They didn’t play full seasons in a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater, or even a half season but it’s the potential for many more seasons which add value to the report cards for Jared McCann, Nick Bjusgstad and Teddy Blueger. The trio of players who did not begin the season with the Penguins, all made their debut with days of each other and added fresh legs to what was otherwise a stale group.
On Jan. 30, Blueger made headlines by finally making his NHL debut after nearly three seasons in the AHL. Two days later on Feb. 1 McCann and Bjugstad were part of the big story in the NHL as they were dealt from Florida for Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and a pair of draft picks.
In the minutes leading up to the Feb. 1 game against the Ottawa Senators, they made more news as they landed in Pittsburgh via private plane, received a police escort to the arena as they arrived just minutes before the start of the game.
Looking back, the symbolism is thick.
The Penguins not only needed to extricate themselves from the failed Brassard trade of the previous February but in desperate need for new faces and eager spirits in their lineup.
As the Penguins surged in later February and March, the young guys played a prominent role.
Penguins Report Cards
Nick Bjugstad: B
Pittsburgh Hockey Now has referenced the scene before. Before bolting for the showers and players lobby after the Penguins season came to a whimpering end, high-intensity winger Patric Hornqvist bolted for Bjugstad. Hornqvist gave him an aggressive hug and handshake and offered a colorful comment and encouragement.
As a pair, Bjugstad, 26, and Hornqvist suffocated opponents at 5v5. They allowed only three goals in over 200 minutes together, which is extraordinary. Their advanced metrics confirmed where the puck rested–on their sticks in the offensive zone. The stat is more remarkable when factoring that the pair took 57% of the faceoffs in the defensive zone.
The concerning issue was the lack of goals and the volume of scoring chances. They should have had more of each. The pair combined for only eight even strength goals in the 21 games from the Stadium Series game on Feb. 23 through the end of the regular season. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan perhaps erred when he broke up the line at the start of Round One; he replaced swapped Hornqvist with Phil Kessel and the new third line flatlined.
Bjugstad looked to solidify the Penguins third line. In a Penguins sweater, Bjugstad’s 9.6% shooting percentage was the second-best shooting percentage of his career. If he can continue the defensive suffocation and score 20 goals, the Penguins will be quite happy.
Jared McCann: A
As the Florida Panthers fourth line center scored eight goals in 46 games. As a winger with the Penguins, McCann’s game lept forward. McCann scored 11 goals in 32 games and more importantly provided a jolt of energy to the Penguins top-six. McCann often got the tap to play on Sidney Crosby’s left wing while 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel flipped to the right side.
McCann, 22, added speed and enthusiasm which stood in contrast to the some of the misery which cast a pall over other Penguins. McCann’s offense came as a surprise to everyone but it wasn’t a fluke. He fit the Penguins scheme with hard play, hard skating and a willingness to head towards the net.
As a winger, McCann freed his game of the conservative defensive mindset and played going forward instead of worrying about going backward. McCann is still young and has plenty of time to add layers to his game–he may have uncovered some offense in Pittsburgh.
Teddy Blueger: B-
Blueger, 24, was trapped in the B- and C+ range by virtue of playing out of position. Some players take well to playing on the wing, others do not. Blueger was not as good on the sides as he was in the middle. He never seemed comfortable.
As a center, Blueger forechecked with abandon. As a winger, he was unsure.
Blueger did post points. He scored 10 points (6g, 4a) in 28 games. To his credit and somewhat his detriment, four of those 10 points came when he filled in for injured Evgeni Malkin beside Phil Kessel. And interestingly, Blueger and McCann hooked up on the score sheet three times between March 17 and 25.
The common denominators of all three players were speed, aggressive forechecking and ability in the dirty areas. This is the Penguins future and these three could play prominent roles.