Sidney Crosby is out Tuesday night against the New York Rangers, which not only adds another name to the long list of significant Pittsburgh Penguins injuries this season, it will thrust Jared McCann into a role as a primary center. McCann was a fourth-line center for the Florida Panthers before the Penguins acquired him and Nick Bjugstad last February, and McCann eventually found traction as a speedy winger.
But now the Penguins need McCann to not only be a center again, but they also need him to produce offense.
It’s not a new role this season for McCann, who also played a pivotal role, every pun intended, when Evgeni Malkin missed four weeks with a lower body injury. McCann centered a makeshift line with Dominik Kahun and Brandon Tanev, and other players who were not the Penguins premium scorers.
Now, McCann will helm the top-line with Jake Guentzel and Alex Galchenyuk. The line will need to produce offense.
“He’s a good 200-foot player. (He has) a really good shot and is a really smart player,” Guentzel said of McCann. “He plays fast and he gets on the forecheck, so he’s a guy I like playing with.”
McCann has 10 points in 15 games this season, with an even five goals and five assist distribution. He lit up the scoreboard last Thursday against the New York Islanders as he and Bryan Rust side saddled Malkin to lead the Penguins three-goal comeback victory.
In his brief Pittsburgh Penguins tenure, McCann has shared a line with Guentzel, albeit as fellow wings beside Sidney Crosby. The usually subdued-for-the-media Guentzel offered some insight into the previous times and didn’t discount that it could help them move forward without Crosby. for a game, or possibly longer.
“I think so, I got to see what kind of player he is and what his tendencies are,” Guentzel said. “I had a lot of fun playing with him and I can’t wait to go.”
McCann wasn’t exactly upset to play with Guentzel, either. While McCann’s game as a center evolves from a buttoned-up conservative approach to a more aggressive straight forward game, he’ll play with Guentzel whose superpower is reading centers and being in the right place at the right time.
“They have a lot of skill,” McCann said of his new linemates Guentzel and Galchenyuk. “I think I’m going to have to keep playing my same game. I’m not going to change anything, we’ll create opportunities for ourselves and we will play well defensively.”
“I think that’s something we’ve gotten away from the last few games and I know I can be better and I know we can do it.”
McCann had an offensive explosion last season after he arrived from Florida. He set career highs in goals with 11 in just 32 games with the Penguins. Previously, he did not score more than eight goals in any season. Overall, McCann netted 19 goals last season.
“I played center for so long that (the adjustment) will not be a problem,” McCann said. “It’s something I take pride in, being a versatile player, something the team needs.”
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan also commented on McCann’s versatility and how the Penguins have been forced to use him.
“He’s a good player. We’ve put him in the middle and he’s played really well there,” Sullivan said. “Once again, it’s a test of our depth, not just on our roster but within the organization as well. And Jared is a player when given an opportunity to play a more significant role, he’s always responded in a positive way.”
Last season Guentzel and Crosby formed one of the most dynamic pairings in the NHL. Guentzel scored 40 goals and Crosby notched 100 points. Such production will not be expected from McCann, but some offense will be required. The Penguins simply don’t have a wealth of scorers to fill the net, especially without Crosby in the lineup.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins M.A.S.H. unit is also housing top defenseman Kris Letang, too.
“Whatever I can do to help the team out there,” McCann concluded.