When the Chicago Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in six seasons, they deployed a different second-line center each time. Sharp was in his prime in 2010 and far and away the best of the three (both Handzus and Richards were on the tail end of their respective careers).
But after a salary cap crunch led to numerous forward departures, Sharp was moved to the wing and Chicago was no longer offered the luxury of having a strong second-line center.
Instead, an elite core on the wing, consisting of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad and Sharp, made that position more interchangeable.
The Avalanche’s addition of Evan Rodrigues, who signed a one-year deal worth $2 million last Monday, is the perfect replacement for the luxury that was Nazem Kadri. The type of luxury a flat salary cap has taken away from the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Rodrigues — if chosen to take on that role — would get to play alongside two of an elite winger core consisting of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Artturi Lehkonen and Valeri Nichushkin. He would be the sixth-best forward in the Avs’ top-six but could end up being just what the doctor ordered.
Rodrigues, 29, had his best season yet in 2021-22, scoring 19 goals and recording 43 points in 82 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins. When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured in the early going, Rodrigues was relied on as the top center and held the fort down.
Avs coach Jared Bednar will also have other options to replace Kadri. And it’ll likely lead to friendly competition in training camp. The most ideal scenario is young center Alex Newhook developing into that role. The 21-year-old had 33 points in 71 games last season, adding four assists in 12 postseason appearances. If he settles into that position, Rodrigues would instead provide much-needed third-line depth potentially alongside center J.T. Compher and winger Ben Meyers.
Compher was flanked by Andre Burakovsky, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Newhook for a majority of the playoffs. Both Burakovsky and Aube-Kubel departed on the first day of free agency.
Rodrigues is the type of veteran presence that could ease a lot of the pressure Newhook would otherwise face. If Colorado chooses to let Newhook start the year on the second line, it’ll give Rodrigues an opportunity to settle into Bednar’s system. And if Newhook ends up needing more time to develop, then he can flip spots with Rodrigues.
Simply put, general manager Chris MacFarland went out and signed Newhook insurance in the form of a two-way forward that can play up and down the lineup.
Similar to his opportunity atop the Penguins lineup last year, Rodrigues is also the perfect forward to utilize on the wing or at center if injuries arise. And given the fact that the Avs top-5 forwards each played between 51 to 75 games last year, it’s likely Rodrigues will have ample opportunity to play among the top six on numerous occasions.