Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice, two months into the season, is still trying to figure out exactly what he has in top-line forward Evan Rodrigues.
And, in a sense, that’s exactly the way Maurice wants it.
“It’s too early,” Maurice said. “I don’t want to know too much about the new guys. You don’t want to make a decision on the player right now. We’ve got all of these new guys. We think we got a pretty good idea of what they are right now, but the whole thing is we got to get them to another level, right? Improve their game to another level.”
Rodrigues has taken his game to another level this season, his first with the Panthers after signing a four-year, $12 million deal in the offseason, but it’s easy at times for Rodrigues’ performance to get overshadowed by his teammates. He’s playing on the Panthers’ top line with two of the team’s top producers in center Aleksander Barkov (an annual contender for the Selke Award given to the NHL’s best two-way forward) and Sam Reinhart (second in the NHL with 17 goals).
But Rodrigues reminded everyone on Wednesday just what he’s capable of doing on any given night.
The 30-year-old forward put up his second four-point night of the season, scoring two goals and dishing out two more assists, in the Panthers’ 5-4 win over the Dallas Stars at Amerant Bank Arena.
Rodrigues is one of nine players with multiple four-point games this season and is just the second player in Panthers history to record two four-point outings in his first 25 games with the club — Kris Versteeg in the 2011-12 season is the other.
“It’s a blast. I mean, the points are nice, but the wins are even better,” Rodrigues said. “From the day I got here, every guy in this room welcomed me. It’s a great group, a team in every sense of the word and I’m having a lot of fun, probably the most fun of my career.”
Maurice added postgame Wednesday: “I thought tonight was a different kind of four-point night than his first and then different than his other games because he took a couple of heavy hits and then he threw a couple of heavy hits. I’m not trying to turn this guy into a killer — he’s not physically built to do that — but everybody can play intensely right and I thought that he was very intense.”
Both of Rodrigues’ goals Wednesday came at key moments.
After Dallas peppered Florida with the first six shots on goal of the game, Rodrigues looked off Barkov on an odd-man rush and fired a snap shot from the right circle that beat Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger to give Florida an early 1-0 lead.
Rodrigues then scored the eventual game-winning goal with 12 minutes left in regulation with a wrist shot from the slot in the final seconds of a Panthers power play.
“He’s all-around a really good player,” Barkov said. “He can do everything on the ice.”
On the season, Rodrigues has 20 points on six goals and 14 assists. It’s the most points he has had in his nine-year career through the first 25 games of a season.
But both Rodrigues and the Panthers as a whole are looking beyond just his point production. All season, even during stretches when pucks weren’t going in the net, Rodrigues has found solace in his defensive game. He’s done the gritty work in puck battles to set Reinhart and Barkov up in the best position possible offensively.
And the chemistry among the three has been paramount for the Panthers.
When the Rodrigues-Barkov-Reinhart line is on the ice at full strength, the Panthers are outscoring opponents 19-3 with a 120-80 edge in shots on goal and 115-76 advantage in scoring chances.
Rodrigues called playing with Barkov and Reinhart “a treat.”
“For myself, it’s just focusing on doing the little things,” Rodrigues said. “Being fast, getting in on the forecheck, just competing hard and letting my skill kind of take care of itself. When I get the pucks, they’re usually always open. They find a way to just ... I look up and they seem to be on an island. Get it to them and then obviously they do their thing.”