It happens all the time in sports. It happens all the time in life.
An incumbent is displaced, providing an opportunity for a newcomer to make an impression.
Not to get too carried away about a fourth-line center, but we could be looking at just such a situation with the Penguins’ promotion of Teddy Blueger from the American Hockey League for Friday night’s game against the Stars in Dallas. Carter Rowney didn’t practice Thursday in Cranberry Township after suffering a lower-body injury Tuesday against Vegas, so there’s a decent chance he sits in favor of the 23-year-old Blueger.
Blueger’s offensive numbers as a pro don’t raise eyebrows, although a 57-point output (19 goals) in 99 games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins isn’t a debit to his résumé, either. His on-ice smarts have always gotten rave reviews from coaches, with playmaking also near the top of his list of attractive attributes.
In talking to AHL Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli during the Buffalo rookie tournament last September, I learned the organization felt Blueger could stand to amp up his skating after breaking into the pros full-time in 2016-17. (The 2012 second-round pick played four seasons with Minnesota State-Mankato of the NCAA Division I ranks.)
Blueger impressed in that three-game rookie showcase, then went on to post two assists in four NHL preseason games last fall before getting assigned to the AHL for more seasoning. I didn’t feel his skating was a detriment during camp and exhibition play, which is good considering his average size at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds.
At 28, Rowney is five years Blueger’s senior, plus about 15 pounds heavier. Situated at right wing during last year’s Stanley Cup run, Rowney wasn’t a liability, although his effectiveness appeared limited against faster teams like the Blue Jackets and Predators.
However, Rowney has been overmatched at center in this, his first full NHL season. Among players who have appeared in 30 or more games for the Penguins, Rowney has the second-worst even-strength Corsi For, at 48.1 percent. Only Tom Kühnhackl (44.0 CF%) has been worse at helping the Penguins generate shot attempts and keep the puck away from their net.
At some level, it’s unfair to grade Rowney while working with Kühnhackl and Ryan Reaves as his usual wingers. That’s a heavy line that isn’t suited for the fast game more NHL teams are espousing nowadays. Also, Rowney is valuable for his penalty-killing prowess, notably in the faceoff circle, where he’s won 51 percent of his draws. At 2:32 of short-handed ice time per game, Rowney has been used more on the PK than any other Penguins forward this side of Carl Hagelin (2:43).
Blueger has been deployed in various special teams situations down in the AHL, but taking Rowney out of the lineup would require a leap of faith from Mike Sullivan when it comes to the penalty kill. For what it’s worth, Rowney skated Friday morning in Dallas alongside Blueger and several other Penguins who participated in an optional game-day workout.
Addressing the unknown
Even if Rowney is good to go for this two-game weekend trip, putting Blueger at center and shifting Rowney to wing could work, as well. That position worked well for Carter last year when Matt Cullen anchored the fourth unit. That way, Rowney would replace Reaves and still be able to help a PK unit that’s been quite good since Thanksgiving.
You never know what you have until you give a player a chance. Blueger is still young, but he’s been playing in North America since 2009-10, when he left his native Latvia to enroll at the Shattuck St. Mary’s prep school/hockey factory in Minnesota.
Rowney is what he is at this point, and what he’s given the Penguins hasn’t been irreplaceable. His value on the PK duly noted, the fourth line has been a possession suck all season, to the point that Sullivan has given that trio just a handful of even-strength minutes on most nights. (Riley Sheahan‘s short stint at 4C notwithstanding.)
It’s possible Blueger goes the route of Jean-Sébastien Dea, who despite scoring a goal, didn’t have much of an impact in his first five NHL games. Or, Blueger might live up to his draft billing and fit capably as a productive bottom-six play-driver.
There’s only one way to find out. Considering what the Penguins have gotten from their fourth line at five-on-five this season, there’s not much to lose.