You might not think one hockey practice would make a whole heck of a difference, but then the circumstances Monday were a little different for new Pittsburgh Penguins forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.
After a whirlwind weekend following Friday’s trade, the two got a chance to get on the ice with their teammates in something other than a game.
“It was good,” Bjugstad said. “It was a fast-paced practice. That translates (to games) for this team. Trying to keep up. Went through a video session with them. Starting to learn a little more. Get the feet wet right away. Try to do my best to bring my skill set and help here.”
Bjugstad, as he did in games Friday and Saturday, filled in for injured center Evgeni Malkin by working on the second line with wingers Tanner Pearson and Phil Kessel. McCann likewise remained in his spot from the two games, centering the third line between Dominik Simon and Patric Hornqvist.
That’s probably what the Penguins will use, at least to start, when they host the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena.
“I feel like we’re getting more and more comfortable,” McCann said. “Get to know the linemates a little more and know their tendencies. More systems and stuff like that.”
The Penguins and Panthers are hardly mirrors of each other in terms of scheme.
“For me, I feel like I need to understand the defensive zone a little bit more,” McCann said. “Florida was a lot different from what they play here. It’s going to take me a little bit, but I feel like I can pick it up pretty quickly.
“They play the layer system, which in Florida we didn’t do that. Moving forward, I’ve got to stay against motion. Man on man, I’ve got to focus on finding a man down low and staying with him and boxing him out.”
Both Offer Line Flexibility
Bjugstad, 26, and McCann, 22, could see their spot in the Penguins lineup evolve. Malkin skated separately from the team practice Monday, and coach Mike Sullivan has indicated Malkin could be out shorter term from what is believed to be a hand injury.
At some point, winger Zach Aston-Reese will return from a hand injury, and the piecing together of the lines will really have a lot of moving parts.
Bjugstad and McCann each can play center or wing. Bjugstad could become a fixture as the third-line center, or perhaps he will get a look at right wing on one of the top two lines with McCann taking over the middle of the third line on a longer-term basis.
“It’s something, certainly, that we talked about and depending on how we want the lines to play out,” Sullivan said of Bjugstad playing on the right side. “It just gives us flexibility. We can use him as a third-line center if we so choose, and he’d be very good at that. But he’s also an offensively gifted player that has the ability to play in a top six capacity. It just gives us a lot of flexibility.
“We’ve talked about a number of combinations. Sometimes when you put it down on paper or we do it in our coaches’ room, how you think something is going to play out and how it actually plays out are two different things. Sometimes we stumble on things out of necessity that end up working for us.
“So we have some ideas on how we’re going to use the players when we get healthy, but right now the flexibility that we have and the depth that we have is encouraging.”
The two new players profess to being open to whatever the Penguins ask of them.
“It just depends,” Bjugstad said. “I don’t really have a preference. I played center my whole life growing up. The last few years played in and out, mostly wing. There are advantages to both. Wherever they put me, I’ll be happy. This is a deep lineup, lots of good players to play with. Even that first game wasn’t too difficult jumping in. There’s lots of support on the ice, guys helping you.”
McCann, an affable type, will accept any assignment, and apparently with a smile.
“Anywhere,” he said of finding a spot in the lineup. “I played a little bit of wing my first year in Vancouver.”
Taking Time To Fit In
Bjugstad pointed out that the two newcomers didn’t even get a chance for handshakes before they jumped onto the ice Friday in a win over Ottawa, and there was no morning skate Saturday before a loss at Toronto and no practice Sunday.
But he and McCann attended a Super Bowl party Sunday evening at team captain Sidney Crosby’s house.
“Got to know some of the teammates. We had a good time at the Super Bowl party,” McCann said. “I feel like we’re getting more and more comfortable.”
There was just one thing that put a damper on the party.
“We all watched the Super Bowl together,” Bjugstad said. “Watched the Patriots win. Again. Good for them, but they’ve got to let someone else win it at some point.”
It’s not a surprise that Bjugstad and McCann are finding a quick comfort level with their new teammates. The Penguins’ brass did their homework to help ensure a good off-ice fit in the hope that it translates to good chemistry on-ice.
Initial impressions are good.
“You can see signs of (chemistry), for sure, whether they fit in or they jell with a line combination or defense pair, whatever it may be,” Sullivan said. “It is important, and that’s something when we’re acquiring players we always talk about — the character of the person first and foremost, whether or not they can fit into our dressing room with the people that we have. We think so highly of our group and the character of the people that we have. That’s every bit as important as your ability to play.”
About That Mad Scramble
One sign that a new player is fitting in is getting “the business,” and Bjugstad said there was some good-natured razzing about the police escort he and McCann got Friday as they rushed to get to PPG Paints Arena in time for the game against the Senators.
And that was just one sliver of a wild 48 hours for the two.
The Penguins completed the deal – forwards Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan as well as draft picks went to Florida – as Bjugstad and McCann skated with the Panthers. They hurriedly packed a few things and jumped on a charter flight to Pittsburgh, got that police escort, threw on their new uniforms and made it to the Penguins bench in time for the national anthem. Then they flew with the team to Toronto right after that game but, with no morning skate, still didn’t have any sort of practice.
Adding to the drama, Florida was coming off its bye week following the All-Star break, so the players had had a 10-day break.
“It was a crazy experience,” said Bjugstad, who got a secondary assist for the only point between the two newcomers in the weekend games.
“Jumping right into that game, that was something else. Maybe it was easier doing it that way – not much thinking. Didn’t have much time to really go over the systems or anything. Just go out and play.
“It’s fun to get traded here. I’m very excited.”
It didn’t take Bjugstad long to grasp the flavor of his new club.
“There’s an attitude of winning,” he said. “I could tell from the pregame speech and everyone stepping on the ice. You can just tell there’s a mentality of winning in here. Definitely a good team to come to.”
McCann found himself a bit in awe, especially so around Crosby.
“I’m just trying to learn as much as I possibly can,” McCann said. “I grew up watching Sid play. Walking into the dressing room you’re just kind of starstruck looking at him. I don’t know what my first sentence was to him. I’m just trying to get more comfortable.”
It helped McCann, who is from Stratford, Ontario, that the quick trip to Toronto was a little like a trip home.
“After the game in Toronto I was with my dad and we both just kind of smiled at each other and said this is a great opportunity for me,” McCann said. “He’s excited for me I get to learn from one of the best players to play the game (in Crosby).
“I’m very thankful for the time that I got in Florida. It was awesome. I learned a lot. I had some great guys there my first couple years. I had (former Penguins star Jaromir) Jagr there. I learned a lot from him, work ethic and things like that.”
Bjugstad and McCann will get a chance to grab some more personal items or take care of any hanging business this week. The Penguins have a game Thursday at Florida.
In the meantime, McCann was hoping to find a little time to round out the hastily packed mini-wardrobe he brought with him from Florida.
“I might have to go to the mall and pick up some more pants,” he said. “I brought a lot of shorts for some reason.”