CORAL SPRINGS — As he prepares to make his Florida Panthers debut, Evan Rodrigues finds himself in a spot he feels comfortable: On the top line.
Rodrigues spent the previous two seasons playing next to superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon and saw his numbers skyrocket.
Now, Rodrigues gets the chance to play with another one of the NHL’s best in Florida captain Sasha Barkov.
“He is elite just like those two,” Rodrigues said.
“A lot of people say he is underrated but I don’t know if he is anymore. I think everyone knows how good he is. He asserted himself, especially last year, and he is an elite first-line center that every GM wants. He is the leader of our team and does all the little things right, so he is everything you want.”
In a way, Rodrigues is everything Barkov would want in a linemate as well.
The 5-foot-11 winger plays with speed and intensity in the offensive zone while playing a responsible game in the defensive zone.
And, he can finish the chances he creates with that speed.
Rodrigues scored 19 goals with 43 points in 82 games when he first broke out alongside Crosby in Pittsburgh before scoring 16 goals with 39 points in 69 games in Colorado alongside MacKinnon.
He showed enough during training camp to earn a spot on Florida’s top power play unit as well.
“He has a little bit of everything in his game,” Barkov said. “He can play defensively, offensively, make plays, score goals, so those guys don’t grow on every tree. It’s great to have a guy like that on your line.”
Rodrigues fits the mold of some linemates who found lengthy periods of success next to Barkov.
The Panthers ran their captain on a line with Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair, who each played well off Barkov with their speed and their ability to finish plays.
While Barkov is known to be a goal-scorer as well, topping out at 39 goals in 2021-22, his real talent is distributing the puck.
Barkov has combined for 104 assists over 135 games over the past two years and he has the runway to add to those numbers during the 2023-24 season which starts Thursday.
Verhaeghe and Rodrigues will flank him to open up the season and they both possess the combination of speed and scoring ability that has worked next to him for years.
“We want Sasha to shoot the puck, too, but he is a pass-first player,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
“We need guys on the wings that will shoot the puck and that is why it’s sometimes a challenge for young players to come and play with a player like that. Because they are constantly trying to give the puck to Barkov and what he wants to do is give it back and put you in a hole to finish.
“Evan’s got some NHL experience and we think he will be a shooter there.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT MINNESOTA WILD
- When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
- Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-0
- This season: Florida @ Minnesota, Thursday; Minnesota @ Florida, Jan. 19
- All-time regular season series: Minnesota leads 18-10-2, 1 tie
- Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday at Winnipeg Jets, 4 p.m. (BSF, 790-AM)