The Pittsburgh Penguins have a mix of younger and veteran players, big personalities and quieter sorts. It seems as if it’s been a while, though, since they have had quite the youthful exuberance of forward Jared McCann.
McCann, 22, came bouncing into the locker room along with Nick Bjugstad after a trade with Florida two weeks ago, gushing about joining the Penguins, wide-eyed about being a teammate of star center Sidney Crosby, and laughing as he lamented packing shorts instead of pants in his rush to get to Pittsburgh.
McCann also insisted he was up for whatever role the Penguins wanted, and he’s been used in a couple, including third-line center and penalty-killer.
Get this: Although the Penguins mentioned him as someone they hoped could kill penalties, and McCann was willing, he had to tackle a large learning curve playing in shorthanded situations.
“To be honest with you, I’ve never been a (regular) penalty-killer my whole life,” McCann said Wednesday after he participated in an optional practice. “I feel comfortable doing it now. I don’t know what it is. I did it a little bit in Florida, but coming here I feel comfortable. They let you play to your strengths. I feel like we can be a dangerous team defensively and offensively.”
Did his enthusiasm come through in his words? It sure came through in his face and body language.
McCann, a first-round pick by Vancouver in 2014, has three goals in seven games and has shown a versatility such that coach Mike Sullivan was inspired to do some gushing of his own after McCann sealed Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Edmonton with an empty-net goal.
Sullivan didn’t wait for any follow-up questions – geez, he barely stopped to take a breath – in response to a question about McCann. Here is his full answer:
“We really like him. He’s a great kid, first and foremost. He’s so enthusiastic. He’s so excited to be a Penguin. And he’s a good player. He can really skate. He’s got an edge to his game. He’s good on the faceoffs. He’s a pretty good penalty-killer. He’s got a 200-foot game. We think there’s more to his offensive side that we’ll continue to work with him (on). We’re trying to work with him with some of the subtleties in the defensive zone. (Assistant Mark Recchi) is spending a lot of one-on-one time with him just to try to help him to better understand how we play here in Pittsburgh. But he’s getting better and better, I think, with every game that he’s played. We’re really excited to have him.”
McCann heard about those comments.
“It’s nice. It’s definitely a confidence-booster,” he said.
While Bjugstad has more experience and more offensive upside, Florida general manager Dale Tallon told reporters the Penguins were high on McCann, and it’s believed the Penguins have been interested in acquiring him for some time.
Over his two weeks with his new club since the Feb. 1 deal, McCann’s initial feelings about joining the Penguins have been reinforced. He has made strides in fitting in.
“A lot more confidence, I can tell you that,” he said. “Sully’s been putting me in positions to just learn and get better. Obviously, I’ve made mistakes, but he keeps throwing me out there, and I feel like that’s how I’m going to become a better hockey player and the player they want me to be.
“I’ve made mistakes in the game, but they’re not going to dwell on it, I’m not going to dwell on it. They understand I’m still learning and all that.”
McCann is one of the latest in a long line of players in recent years – particularly the Crosby era – who have joined the Penguins in-season and relate a similar story of being welcomed and given a real shot at contributing.
“Coming from Florida, I had a lot of support and stuff there, too, which was nice, but coming here it’s a different type of atmosphere, different type of game we play,” McCann said. “I’m just going to try to take it and run with it.”
That atmosphere is at least partly rooted in being in a locker room and on a bench with players who have won the Stanley Cup together.
“There’s just a certain level of confidence when you walk into the rink. A certain level of confidence and expectations that come along with being in Pittsburgh,” McCann said. “I like that. I like having that expectation. I like expecting a lot of myself every night. To have that as a team, it definitely feels good.”
McCann is living in the northern suburbs, closer to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex where the Penguins practice than to town where PPG Paints Arena, and he admits he hasn’t had enough of a chance to explore to have more than a couple initial impressions of the area.
“A lot of winding roads,” he said of the northern suburbs. “A lot of bridges,” he said of town and the area in general.
There is one other area where things are more comfortable. He has upgraded his Pittsburgh wardrobe with some long pants.