Not since Nick Bonino limped to Nashville as an unrestricted free agent while nursing a broken leg suffered in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final have the Pittsburgh Penguins had a successful third-line center to anchor their lineup. Names like Greg McKegg, Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard have been penciled into the lineup, seen significant time and were eventually erased. Now Nick Bjugstad will get the chance.
Is Bjugstad finally a long term answer for the Penguins in the middle behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?
Brassard should have been a slam dunk success but instead was a jaw-dropping washout. The Penguins coaches initially wanted Jared McCann, who was acquired with Bjugstad from the Florida Panthers on Feb. 1 for Brassard and Sheahan (and picks), to be the third pivot but he found a home on the wing while Bjugstad claimed the spot.
In full disclosure, I enjoyed watching Bjugstad with Patric Hornqvist through March. Bjusgstad has a remarkable feel for the game and it shows in his positioning. He’s a step ahead of the play and he’s deceptively fast. At 6-foot-6, Bjugstad casts a hulking shadow and gets to the right spot. He isn’t a rough player, but he’s strong.
Bjugstad has one fatal flaw, however. He is terminally cold in the offensive zone. His career shooting percentage is hovering just above 8% with a couple of outliers well above and below that number. A player who generates a healthy volume of chances in the deep scoring zones should have a much higher number. However, at 27-years-old, it is unlikely Bjugstad will experience a new offensive surge.
He won’t hit the 60-point mark but is 40 points for the third line center, dominant puck possession which creates an offensive advantage and opponent suppression such a bad thing?
Bjugstad and Hornqvist scored eight of the 11 goals which occurred when they were on the ice at 5v5. The eight goals are a little low, as their expected goal total per the Xgf advanced stat was 11. However, they also had 59% of the scoring chances and 67% of the high danger chances. All stats from NaturalStatTrick.com.
Allowing just three goals in over 200 minutes of 5v5 time is pretty good. Imagine any team giving up just three goals in three games–they would probably win all three.
Pittsburgh Penguins Uncertainty
The Penguins upheaval has created wonder and uncertainty with the Penguins lines. Will head coach Mike Sullivan be able to keep Hornqvist and Bjugstad together, or will Hornqvist be needed beside Evgeni Malkin? Will Alex Galchenyuk click on the top line with Sidney Crosby, with Malkin or fall to the third line RW with Bjugstad? Would Galchenyuk and the more honest game he played in the second half last season blend well with Bjugstad? Will Bryan Rust find his offensive game for the third line?
Can I use more question marks in one paragraph?
Generally, it should take 10-12 scoring chances to create one goal. Last season with the Penguins, Hornqvist and Bjugstad needed 15 chances.
Prediction: Borrowing Gilbert, Lewis, and Booger, (Revenge of the Nerds), we can extrapolate the number of scoring chances Bjugstad will be able to create. He’s a proven professional whose numbers have not fluctuated after seven seasons.
Let us predict Bjugstad will be on the ice for 500 scoring chances. His career arc has been consistent with between 400 to 500 chances per season. If the Penguins ride with Bjugstad and Hornqvist, they’ll rack up about 500 chances, and we’ll make an assumption that Hornqvist cannot possible, on this planet, not again be as hard-handed as he was last season.
My appreciation for Bjugstad’s game certainly causes a rosier view of the pending questions. Keeping the same rate of shots he generated with Hornqvist, Bjugstad would average just shy of three shots per game. His 8% shooting percentage range could settle around 8.5%. Gut feel and the numbers, in this case, were in near lockstep with the potential:
19 goals. 31 assists. 216 hits.
Such would be a very successful season. At $4.1 million cap hit, the Pittsburgh Penguins brass would breathe easier at that level of production rather than the albatross slumping numbers which Bjugstad posted last season.