Forwards Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad will likely be linked for as long as they are with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They came over from Florida in the same Feb. 1 trade. They sat near each other in the locker room. They even had somewhat interchangeable roles – third-line center or top-six winger.
Heading into an offseason that could be tumultuous after a first-round playoff sweep and flop against the New York Islanders, McCann and Bjugstad might escape some of the scrutiny from management that could be sniffing out complacency. They are probably too new and too enthusiastic.
But it’s unknown what offers the Penguins will receive or mull. Will the two relative newcomers survive what could be drastic changes in personnel?
Or, conversely, could they move into core-player status? Possibly.
It would seem McCann has the greater chance of that between the two. He is younger, turning 23 next month, and seems to have boundless energy and potential. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has made it known McCann was a player the team tracked and wanted for some time.
McCann, who had 11 goals, 17 points in 32 games with the Penguins, at times played on the top line with two of the untouchable core players, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. He believes he can find a more stable home there.
“In talking with the coach, I feel like I can be that guy who steps in there and makes a difference,” McCann said of a top-line role. “Obviously, I have some things to work on this summer to be able to do that. Strength with the puck, being able to hold on to the puck and make plays, and not being so antsy with it, being more calm.”
Bjugstad, meanwhile, turns 27 over the summer. He had nine goals, 14 points in the 32 games after the trade.
Perhaps he could slot in as a regular third-line center, a spot the Penguins have been trying to solidify for a couple seasons. Or maybe he will become trade fodder.
“That’s not up to me, not in my hands or in any of the players’ hands. Whatever happens, happens. We’ll see,” said Bjugstad, whose preference is clear.
“Obviously, I’m the new guy here. I have been the last few months. Me and Jared and a few other guys. We’d like to be here. It’s a great organization and great team. You wait and see what happens.”
McCann had one assist, the only point between the two in the Islanders series, and McCann missed a game and played with some limitations because of a separated shoulder.
But if the Penguins were going to jettison players based on a lack of production or boneheaded plays in that series, they would be doing a pretty hear house-cleaning.
“You’ve got to move on from it, but that will be sitting in the back of my head all summer,” Bjugstad said. “We didn’t have our best. Individually, myself, I could have been better. A lot of us could have been better, and we know that.
“I don’t think it’s personnel. (The Islanders are) a good team. They were playing really well, and we didn’t play very well at all. We’re all bummed just as much as the fans. We’ll have a better season next year.”
But what will the Penguins’ roster look like by then?
McCann is in favor of keeping a lot of the same faces and giving it another go.
“It’s going to sting for a while,” he said. “We had such a great group here.
“It was a learning experience for sure. I feel like the game’s just that much faster at that level. I’m hungry for it again next year.”