Teddy Blueger might have been the Pittsburgh Penguins’ most predictably reliable player through the first half of last season.
Mike Sullivan and his staff had a pretty good idea of what they could expect from Blueger every time he went over the boards. And on those occasions when he didn’t perform within his usual parameters, it likely was because he was making a contribution to the offense that hadn’t been anticipated.
Most of the time, however, Blueger was counted on to provide sound defensive play and efficient penalty-killing, and he almost never disappointed.
He was an effective bottom-six center, generally working in the middle of the fourth line but filling in capably as the No. 3 guy when needed.
Blueger appeared in 40 of the Penguins’ first 41 games — more than any forward except Evan Rodrigues — and had eight goals and nine assists in the first 39 of those. He also controlled 54.8 percent of his faceoffs, a higher success rate at that point of the season than any Pittsburgh Penguins center except Jeff Carter.
But for all that had transpired during those initial 39 games — all of the productivity, all of the promise of even better play as he continued to hone his craft — it was in Blueger’s 40th that the course of his season was dramatically altered.
Midway through the first period of what would become a 3-2 shootout victory against Winnipeg Jan. 23 at PPG Paints Arena, Blueger was behind the Jets’ goal line when defenseman Brenden Dillon launched his left shoulder into Blueger’s head, driving it into the glass.
Blueger skated a few strides into the left circle, then dropped to the ice before getting back on his feet and heading toward the bench, bleeding profusely.
He went directly to the locker room and, after an examination determined that his jaw had been broken, underwent surgery to repair the damage.
Dillon wasn’t penalized for delivering the hit — Sullivan said the on-ice officials told him they didn’t see it, and the league office subsequently declined to fine or suspend him — but Blueger certainly was for receiving it, since he didn’t make it into another game until March 6.
And when he returned from that 16-game absence, Blueger rarely looked like the player he had been before the injury.
He had just one goal and 10 assists in the 25 regular-season games that remained, his defensive work slipped — perhaps because he rarely worked alongside Zach Aston-Reese and Brock McGinn, his pre-injury linemates on an excellent defensive unit — and the once-dominant penalty-killing unit he anchored struggled down the stretch.
Blueger’s average ice time, which was 15:01 during the regular season, dipped to 14:07 during the Penguins’ first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers, when he had one assist in seven games.
It also had to sting that the penalty-kill yielded six goals in 19 shorthanded situations, a 68.4 percent success rate that placed 14th among the 16 playoff qualifiers.
That Blueger’s injury had a profound impact on how his season played out defies contention; still to be determined is whether any of its effects will carry over into 2022-23.
There will be more than just professional pride at stake for him during the coming winter; Blueger is entering the final year of a contract that carries a $2.2 million salary-cap hit, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer if not re-signed before then.
A strong bounce-back season could pay off quite nicely for him, in the most literal of senses, whether that money comes from the Pittsburgh Penguins or some other club.
While nothing can be certain until he is back on the ice, there is ample cause to believe that Blueger will return to his customary form.
The trajectory of his career was very much moving in the right direction before he was hurt. Blueger was steadily refining his already-strong defensive game, was becoming more of a factor in the offense and had made impressive progress as a faceoff man.
Nonetheless, although he has pretty fair skills, Blueger is not supremely talented — like, say, Sidney Crosby — so trying to get his game back in synch after an extended absence during the second half of the season had to be quite a challenge. Especially when there likely were some concerns, subconscious or otherwise, about a recurrence.
Still, while Dillon’s hit disrupted all of the momentum Blueger had been building, the problems it caused don’t have to be permanent.
Blueger has the talent and intangibles to move past what he experienced during the second half of 2021-22, although it wouldn’t hurt if the guy would get a break. This time, the kind that doesn’t involve X-rays and surgery.