The Pittsburgh Penguins have needed help all around the lineup this season with many key players missing time with long-term injuries. The laundry list of players being put on injured reserve forced the team to pick from their taxi squad or minor league club. While many of these players have left their mark on the team, none have been as impressive in their role as center Frederick Gaudreau has.
The center who scored his first three NHL goals in the Stanley Cup Final (against the Penguins no less) signed with Pittsburgh as a viable piece that could be used in emergency situations. Gaudreau started the 2020-21 NHL season on the Penguins’ taxi squad and was eventually pushed to the AHL for a time. After nine games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, he was called up to the NHL squad where he has been ever since.
Gaudreau has played 10 games with the NHL club and has been making an amazing case to remain in the lineup as Pittsburgh’s fourth-line center.
Fighting for Fourth-Line Center
Trying to gauge the performance of a fourth-line forward by their numbers is difficult, but in 10 games, Gaudreau is already tied for a career-high in points. It may only be four points, but doing that in 10 games in this team’s situation is impressive. He has been something of a revelation for the Penguins this season as the injury bug settled in with the team. With Evgeni Malkin and Teddy Blueger out of the lineup long term, Gaudreau’s number was called and he hasn’t disappointed.
Gaudreau is a newbie on this Penguins’ squad but is already playing with a steady presence that a lot of veterans can lack at times. He is also growing his game and has been able to expand his abilities in Pittsburgh.
Prior to beginning his stint with the Penguins, Gaudreau had never played on a special teams unit in the NHL. With key penalty killers on the shelf, he stepped up and proved he can be a capable defensive forward. That was highlighted with his short-handed assist on a Zach Aston-Reese goal.
Being aggressive has been a key to the Penguins’ season this year, and Gaudreau may still be learning, but he doesn’t look lost. Being able to play both ends of the ice with ease is a huge part of being a bottom-six player with the Penguins, this season especially. The top lines will fill the net at will almost, while the other half will be assigned to keep the puck out of their own net. If you can occasionally contribute offensively, that’s a bonus.
Gaudreau or Mark Jankowski?
Mark Jankowski had a productive first two games on the season, and that was about it. Following those three points in the first two games, Jankowski was unable to collect a point for the next 21 games. In more recent developments, Jankowski has four points (1-3—4) in the last two games, which matches exactly matches Gaudreau’s numbers all year.
As of the past few games, Gaudreau has been centering the Penguins’ third line, while Jankowski skates on the fourth. This has led to a noticeable difference in average time on ice between the two. Gaudreau in his 10 games this season has averaged around 13:30 minutes of ice, while Jankowski in the same 10 games lags a full minute behind. Neither gentleman is a phenomenally gifted offensive player, but the play of Gaudreau has been visibly better on the ice.
Not only is Gaudreau visibly better, but his metrics can also back up that statement, and they show how he elevates the play of the players around him. He has generated a 57.1 Corsi for percentage at even strength and 53% of the Penguins’ high-danger chances with him on the ice.
If the coaching staff decides to keep Jankowski in the lineup, Gaudreau is versatile enough to also play the wing. According to head coach Mike Sullivan, that versatility is the main reason he was signed to the team and put in the lineup.
What About Teddy Blueger?
Third line center. Plain and simple. Blueger has blossomed this year into one of the Penguins’ most important players and is beginning to prove he’s more than just a defensive forward. In 28 games so far in 2020-21, Blueger has 4 goals and 11 assists for 15 points. Not the greatest of third-line numbers, but with more ice time, more opportunities are bound to come.
Before suffering an upper-body injury, Blueger was centering the third line and was on pace to set career highs in just about every category. Moving him up a spot wouldn’t hurt his play and opens up the opportunity for a player like Gaudreau who is showing to have NHL-level talent.
During Blueger’s absence, Gaudreau has also been molding good chemistry with Aston-Reese. If those two continue to click, it opens up more lineup flexibility in separating the Blueger, Aston-Reese, and Brandon Tanev line. Blueger and Tanev have also found a new level of play together and deserve to be elevated from the fourth line. Pens fans, just imagine a bottom-six that looks like this:
- Tanev – Blueger – McCann
- Aston-Reese – Gaudreau – Rodrigues/Angello
Barring any move that general manager Ron Hextall might make, a fully healthy lineup should feature Gaudreau as the fourth-line center. Gaudreau has outplayed Jankowski in a shorter amount of time and is rounding into a solid all-around player. He doesn’t strike me as a long-term guy for the team, but he has impressed and could find himself with a new contract for next season as a depth option, again. The coaching staff seems to like Gaudreau, Penguins’ fans can’t get enough of him, and critics want to see him stay in the lineup. Only time will tell, but he should be the guy going forward.