When the Penguins sent Evan Rodrigues to Toronto as part of the Kasperi Kapanen trade back in August, it was purely a business decision, as the forward was set to be a restricted free agent and Pittsburgh was already strapped under the salary cap.
"We've always liked Evan as a player," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said of Rodrigues, originally acquired from Buffalo along with Conor Sheary at the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline.
"He was part of the Kapanen trade, but that was because we knew we weren't going to qualify him and get caught up in arbitration."
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan reached out to Rodrigues when the trade happened, and the two of them had a good talk. And after the Maple Leafs chose not to qualify Rodrigues, making him an unrestricted free agent, the two of them spoke again.
Rodrigues said those conversations played a factor in his decision to rejoin the Penguins on the first day of free agency on a one-year deal worth $700,000, which is a number they could fit.
"When things didn't work out in Toronto, the Penguins circled back, and I really liked my time here after the trade deadline and during the bubble experience," Rodrigues said. "So it was an opportunity for me, one where I liked the way I looked and one that I couldn't turn down."
Video: Rodrigues speaks to media after practice
Speaking of opportunity, Rodrigues is getting a big one to start this training camp.
Kapanen was originally penciled in alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, but has not yet arrived in Pittsburgh due to immigration issues. So in a twist of fate, Rodrigues has slotted into that spot for the first couple days of camp.
"The two things we like about Evan is his speed and his good offensive instincts," Sullivan said. "I think those two elements potentially give him an opportunity to be successful with those guys."
While Rodrigues is excited about the chance to play alongside Crosby and Guentzel, he said his approach is to not overthink it and just enjoy the moment.
"They're both extremely talented players," Rodrigues said. "I need to just go out and play my game and just play hockey. Hopefully we can connect and have a little bit of chemistry."
No matter where Rodrigues ultimately ends up in the lineup, one thing is for sure - he can move around as needed. The Penguins love his versatility, as it's a huge luxury for the coaching staff in these unique circumstances, and they are already relying on it.
"He's a utility guy that we can plug in up and down our lineup in all different capacities," Sullivan said. "One of the reasons that we signed Evan was that we felt he was a guy that we could move up the lineup if we needed to, by nature of injuries or whatever it may be."
Rodrigues can play both wing and center along with both special teams. He practiced on the second power-play unit during Day 1 of training camp, and averaged 1:53 shorthanded minutes in his seven regular-season games with Pittsburgh after they first acquired him.
Whatever role the Penguins need Rodrigues to fill, he's happy to do it. He's also happy to be back with the organization, even if it was a bit of a circuitous path to get here.
"I definitely feel more comfortable this time," Rodrigues said. "Going from the last season to the bubble and now here, it almost feels like a third training camp. Looking forward to playing hockey again and getting the season going."