PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins quest for a third line center wasn’t supposed to become Hercules and the 12 labors but the story may yet have a happy ending. Penguins forward Nick Bjugstad is settling into the Penguins third line center role, despite an early push to assign him a power forward role on the right wing.
Bjugstad showed early promise at center with Phil Kessel on the right side after the Penguins acquired Bjugstad from Florida on Feb. 1. However, the initial bump eventually slid to just a 15 percent scoring chance ratio by their seventh game, which was a 3-1 win over Edmonton. And that was the end of that.
The Penguins coaches appeared to want the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Bjugstad on the wing and Jared McCann at third line center. Questions pertaining to Bjugstad at center were immediately met with stock answers about versatility.
Not exactly an endorsement.
The Penguins got their wish beginning against Calgary on Feb. 15. However, McCann didn’t fill the third line center role nearly as well as he was filling a left-wing position. In his third game as the third pivot, McCann’s line had a zero-percent scoring chance ratio against the San Jose Sharks. And that was the end of that.
Bjugstad was returned to the third line center role without Phil Kessel, beginning five games ago in the Stadium Series game. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Penguins have points in five straight games and have played their best team defense of the season.
After maintaining a public indifference to which position he plays, Bjugstad admitted he likes the middle.
“It’s coming along, it’s good being back at the center position. It’s been a while, so I’m getting back into the routine of helping the defenseman out, playing well at both ends,” Bjugstad told PHN, Tuesday morning. “That’s what I want to focus on. The coaching staff has done a good job working with me.”
“I think it’s coming along.”
Bjusgstad has performed well in the last five games, too. The only game in which Bjugstad’s crew had a negative scoring chance or Corsi ratio was the 5-1 win over Montreal, last Saturday. Otherwise, it has been clear sailing. The line was especially dominant against former Penguins third line center Riley Sheahan and the Florida Panthers, Tuesday.
Bjugsad’s line posted a whopping 75 percent scoring chance ratio.
Bjugstad is also enjoying the Penguins atmosphere. Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson said the team has rallied around the defensemen without Kris Letang. Bjugstad’s hard work in the defensive zone has been one of the great helps to the Penguins defensemen.
“With this group, it happens naturally. There’s a standard that is set and everyone seems to strive for it,” Bjugstad said. “These guys have handled themselves well. It shows a lot about the depth of our defensemen and how everyone buys into the whole system.”
The Penguins 12 labors for a third line center began nearly two years ago. In the summer of 2017, the Penguins sized up the market and let former third line anchor Nick Bonino walk away on the free agent market to add fresher legs, at less cost. The Penguins shopped around.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now was told that summer the Penguins called Florida about Bjugstad, who had just completed a somewhat disappointing offensive season. Florida held a high price tag–extremely high–so the Penguins shopped while Florida experimented with Bjugstad on the right wing.
Eventually, the Penguins signed borderline NHL player Greg McKegg. In October 2017, the Penguins acquired Riley Sheahan from Detroit for Scott Wilson. Sheahan was never the answer, so the Penguins made the blockbuster deal for Derick Brassard in Feb. 2018.
The move was heralded by most but the end result cost the organization a goalie prospect, a number one pick, and a mountain of toughness and grit with the departures of Ryan Reaves and defenseman Ian Cole. The move to acquire Brassard was an utter disaster.
And so the Penguins shopped.
Now they have the big third line center who wants to play center. A long 18 months after the Penguins called about Bjugstad, they are done shopping. Finally.