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Kingerski: The Penguins Finally Found a Third Line Center for Kessel

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It was a just a couple of games under adverse conditions. Only 120 minutes of hockey. And yet what occurred over the weekend may have erased 18 months of searching for the right answer. With Nick Bjugstad at center, the Pittsburgh Penguins may have finally found their third line.

No, really. For real this time.

The success of the Bryan Rust-Nick Bjugstad-Phil Kessel line Friday night wasn’t confined to the two goals by Rust. The success should be determined by the amount of time the line spent in the offensive zone and most importantly by the number of times Bjugstad put a pass on Kessel’s tape.

The trio had more chances Saturday against Toronto, though head coach Mike Sullivan was a little more reserved in his praise Saturday night.

“I thought they had a real strong game (Friday night). I don’t think they were quite as dominant tonight,” Sullivan said after the Penguins 3-2 loss in Toronto. “They had their moments but I thought they had a real strong game (Friday night).”

A center doesn’t need to be great to play with Kessel. A center needs to feed Kessel. And that center needs to earn Kessel’s trust. Bjugstad ziplined a few passes to Kessel Friday night and the big 6-foot-6 centerman also went to the net. Kessel turned those passes into Grade A chances for Rust.

Friday night, the line created about 10 scoring chances at 5v5 play. Bjugstad and Kessel had Corsi ratings of 55 and 58 percent.

On Saturday night, Bjugstad and Kessel had a nearly even split of scoring chances, despite the overall analytics which tilted towards Toronto. Bjugstad was on the ice for 11 scoring chances-for (12 against), and Kessel was on the ice for nine chances-for (12 against).

Saturday it was a role reversal. Kessel fed Bjugstad. Those “moments” Sullivan referenced were three nifty opportunities in which Kessel set up Bjugstad in the slot. If the pair continue the prime setups, the goals will come.

With respect to Derick Brassard, the Penguins former third line center, how did any of the above happen?

In his first two games as a Penguins centerman, Bjugstad’s no-frills game included plenty of puck possession which moved in the right direction. He showed surprising skill navigating through the neutral zone with and without the puck. And he pushed the puck forward–he kept it simple and kept it from Ottawa.

“(Bjugstad) skates well, he’s got a long wingspan, he protects pucks and he’s hard to get the puck (from),” Sullivan said. And Bjugstad’s skill set would seem to fit naturally with the evolving Penguins identity which Sullivan acknowledged, “We’re a team that likes to hang onto pucks, force teams to have to defend us. He can play that type of a game.”

The search for the third line began in July 2017 when Nick Bonino bolted via free agency to the recent Stanley Cup runner up Nashville Predators. Nashville ponied up a four-year, $16.4 million contract for the third line center who weeks earlier helped beat Nashville for the Stanley Cup and also played with a broken leg in Game 2 of the series. Despite the success of the H-B-K line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, Bonino was a goner.

The $4.1 million average annual cap hit was too rich for the Penguins. And the search for a new third line center began. The Penguins did not sign a free agent center worthy of the role. They were unable or passed on Brian Boyle who signed with New Jersey. The Penguins course of action became patience until the Detroit Red Wings settled a contract with restricted free agent Andreas Anathasiou, which made Riley Sheahan expendable.

Eight games into last season, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford swung the deal for Sheahan. It never quite worked. Sheahan was defensively responsible but he was non-existent on the offensive side of the red line. In January, the Penguins even tried Jake Guentzel as the third center, which was a bigger flop than the average Melissa McCarthy movie.

So, the Penguins were forced to go shopping for Brassard.

Sullivan wants the Penguins to have four balanced lines. That philosophy includes Kessel and Evgeni Malkin on separate lines. Until Friday, it’s been a long time since Kessel showed chemistry with a Penguins center not named Malkin or Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins go-for-broke moment of 2018 did not work. Brassard and Kessel never worked and Brassard’s struggles in the Penguins pecking order has been well established. Bjugstad has the versatility to play center or right wing and the Penguins have thus far been non-committal about Bjugstad’s long term position. They should commit to Bjugstad at center.

Based on the first couple of games, the search for a third line center finally appears to be over. Greg McKegg, Riley Sheahan, Jake Guentzel and Derick Brassard have not been able to play as well with Kessel as Bjugstad did in the first couple of games. There was chemistry.

Bjugstad looks like the third line center the Penguins wanted and the one they need. The team has other issues to solve and players to slot. Even when Malkin returns from his upper body injury, the Penguins should let it ride.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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