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UFA Preview: Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues

The penultimate article of our free agency series sees us look at a pair of unrestricted free agents from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Could either be a fit for the New Jersey Devils for what they provide?

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As we draw to the end of the month of June, we arrive at the threshold of July, where the NHL Draft and the frenzy of free agency await us. Jared and I have spent he past few weeks looking at free agents both from the New Jersey Devils and around the NHL, with today’s piece being our last focusing on skaters and second to last (big goalie post coming on Monday) overall. Today we look within the division to the Pittsburgh Penguins and two of their forwards in Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues.

Who is Rickard Rakell and What Would He Bring to the Table?

Rakell was originally a member of the Anaheim Ducks organization, selected at the end of the first round (30th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft. He would remain with his junior club for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, but joined the Ducks for four games at the end of 2012-13 where he did not record any points. His entry level deal would slide (meaning it would run from 2013-14 through 2015-16 even though it was signed in the summer of 2012) and Rakell would join Anaheim’s AHL affiliate the Norfolk Admirals for most of 2013-14. He would see 18 NHL games and contribute four assists.

2014-15 would see him become a full time NHLer with 71 appearances and a respectable 31 points. 2015-16 would be the season where Rakell would start to be seen as a major asset for Aanheim; while his assist total stayed fairly close (23 to the 22 in the season prior) his goal total would jump from just nine in 2014-15 up to 20 in 2015-16. Doing so in a contract year worked out well for Rakell, as he would ink a six year, $22.8 million deal in the summer of 2016. How would he respond to this new deal? Would his totals decline?

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As his stats above show, while his assists took a small dip in 2016-17, his scored 33 goals, and then added 13 points in 15 playoff contests. 2017-18 would be Rakell’s best statistical season to date in terms of goals (34), assists (35) and overall points (69) all in 77 games. He struggled for the next couple of seasons, but had a good start to his 2021-22 season with 28 points in 51 contests.

As he neared the end of this current deal, the now rebuilding Anaheim Ducks moved him as a rental to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a strange hodgepodge. The Ducks would obtain forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon, a 2022 second round pick and unsigned goalie Calle Clang. Rakell would post 13 points in 19 regular season games with the Penguins, but only appeared in two playoff contests where he was a non-factor.

In terms of what Rakell could bring to the table, JFreshHockey gives us a bit of summary and insight into the type of player Rakell is. He doesn’t really create for himself or for others, he struggles with defending and additionally doesn’t seem to be much of as power play producer either, as additional stats work by JFresh (look at the cycling %s) shows. If the Devils were to take a look at Rakell, they would most certainly have playmaking centers that they could pair him with; the question here would be whether or not he merited playing alongside either Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes.

What Type of Contract Will Rakell Get and What Should the Devils Do?

While his overall numbers fell a bit from that season, outside of the 2021 shortened season, Rakell has still been good for 40 points per season. He also re-established himself as a 20 goal scorer this past season, something he had not done the three prior. Contract projections, however, are moving in the opposite direction. While Rakell’s goals went up, Alexander MacLean over at Dobber Hockey sees Rickard’s cap hit going down. His expiring deal has a cap hit of $3,789,444 while MacLean sees his new deal coming in at a cap charge around $3 million.

Based on the way his play has trended, as well as the analysis of his game from JFresh, I think Rakell will sign for less than he did on his previous deal. There could be a team that pays more than the projection, or even more than his previous deal. I don’t think the Devils should be the team to offer him this or any deal. Rakell is a player who I feel like could bank in on his reputation as a former 30 goal scorer, as well as the fact that he rebounded upon joining a new team. As we all know, free agency is “silly season” and there’s more than likely a GM out there who would buy that narrative.

In reality, Rakell found himself in a situation where had two strong centers. and he only recorded four goals in 19 games. Across a full season, that’s not even a 20 goal pace. The Devils could certainly do worse than spending $3-3.5 million on a 40 point player (they already did last season with $4.5 million for 30 points in Tomas Tatar), but Rakell isn’t bringing anything new skillset wise to the team, and 40 points (if he manages that) isn’t going to move the needle for the team to succeed.

If Rakell wants to sign for less than $3 million with the Devils, and they strike out on all other options that could be stronger contributors, then I say sure. That scenario is pretty unlikely though; I think Rakell signs for around $3.5 per season and hopefully it isn’t in New Jersey.

Who is Evan Rodrigues and What Would He Bring to the Table?

Like his teammate Rakell, Evan Rodrigues began his NHL career elsewhere; going undrafted, Rodrigues would play four years of college hockey at Boston University before signing an entry level deal with the Buffalo Sabres. His two year entry level deal carried a mere $842,500 cap hit per seasons; unfortunately for Rodrigues, he didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself on that initial deal, as he only appeared in 32 NHL contests, chipping in eight points across them. As a restricted free agent, he would sign another two year deal, this time at a cap hit of only $650,000 per season, however he would begin to prove himself on this deal.

The 2017-18 would see Evan score 25 points in 48 games, while he would reach a new career high of 29 in 2018-19, although it took him 74 games to post that total. This contract would again take Rodrigues to restricted free agency, but this time he and the Sabres could not come to an agreement. He and the team would go to arbitration where he was awarded a one year deal at $2 million. With a disappointing nine points in 38 games in 2019-20, Rodrigues was packaged with Conor Sheary at the 2020 trade deadline in exchange for Dominik Kahun. Rodrigues would appear in seven games with the Penguins that season, posting just one goal.

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Now for the interesting twist in this tale; Rodrigues was actually traded by the Pens to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the deal that brought Kasperi Kapanen back to Pittsburgh When he was unable to come to terms on a contract with the Leafs, he became an unrestricted free agent and returned to the Penguins. He recorded 14 points in 35 games in 2021 on a one year, $700K deal. 2021-22 would see him again sign a one year deal, this time for $1 million and...well you tell me what happened.

Known more for his peskiness and his physicality, Rodrigues became a strong points contributor for the Pens with 43 in 82 contests. That’s a third of his career points in just this past season! Additionally, a lot of his metrics increased this season while his shooting percentage actually decreased from last season, but stayed close to his career average. Rodrigues didn’t just have a ton of luck and all the right people around him, he legitimately had a strong season. If he manages to continue putting up points at this pace, while bringing his usual effort to games, he could be a steal of a signing this offseason.

What Type of Contract Will Rodrigues Get and What Should the Devils Do?

Again, I’m not sure I agree 100% with the Dobber projections (only because GMs tend to hand out money like it’s candy in UFA) but Rodrigues is projected to have a cap hit of roughly $2.3 million. Even if he regresses to a 30 point pace across a full season, I see this as a good deal. Based off of his last few years, Rodrigues doesn’t seem to be the type of player that is going to try to push for a ludicrously long deal, He seems to know that he’s a role player, and each offseason he tries to maximize his value.

If the Devils can/want to move on from some of their underperforming Bottom-6 forwards (such as Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian and Jimmy Vesey who I believe they already have moved on from) a guy like Rodrigues could be a good fit. While he’s not exactly a guy you want in your Top-6, he could fill in on the third line in a pinch, and a physical guy who isn’t afraid to go to the corners or in front of the net is always invaluable.

I understand any hesitation or concern some might have at wanting to offer Rodrigues a deal due to his numbers (both underlying and point totals) prior to this season. However again, Rodrigues hasn’t exactly been the king of long-term deals. Even if you offer him three years at $2.5 million, not only is it a very small percentage of the cap, but that type of contract can always be buried in the minors for some relief or moved if need be.

The only other possible impediment here is that Rodrigues is allegedly close to Sidney Crosby and if that’s truly the case, I could easily see the Pens tossing Evan a new contract. I say that either way the Devils should try two offer two years at a cap hit of $2.5 million per season. A little more toughness from a player who has shown a greater scoring touch than any of our current fourth liners ever have couldn’t hurt, especially at the anticipated price point.

Final Thoughts

The Devils will be finalizing their game plan for free agency as we approach July 13. While I may be putting the “buyer beware” tag on Rickard Rakell, I think a player like Evan Rodrigues (provided he is not played above his role) could be a good addition for the Devils. This could strengthen the team and allow the Devils to jettison some more underperformers as they attempt to make 2022-23 a competitive season.

What are your thoughts on today’s pair of forwards? /Would you want to see the Devils bring Rodrigues in if the price is right? Are you more interested in Rakell and the possibility of him being a 20-30 goal scorer again if paired with one of the Devils young centers? Do you you believe the team should strongly avoid either or both players? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!