In a strange twist, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Buffalo Sabres and RFA forward Evan Rodrigues have exchanged arbitration figures ahead of their scheduled Tuesday hearing. The timeline is actually appropriate for both sides, but oddly the information comes out while the three cases scheduled for Monday – Florida’s MacKenzie Weegar, Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese, and Washington’s Christian Djoos – have yet to have their filing numbers leaked. Regardless, the numbers are in for Buffalo and Rodrigues. The player side has filed at $2.65MM and the team side has filed at $1.5MM. The resulting midpoint for the case is $2.075MM. It is important to remember that not only can the two sides still negotiate a different deal in the time remaining (and even for a short period after the hearing), the arbitration decision also does not need to be one figure or the other. The award can (and usually does) fall somewhere in the middle of the submitted salaries.
Rodrigues, who turns 26 next week, has been a project player for the Sabres that has panned out over the past two seasons. A highly productive college player at Boston University, who put up a whopping 61 points in 41 games skating alongside Jack Eichel in his senior year, Rodrigues was a no-brainer as an undrafted free agent signing for Buffalo in 2015. However, he played in only two NHL games as a first-year pro and was very quiet through 30 NHL games in year two. In total, he notched only eight points in his first 32 NHL games. That all changed in 2017-18, when Rodrigues took advantage of a mid-season call-up to record 25 points in 48 games to finish among the Sabres’ top six forwards in per game production. Handed a regular role this season, Rodrigues continued to impress with a career-high nine goals and 29 points in 74 games.
The debate moving forward – which is difficult in arbitration, where projections are not allowed – is what Rodrigues’ ceiling will be. Although his total points increased in 2018-19, it was a modest gain considering he played in 26 more games. However, Rodrigues’ side can point to an unusually low 5.4% shooting percentage, though the argument may not carry much weight. Instead, the real benefit to the player side is that Rodrigues proved he can be a regular contributor. The slick center skated in almost 16 minutes per night, fourth-most among Buffalo forwards, was third in face-offs taken (although he was not very successful), and again finished among the top six scoring forwards.
It’s hard to argue that Rodrigues is not a useful forward, but the Sabres can make a strong argument that his usage was a function of a thin roster up front and his production given his minutes and role are not exactly stunning. He failed to show that his 2017-18 breakout was a level of output that he was capable of continuing. Instead, Rodrigues is likely a bottom-six forward for most NHL teams rather than the top-six forward he has been for Buffalo over the past season and a half. The team will try to make the case that he should be paid as such. Given their additions of Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey this summer, the Sabres may very well have plans to move Rodrigues further down in the lineup, but again that is not an argument they can make at hearing. It’s a curious case that could make for a fascinating back-and-forth in front of the arbitrator.