best even strength scorers on the team. In the 2017-18 season, he was second on the club in EVS points per 60 among players that played at least 500 minutes and was sixth this season. His speed, forecheck, and creativity gives him the potential to be a 35 to 40 point player for the Sabres in the bottom of their lineup.
All the underlying numbers in Rodrigues game point to a player that is trending up. The Sabres have the opportunity to recognize that and get him locked into a team-friendly deal long-term before he has a big season.
Evolving Hockey’s contract predictions have Rodrigues in line for a three-year contract with a $2.5 million cap hit. A few recently signed comparable contracts seem to line up with that prediction for the Sabres forward. Here are some comparable contracts via Cap Friendly:
- Mattias Janmark (2019) – one-year, $2.3 million AAV | 2.89% of the salary cap
- Jimmy Vesey (2018) – two-years, $2.275 million AAV | 2.86% of the salary cap
- Jordan Martinook (2019) – two-years, $2 million AAV | 2.52% of the salary cap
Janmark just signed his new deal with the Dallas Stars last Thursday and would be a fair comparison. Rodrigues turns 26-years-old at the end of July so a four-year contract in the neighborhood of a $2.3 million cap hit would make sense. That would bring Rodrigues to the age of 30 and give him another chance to get paid if he continues to play well. The Sabres may want to be at the Martinook cap hit with the Hurricanes but buying a few UFA years could push the price up closer to Janmark.
The Sabres have gone short-term in the past with Rodrigues but now is the time to invest in a player to be an important piece of the bottom of the roster moving forward. They need to be proactive to lock in team-friendly deals to continue to build a strong team around the big money contracts of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and impending deal for Rasmus Dahlin.