|(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)
It's been quite a year for Evan Rodrigues since he came to town for his first NHL training camp last September. He's played his first professional season, gradually improving as the year progressed in Rochester, and scored his first NHL points with a goal and an assist in a two-game stint with Buffalo at the end of the season.
But for all that's happened, Rodrigues begins this season with the exact same mindset that he had as a first-year pro one year ago. He's still out to prove that he can play in the NHL, and he's again made it his sole mission to make the Buffalo roster.
Those are high hopes for any player who hitched on as an undrafted free agent out of college. But Rodrigues has never taken no for an answer, especially not on the ice – even when he was told me might never skate again.
At age 10, Rodrigues developed a knee infection that only worsened as time passed. He was hospitalized for four weeks. He and his mom began to ask their doctor when he would be able to walk again and, more importantly, skate.
"They told me, 'Oh, we have to worry about walking first before you can start skating,'" Rodrigues said.
"I'm pretty sure there were a few tears, but it's almost like you're so young that you don’t really understand it yet … That was definitely a scary time in my life."
Luckily, it turned out there had been a mishap in Rodrigues' medication that prevented the infection from healing. His long stay at the hospital was followed by three or four more weeks hooked up to an IV at home. When he finally did get back on the ice, doctors told him to take it slow. Start with 10 minutes, maybe 20. But he was pain free, and, as he puts it, it was "only an infection."
"I skated the full hour and a half practice," Rodrigues said. "I just went for it."
Perhaps there's a correlation between the 10-year-old that refused to listen to his doctor and the 23-year-old that refuses to listen to conventional wisdom?
"Yeah, I think so," Rodrigues said. "Even growing up, my whole life, I was always the smaller guy. I had my growth spurt a little later and developed a little later so you know, I'm always out there to try and prove myself and continue to let people know that I can play.
"Every time you step on the ice you have to enjoy what you're doing. I think I play with a little chip. I love what I'm doing. I think coming back to camp, it's nice to be back and nice to be playing hockey again."
Last year, Rodrigues had to work to escape the shadow of his college teammate, Jack Eichel. While both were entering their first pro season out of Boston University, Eichel came as the No. 2 overall pick in the draft while Rodrigues signed as an undrafted free agent. It was easy to dismiss Rodrigues as "the other BU guy." Until it wasn't.
Rodrigues stood out from the beginning, first with three points (2+1) at the Prospects Challenge and then with two goals in three preseason games for the Sabres. He improved throughout his rookie season in Rochester, scoring 30 points (9+21) in 72 games, and then capped his season with an impressive two-game stint in Buffalo in which he scored two points (1+1) and posted a video-game like 73.3 Corsi-for percentage.
In a way, those games cemented what he already believed.
"I think down deep I always believed it, but having that experience and knowing that I held my own and that I played very well was something that gave me that extra confidence. Now, I truly believe I can play for Buffalo," he said.
Those games also affirmed the belief of Sabres general manager Tim Murray, who said after the season Rodrigues was well ahead of where he expected him to be in terms of his development.
As nice as that was to hear, Rodrigues says, that was also in April. This is now. His taste of the NHL only made him train harder this summer, working with skating and shooting coaches. So far, he said, he's seen the results, and he can't wait to show them off.
"I think that helped me immensely," he said. "I've put a lot of work in this summer, especially my skating, my shooting, those were two big areas that I was relentless with all summer.
"I'm going to prove myself again and show what I have."