There are just two weeks left in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2018-19 regular season schedule, but their plans for the postseason are anything but set in stone.
As of Mar. 23, a mere 10 points separate the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals from the first team outside the playoff picture, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Penguins are stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings battle.
While the future beyond Apr. 6 is still uncertain, the Penguins would be wise to continue to rely on young talent like 22-year-old Jared McCann to snag as many points as possible in the last six games of the season, and maybe even become an unexpected playoff hero.
McCann’s Road to Pittsburgh
Though relatively unknown prior to coming to town as a second piece in what was billed as the Nick Bjugstad-Derick Brassard trade between the Penguins and the Florida Panthers, McCann had some intriguing accolades on his resume.
Before he was drafted into the NHL, McCann made a name for himself on the Junior and International circuits. He was named the Ontario Hockey Federation’s ALLIANCE Player of the Year in 2012 for his time with the London Jr. Knights, and was selected fourth overall in the 2012 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Priority Selection Draft by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, a team that boasts notable alumni Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, and Wayne Gretzky.
He played three seasons with the club from 2012-15, grabbing 82 goals and 187 points. During his tenure, he earned a place on the OHL’s Second All-Rookie Team in 2012-13. He also participated with Team Canada in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in 2013 and the IIHF U18 World Championships in 2014, taking home the gold and bronze, respectively.
Good things continued to happen for McCann at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft when he was selected in the first round, 24th overall, by the Vancouver Canucks. He played 69 games in his rookie season in 2015-16 with the Canucks, posting 9 goals and 9 assists.
In the offseason, McCann was traded to the Panthers in exchange for Erik Gudbranson, a tough defenseman who would later become his teammate in Pittsburgh. He played two-and-a-half seasons in the Sunshine State, 143 games, in which he put up a respectable 53 points.
During his first season with the Panthers, he played 42 games with their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, after a slow start in Florida. However, McCann didn’t view being sent down as a setback. Looking back on the experience, he said:
I was taken aback by it at first, but I took it as a challenge. I took it as a learning experience… [I said] ‘I’m going to go down there, I’m going to play a lot, and I’m going to get better and I’m going to come back up and show them I can play in the NHL.
Come back he did. McCann played 114 games and scored 46 points with the Panthers after his time with the Thunderbirds before being traded to the Penguins in February. His positive attitude followed him to the Steel City, but something he didn’t bring with him in the trade was playoff experience. Neither the Canucks nor the Panthers reached the postseason while he was a member of their squads.
What Does McCann Bring to the Table?
McCann’s lack of playoff experience is nothing to fear. When it comes to skills and hockey sense, he’s a quick learner and his teachers are some of the best in the game: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
In just 26 games with the Penguins, McCann has lit the lamp 11 times and has already done his best Crosby impression with a spin-o-rama, shorthanded, game-winning goal against the Dallas Stars on Mar. 23.
It’s moves like this that are going to become invaluable when the playoffs start on Apr. 9. It’s one thing to get this kind of play from the team’s biggest stars but is infinitely more impressive when it comes from a man lower down the ladder.
Equally impressive to his finesse is the fact that the goal came shorthanded. Following his arrival in Pittsburgh, coach Mike Sullivan praised McCann’s penalty killing abilities
Obviously, preventing goals not scoring them, is the primary purpose of the penalty kill, but McCann has been stepping up production when his team is down a man. He has three shorthanded goals with the Penguins so far, and four on the season.
In addition to finding the net on the PK, McCann is also earning the reputation as a player who can hit the empty cage. Four of his 11 goals have been empty-net tallies. That might come with the stigma of using the empty net to pad his stats but he doesn’t see it that way.
Of his empty net goals, McCann told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie:
I think you’ve always got to practice the little things… I think it’s something that people overlook, but it can make a difference in a game. I feel like the more open-net goals you get, yeah, guys give you [a] hard time about it because there’s no goalie in there, but a goal’s a goal, (from ‘Penguins Jared McCann sees no need to apologize for racking up empty-net goals,’ Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – 3/23/19).
McCann is right, in a sense, that shorthanded tallies or empty-net markers can be overlooked when players are building their toolbox of skills because they’re not situations that come up in every game. But one empty netter can be the difference between an insurance goal and heading to overtime – a plight the Penguins have known too well over the last four games, where they went to overtime in three of those matchups – and to have a player in the lineup that actively works on capitalizing in those situations is not a bad thing at all.
That’s the kind of unexpected performance that wins a series and wins Stanley Cups. The Penguins, in particular, tend to look to their supporting cast like Max “Superstar” Talbot, Frank “the Save” Pietrangelo, and Jeff “Mr. Game One” Zatkoff when they’re trying to steal a playoff series, and a name like Jared “Empty Net King” or “Shorthanded Wonder” McCann could be the next one added to the list.