By Brian Metzer
Pittsburgh Current Hockey Writer
It’s been close to a week since the Penguins acquired forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from the Florida Panthers in exchange for forwards Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan. While the immediate assessment of the deal was that the Penguins turned two of their least productive forwards into two that could pay significant dividends, we’re still waiting to see where the newcomers will fit in long term.
Bjugstad, who in recent seasons skated on the wing in Florida, immediately slotted in as the Penguins’ second line center with Evgeni Malkin on the shelf with an injury. That is where he stayed for his first three games in Pittsburgh and he didn’t look out of place.
The 6-foot-6, 218 pound Bjugstad chipped in an assist, nine shots on goal, nine hits, one blocked shot, a plus-1 rating and won 44.7 percent of his face-off attempts. He used his size and reach to create turnovers and displayed a 200-foot game that was certainly a point of attraction for general manager Jim Rutherford.
Though Bjugstad is a natural center, he seems to be a more productive player while skating on the wing, and that is where the Penguins might deploy him on Thursday for a homecoming battle with the Panthers in Sunrise, Florida.
“He had always played center,” Panthers’ television play by play announcer Steve Goldstein said Saturday on Penguins Live Weekly. “He likes playing center but the most success he had in his career was for that seven week stretch last year when he was on the Panthers’ top line, on the right wing, with Evgenii Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov. He ended up with about 50 points and 19 goals.”
Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan clearly hopes to harness some of that success. He used the 26-year-old on Sidney Crosby’s right wing during practice on Wednesday before the team left for their three game road trip.
“He’s got great offensive instincts. He can shoot the puck. He’s shown the ability to play in a top-six role,” Sullivan said. “He’s a very capable player.”
Playing Bjugstad in this role seemed like a foregone conclusion when he was acquired and that could be a great thing for the top line. Crosby has played with Jake Guentzel throughout the season, but the other wing has been a revolving door occupied by Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon, Bryan Rust and even Phil Kessel for a brief spell.
McCann, 22, has been manning the third line center role, but also brings the ability to play on the wing. It does appear that he’ll stick on the third line for now. He is an energy player and can be tough to play against. That was evident during his first three games where he didn’t get on the score sheet, but was a factor in the face-off circle, winning 56.8 percent of his draws.
He already has eight goals this season and his next will tie a career high. That scoring ability will be an added benefit with the Penguins since they have at times been reliant on Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Kessel for their offensive punch.
He’s averaging 56 seconds per game on the penalty kill and that will likely go up.
It will be interesting to see if Sullivan opts to keep him on the third line, but he might eventually settle on the team’s fourth line once they are fully healthy. That will be determined in the coming weeks as Malkin and Zach Aston-Reese return from injuries.
Other Lineup Changes
Shuffling Bjugstad to the top line wasn’t the only change that Sullivan made on Wednesday. He elevated Matt Cullen to his second line, demoted Tanner Pearson to the fourth and broke up his top defensive pairing of Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang.
Here is a look at what the lineup could look like when the Penguins take the ice against the Panthers on Thursday at BB&T Center.
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Nick Bjugstad
Bryan Rust – Matt Cullen – Phil Kessel
Dominik Simon – Jared McCann – Patric Hornqvist
Tanner Pearson – Teddy Blueger – Garrett Wilson
Marcus Pettersson – Kris Letang
Brian Dumoulin – Jack Johnson
Olli Maatta – Juuso Riikola
- Sidney Crosby will be playing in his 915th career game, tying Hall of Fame owner Mario Lemieux for the franchise record for games played.
- Phil Kessel needs two points to become the 17th American-born player to reach 800 points for his career.
- Goaltender Matt Murray is being evaluated for an upper-body injury. He is on the trip with the team, but Tristan Jarry has been recalled on an emergency basis from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
- Defenseman Justin Schultz, who has been out since October with a leg fracture, went through his third full practice on Wednesday and continues to progress. There is no specific date set for his return.
- Malkin and Aston-Reese skated on their own ahead of practice Wednesday.
- Since the Penguins completed an impressive 15-3-1 stretch that took through December and into the New Year, they have gone 3-6 in their past nine games.