For the last few seasons, the months of February and March have acted like a revolving door for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. Between injuries and trades, the stretch run portion of the season always brings new faces, new numbers and new looks to the Penguins’ dynamic.
Up to this point, the 2018-19 season hasn’t been much to write home about. The Penguins are barely holding on to the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 63 points, and the evidence as to why is apparent in the team’s lack of consistency from game to game, or even period to period.
Despite the team’s problems, four fresh faces are stepping up to help the Penguins retain the longest active postseason appearance streak in the NHL by adding a 13th consecutive playoff run to the list.
Jared McCann has hardly had time to catch his breath since becoming a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but luckily he seems to work just fine under pressure. The trade that brought McCann and Nick Bjugstad to Pittsburgh in exchange for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan went down on the afternoon of Feb. 1, and by 7:05 p.m., both players were on the bench ready to play their first games in black and gold.
6:29PM: Warmups begin
6:55PM: Bjugstad and McCann arrive
7:05PM: Bjugstad and McCann get on the Penguins bench at the start of the national anthem
7:08PM: Game on pic.twitter.com/Hm2L3QSUgF
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 2, 2019
As if that wasn’t enough, the team boarded a flight to Toronto following the 5-3 win over the Ottawa Senators for a back-to-back matchup the next night. Less than a week later, McCann and Bjugstad were back in Florida to take on the Panthers on Feb. 7.
McCann netted his first goal as a member of the Penguins, and his ninth of the season, during that Feb. 7 matchup against his former team. His quick production and overall willingness to adapt and respond to situations on the ice has some members of the Pittsburgh media calling McCann the anti-Brassard.
Both players shared the same position (third-line center) and jersey number (19) while with the Penguins but approached the job with different attitudes. While 31-year-old Brassard was used to more ice time and stronger leadership roles with his old clubs, the 22-year-old McCann has focused on learning from more experienced players in the room and working on his own skills in the past and the present.
McCann told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“I’m just trying to make the most of it, work hard every day and show them they made the right decision bringing me here. I’m going to do whatever they say. If they continue to put me there [on the third line] I’ll just continue to work at it and get better,” (from ‘Jared McCann is the Penguins’ anti-Derick Brassard’ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 2/9/19).
This type of positive attitude and determined work ethic could be beneficial not only for McCann as an individual player, but also for the team as a whole. Barring that the curse of the Penguins ‘No. 19 strikes again, McCann could have a promising future with the Penguins for the rest of this season and beyond.
Though Garrett Wilson has been in the Penguins organization since 2016, he didn’t play his first game with the club until this season. Another product of Florida, Wilson was drafted 107th overall by the Panthers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He played 34 games with the club from 2013 to 2016 and did not score any points during his time there.
After signing with the Penguins as a free agent following the 2015-16 season, Wilson was assigned to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League (AHL) where he played 146 games, scored 91 points and served as an alternate captain and captain of the team before being called up to the NHL.
Though the left winger was added to the NHL squad for his big-body presence and physicality, Wilson has finally proven he can score, when the time is right. After 60 combined NHL games with the Penguins and the Panthers, Wilson finally netted his first NHL goal in a 5-4 loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 9.
Of his inability to score in the NHL, Wilson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie:
“Honestly, it was eating me alive. It was nice to get it over with. It felt like it took forever. Hopefully I can start putting some more behind the goalies,” (from ‘Penguins’ Garrett Wilson finally nets first NHL goal’ – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – 2/10/19).
Though forwards are often expected to have high production levels, players who can score at the right times are just as important as those who score all the time. Just ask former Penguin Max Talbot about it. In time, and with a few more goals, Wilson could prove himself to be a secret weapon, both in scrums and on the scoreboard, which would be valuable during a playoff run.
Bjugstad, part two of the whirlwind trade and game on Feb. 1, hasn’t lit the lamp for the Penguins yet like McCann, but his addition to the team could help out in other ways.
Nick, the nephew of former Penguin Scott Bjugstad, was drafted 19th overall by the Panthers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Following a successful high school career and three seasons with the Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), Bjugstad signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers and played 394 games with the club over seven seasons.
In five games with the Penguins, Bjugstad has just one assist, but his production is not in question. He scored 87 goals and 104 assists for 191 points during his time in Florida. Accolades on the scoresheet will come in time. Until then, he can provide morale boosts in other ways, including behind the locker room doors.
Not only is Bjugstad smart – he graduated high school a year early and completed a degree in Business Marketing during his rookie season with the Panthers – his personality makes him a favorite among teammates.
Upper St. Clair native and Panthers forward Vince Trocheck told Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“[Bjugstad]’s one of the most genuine and best guys I’ve ever played with. Just a great person… He’s just too nice. He can’t say no. He’ll do literally anything for anyone,” (from ‘Penguins’ Nick Bjugstad will do “literally anything for anyone”’ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 2/6/19).
While “nice guy” isn’t necessarily the most feared moniker in hockey, someone with those attributes can do wonders for the team atmosphere.
The Penguins have been visibly lacking looseness and easy play after the departures of key morale boosters like Pascal Dupuis and Marc-Andre Fleury. Both of those players were known for cracking jokes and pulling pranks to lighten the mood, but Bjugstad’s good attitude, coupled with Sidney Crosby’s infamous good-guy qualities, could bring a new dimension in team chemistry that has been absent for the past few seasons.
The last of the new faces, for now, and the only one without a connection to the Panthers organization is Latvian Teddy Blueger.
Though Blueger has been a member of the Penguins organization since he was drafted 52nd overall by the club in 2012, he didn’t play his first game in the NHL until Jan. 30. He didn’t wait to show off his skills, netting his first goal on his first shot in his second game with the club.
First NHL goal on his first NHL shot.
Blueger: “Any time you score is an amazing feeling, but obviously, your first goal at the NHL level is special. It’s something I’ll remember forever.” pic.twitter.com/hOCfXbkSeb
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 2, 2019
With just six games and two goals under his belt, not to mention the McCann/Bjugstad trade, Blueger’s future with the Penguins this season is not likely to extend beyond the returns of Evgeni Malkin and Zach-Aston Reese, if everyone stays healthy.
However, Blueger’s performance with the AHL Penguins, and the few things he has done at the NHL level, have proven that he should be near the top of the call-up sheet in the event of injury. Though we might not see as much of him during the rest of the season, or in the postseason, Blueger is good for the production and chemistry of the team in that he can transition seamlessly between the leagues and provide dependable effort and support when necessary.
Though these four newcomers are trying to put their marks on the Penguins landscape, they might not be the only ones. The trade deadline isn’t for two weeks, and though general manager Jim Rutherford says he doesn’t feel pressure to make any more significant moves before then, anything can happen.