Teddy Blueger waited his turn. After the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him in the 2012 second-round, he spent four years at Minnesota State – Mankato. Then two and a half years with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL. In every year, at every level, his numbers improved. He set career highs during his senior season, just as he already tied his career-high with 21 goals in the AHL this season.
And Blueger, 24, might be the sparkplug which turns the Penguins occasionally sputtering motor into the roaring V8 it is meant to be.
Energy is a funny thing in hockey. It’s contagious. The Penguins can be excited about one game, perhaps against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but sleep through their alarm for another, say the last place New Jersey Devils.
The very veteran Penguins too often know the pointlessness of the regular season. That knowledge allows bad habits to creep into their game and sloppy play to become a habit (so the regular season isn’t entirely pointless).
The Penguins need a zippy sparkplug who crashes the offensive zone like he’s looking for an NHL career, as Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and even Tom Kuhnhackl did in 2016. They need more players willing to use speed to pressure the puck, every shift, every night to create more turnovers. Sometimes they just need someone to create a spark.
Most importantly, the Penguins need more players who buy into their identity which is to relish puck battles, defensive responsibility and to play below the hash marks.
“When I first got to (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton), I was put in a defensive role and kind of told that defensive is my primary responsibility,” Blueger said on Wednesday morning. “But as time went on, I showed I could produce.”
As the fourth line center Wednesday against Tampa Bay, Blueger drove to the net and took out two defenders which allowed now-former Penguins winger Riley Sheahan to score a rebound goal, just three minutes into the game.
Result: The goal gave the Penguins a palpable momentum boost and turned the game for the Penguins.
Just over three minutes into the win over Ottawa on Friday, Blueger did the damage himself. This time, playing fourth line left wing, he and Matt Cullen were one step ahead of the Ottawa breakout. Together, they pinned Ottawa into the defensive zone and wouldn’t let up until Blueger snapped a wrist shot top-shelf over goalie Anders Nilsson.
Result: The Penguins which have been bedeviled by bad teams cruised against Ottawa and withstood a late rally.
Blueger did it again, Saturday night against Toronto. The Penguins fourth line swarmed the Toronto zone, created turnovers and chaos until Blueger finished the play with a pinpoint slapshot.
“I took the shot and was fortunate both of those went in,” Blueger said Saturday night.
The Penguins controlled territory in the first and third periods, even if the advanced stats tilted against them.
Nah. Blueger wasn’t fortunate. He earned them. The Penguins could sorely use a few more goals of the “earned’ variety. The Penguins can score the pretty goals, power play goals, and snipe markers with the best in the NHL. What the Penguins are trying to force themselves to do is enjoy scoring the simple goals.
Blueger is a player who can enjoy those constant puck battles and turn them into offense.
Blueger’s position hasn’t mattered. The opportunity has. He has been anxiously awaiting this call-up, which he wasn’t happy to need. Blueger badly wanted to make the team out of training camp but he used the situation as motivation to sharpen his game further.
The thought was Blueger could be a good defensive center in the NHL, but not contribute much offense. Blueger made a point to break that label, too.
“For me, it was believing in myself. Realizing I had more to give,” he said. “This year, with the staff and everyone being behind me and allowing me more freedom, that’s helped.”
Blueger won’t score a goal in every game but he will bring a Red Bull worth of energy and tenacity.
Wednesday night, head coach Mike Sullivan also promised to include Blueger on the penalty kill, too.
“He’s a really conscientious player. The more comfortable he gets here, his game will only grow,” said Sullivan. “I know Teddy is a good penalty killer and my intention is to get him involved with the penalty kill moving forward.”
Blueger had the second most PK time among the Penguins forwards (1:22) behind only Bryan Rust (2:00).
“It’s an element of my game that I’ve been able to work on a lot in Wilkes-Barre,” said Blueger. “It’s good to be able to get some time here and be out there in big situations in the second (period).”
The Penguins have fought inconsistency all season. Three steps forward, three steps back. Too often, they have lacked spirit during those backward steps. More energy, youth, and some good old fashioned desire can’t hurt.
That combination may jump-start the Penguins on some bad nights and Teddy Blueger may help the Penguins far more than just a fourth line winger.