The Pittsburgh Penguins extended their winning streak to eight consecutive games on Sunday afternoon with an 8-5 win over the San Jose Sharks. Even with an extensive list of injuries and man-games lost throughout the season (keep in mind Evgeni Malkin has still yet to play in a game for them this season) they still look like a playoff team with better scoring depth than they sometimes get credit for having.
The performance of their bottom-six this season (and even going back to a year ago) has been among the best in the league.
Leading that performance has been a shocking breakout performance from veteran forward Evan Rodrigues.
Let’s start with a few numbers.
- Rodrigues recorded a hat trick in the Penguins’ win on Sunday, bringing his season stat line to 13 goals, 13 assists, and 26 total points in 31 games.
- That projects out to an 82-game pace of 34 goals, 34 assists, and 68 total points.
- Entering this season his career averages per 82 games were 12 goals, 18 assists, and 30 total points.
- His actual career highs were nine goals, 20 assists, and 29 total points.
He has either already shattered his previous career highs, or is on track to do so this season. It is a stunning breakout for a 28-year-old player that has mostly been a depth player for most of his career. Especially given his path to the Penguins for this season.
They originally acquired him late in the 2019-20 season in a deadline deal that sent Dominik Kahun to the Buffalo Sabres. That offseason the Penguins traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of a package to acquire Kasperi Kapanen. After the Maple Leafs did not qualify him an offer as a restricted free agent, he hit the open market where the Penguins were able to bring him back on a one-year $700,000 contract. He followed that up with a so-so campaign that saw him produce 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 35 games. He again hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent, and the Penguins again brought him back, this time on a one-year, $1 million contract. They are being rewarded with this performance.
What stands out the most about Rodrigues’ performance this season is that there does not seem to be anything that is unsustainable about it. He is not riding the wave of an outrageously high shooting percentage. He has not really spent a lot of time playing next to Sidney Crosby or Malkin (he has barely played next to Crosby, and Malkin has not yet played this season) and has shown an ability to drive his own line.
He is averaging more than 3.38 shots on goal per game, while his possession numbers are among the best in the NHL.
Among the 525 NHL skaters that have played at least 250 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season, Rodrigues currently sits….
- Total shot attempts share: 4th (61.6 percent)
- Goals for share: 38th (64.1 percent)
- Expected goals share: 4th (63.9 percent)
- Scoring chance share: 4th (61.8 percent)
- High-danger scoring chance share: 14th (62.1 percent)
During 5-on-5 play, he has legitimately been one of the absolute best players in the NHL this season.
So what is driving this performance for Rodrigues?
The first thing has to be opportunity. Not only is he playing close to 18 minutes per game (prior to this season he never played more than 15 minutes per game, and was typically around 10-12 minutes per game) but he has also already played more than 72 minutes of power play time (nearly two-and-a-half minutes per game). Prior to this season he barely played more than one minute of power play time per game in his career. Those extra minutes add up. While Rodrigues’ individual numbers in Buffalo were never as strong as they are this season, there was definitely an argument to be made that probably deserved more ice time and a bigger role than he was getting.
On more of an eye-test level, the increased role and increased production has seemed to lead to an increased confidence level for Rodrigues. He is not afraid to challenge defenders with the puck and has played a mostly fearless game in the offensive zone. He has always had a strong shot and some talent. Maybe he just needed an opportunity.
The fact that he has strong underlying numbers go with his production, combined with a sustainable shooting percentage, would seem to suggest there is a chance he might be able to retain at least some of this production into future seasons. The timing for that could not be any better for him given that he is again scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.