PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan did not offer a ringing endorsement of center Teddy Blueger when given a chance, Sunday night. The Pittsburgh Penguins head coach was offered an opening to affirm Blueger as one of the Penguins centers in Evgeni Malkin’s absence but instead punted the opportunity.
And Sullivan did so despite a standout performance by Blueger against the Philadelphia Flyers, Sunday. In addition to scoring the Penguins only goal, Blueger lit up the advanced stat sheet, too.
“(Malkin) is a tough guy to replace. He’s obviously an elite player. So…that speaks for itself. As far as what we’ll do moving forward, we’ll take it game by game and see how it goes,” Sullivan said.
Yeah, not exactly a vote of confidence. Sullivan also similarly dodged questions about Nick Bjugstad after the Penguins acquired him and Jared McCann on Feb. 1. Despite numerous opportunities, Sullivan consistently ducked the chance to name Bjugstad the third line center, then followed through on his dodges by moving Bjugstad to right wing.
(We discussed this comparison and the Penguins lines without Malkin on the video channel, too)
Bjugstad didn’t become a Penguins center until the Stadium Series game when he and Patric Hornqvist clicked with McCann on the left wing.
However, Sullivan generally offered some praise for Bjugstad despite not anointing him as a pivot. The blow off or dismissal of Blueger despite arguably the strongest game of the Penguins centers is puzzling.
Lining up the stats, in several minutes less ice time than Bjugstad and Sidney Crosby, Blueger’s line created seven scoring chances which equaled the others (all stats according to naturalstattrick.com). Blueger’s line had the same favorable scoring chance ratio as Crosby’s trio (63 percent), too. It should be noted Blueger with Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel did their damage mostly against Philadelphia’s lower lines, especially the fourth line.
But Sullivan did see Blueger score the Penguins lone goal by generating chances below the dots and finishing Kessel’s rebound, yes? Blueger also did not take a defensive zone faceoff, despite winning 80 percent of his draws, Sunday night. With Kessel as a linemate, it’s understandable the line wasn’t deployed except for a pair of micro shifts as the Penguins were pinned down in the third period, but perhaps Blueger’s line could have broken free.
Nothing would have prevented Sullivan from swapping Kessel and Garrett Wilson on the line for some defensive help.
It’s all a bit puzzling.
Based on Sullivan’s specific dodge and not even using Blueger’s name, the Penguins likely have other plans for the vacant center position. The only other available option is to move McCann back to the middle and Rust back to Crosby’s right wing.
McCann has played with Kessel for nearly 13 minutes this season. The best which can be said of that pairing is they haven’t burned down PPG Paints Arena. When paired, they have posted a paltry 28 percent scoring chance ratio.
Surely Sullivan recognizes McCann has well adapted to the left wing position because it frees him to use his speed and tenacity without as much defensive constraint. In the middle, McCann was buttoned up.
Blueger is a natural center who has displayed the opposite tendency. On the wing, Blueger was not nearly as effective as he was in the middle.
Given Blueger’s immediate success with Kessel and McCann’s lack of success, it would seem to be a steady course to roll with Blueger beside Kessel for as long as it works. Also, without versatile winger Zach Aston-Reese, the Penguins are not flush with options. They have only 12 healthy forwards including recently recalled but sparingly used Joseph Blandisi.
Without Malkin, the Penguins do not have a great option. But how many teams would? The Penguins found something which worked, Sunday night. Instead of rearranging the lineup to accommodate shuffling wings and centers, the Penguins best course of action would be to pat Blueger on the back and send him out there with confidence.
It’s not like he could stifle Kessel’s even strength offense any further than Kessel already has.