For 30 NHL teams, the 2019-20 season will be one to forget. All of the Pittsburgh Penguins stumbling towards the March pause and Philadelphia Flyers momentum is past tense as 24 teams will participate in a two-month battle royale for the Stanley Cup, nearly five months after the regular season concluded. For 23 grumbling fan bases, the Stanley Cup will come with an asterisk as the faithful assume their team could have won the Cup under normal circumstances.
And in the spirit of this crazy season in which we happily sheltered in place to flatten the curve of a ridiculously communicable virus, then overruled government orders because some dealt with the fears while others ignored them, we present the officially unofficial Pittsburgh Penguins silly season awards.
The Beau Bennett “Man, can you stay healthy” award: Nick Bjugstad
The large Penguins center doesn’t seem to skate well until you look at the ice he covered in a short time. With Bjugstad in the middle, Jared McCann could become dynamic scoring winger. Or so was the plan.
“What we like about Jared on the wing are his speed and his scoring ability,” Penguins head coach Sullivan said in December. “He’s got a pretty good straight-ahead game. He can take defensemen wide. He can get separation. And, when he gets that separation, he can finish.”
McCann on the wing is predicated upon having a third-line center. That was to be Bjugstad, but Bjugstad played only 13 games this season. He played 10 games in the first six weeks of the season before calling it quits for core muscle surgery. Bjugstad clearly wasn’t healthy and had only one goal. While the team didn’t admit it, Bjugstad also suffered a setback in his recovery. He was skating in January. Then he wasn’t.
Bjugstad returned for the final three games before the coronavirus pause. However, he will miss the 24-team NHL return because he had spinal surgery last month at the Mayo Clinic.
The Alexei Kovalev “You Can’t Go Home Again” Award: Conor Sheary.
The award backstory: Alexei Kovalev was an extraordinarily talented winger and strong as an ox. It bedeviled both the New York Rangers, then the Pittsburgh Penguins why Kovalev didn’t score more often until 1999 when Kovalev had a breakout under Penguins coach Herb Brooks. Kovalev posted a career-high 26 goals that season and didn’t look back.
The Penguins finances forced the Penguins to trade Kovalev in 2003. Eight years later, the next generation Pittsburgh Penguins, who were battered by injuries, reacquired Kovalev for a playoff run. Unfortunately, Kovalev only scored seven points and just two goals in 20 games. The Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead and were out in Round One.
Kovalev moved on after that brief return to Pittsburgh.
The Penguins signed Conor Sheary as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He made his NHL debut in 2015-16, then in 2016-17, he put up a whopping 53 points in 61 games, mainly playing beside Sidney Crosby. Sheary won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, even as his scoring touch gave way to a horrible slump, which took its toll on Sheary in 2018, and he opened up to PHN about the struggles and contract pressures.
Sheary was the asset traded to Buffalo in the summer of 2018, so Buffalo would also accept defenseman Matt Hunwick’s contract. Sheary’s fortunes didn’t improve with the perennially rebuilding Sabres. The Penguins reacquired Sheary at the trade deadline with Evan Rodrigues for Dominik Kahun.
Sheary was scoreless in five of his eight games with the Penguins, despite playing beside Sidney Crosby, again. He had four points, but just one goal and a minus-one rating.
Sheary will be a free agent after this season, too.
The Jack Johnson “Take One for the Team, Play Out of Position and Get Hammered by Fans” Award: Jack Johnson
Johnson has been hated on by Penguins fans worse than coronavirus. In his first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, injuries and necessity pressed the left-handed Johnson into right-side duty with a revolving door of depth defensemen. Things didn’t go so well in the first half of the season, but the already controversial contract (five-years, $16.25million) cemented Johnson’s fate as a goat.
In the first half of the 2019-20 season, Johnson was a bedrock defenseman, and a growing number of fans realized it. An increasing sect of the fanbase quietly lauded Johnson. Playing his natural left side with Justin Schultz or John Marino on the second and third pairing, respectively, Johnson was an impressive plus-nine in the first 37 games.
However, Johnson again took one for the team and was elevated to the left side of the top pair with Kris Letang. In the next 30 games, Johnson was a minus-10. Things didn’t go well as Letang hit a rough patch in January, which was entirely Johnson’s fault, of course. The Penguins top pairing sputtered as the two defensemen didn’t mix well together, but the Penguins had little choice because of a long-term injury to Brian Dumoulin. Johnson again bore the brunt of the blogosphere and social media.
The Marc-Andre Fleury “We Used to Like You But There’s a New Kid, and Now You’re a Goat” Award: Matt Murray
It is with a full appreciation of the irony that we award Murray the Marc-Andre Fleury award. Murray was the kid to whom Penguins fans flocked instead of Fleury. However, with Tristan Jarry’s emergence this season and All-Star appearance, Murray is no longer the fan-favorite.
Murray was able to reclaim the net with an undefeated January (4-0-0), and .929 save percentage. However, as the Penguins faltered in February and March, so too did both goalies. Both Jarry and Murray had GAA’s above 2.80, though Jarry’s save percentage was a few points higher with lesser competition.
However, if the Penguins fanbase voted, it would be overwhelmingly for Jarry, despite Jarry’s relative inexperience and lack of battle scars. We don’t know what the future holds as only one goalie likely remains with the team beyond the season, but we know what the Penguins fans would choose.
If the Penguins choose Jarry, perhaps we’ll award him the Fleury award when Emil Larmi matures into NHL status.
The Pascal Dupuis “Where Did He Come From” Award: Bryan Rust
Dupuis was a “throw-in” to the Penguins when the team acquired Marian Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers/now Winnipeg Jets. Dupuis was a fast skating, light scoring winger predominantly buried on the bottom lines. However, with the Penguins, Dupuis became a 20-goal scorer and a locker room leader.
Does that sound similar to Bryan Rust?
Last season, Rust had one goal in 29 games before a torrid six-week hot streak. This season, Rust started hot and kept scoring as he and Evgeni Malkin developed a strong chemistry. Rust also learned more patience and poise with the puck in scoring areas.
Rust popped a career-high 26 goals and was a force.
The Rob Scuderi “He Finally Gets His Shot in the NHL” Award: Teddy Blueger
In his first tour with the Penguins, Scuderi was a valuable piece of the 2008 Eastern Conference Champions and the 2009 Stanley Cup championship. However, Scuderi was never a quick skater and toiled in the minors for three years before his NHL debut. Overall, Scuderi spent most of four seasons in the AHL before he established himself in the NHL.
Teddy Blueger can relate. Blueger spent most of three seasons in the AHL before he got his NHL shot last season. He did pretty well, and this season he anchored the only consistent line in the Penguins lineup.
Blueger became a fixture of the lineup and will not go back to the AHL anytime soon. In addition to centering the most consistent line, which coaches gave significant defensive responsibilities, Blueger scored 22 points (9g, 13a) in 69 games.