By Nick Bjugstad’s estimate, his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins was just 25 hours old and he already had two games of service under his belt. Traded to the Pens alongside center Jared McCann from Florida in exchange for Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and picks, the towering pivot and McCann got to Pittsburgh’s game against Ottawa just in time on Friday, then suited up again when the team played Toronto the next day. Needless to say, it was a whirlwind.
“We came in 10 minutes before the game so there was no handshake or anything, it was just hop in and play,” Bjugstad said. “(Saturday) morning we had a stretch and I got to chat with most of the guys. Seems like a good culture and group here, so I’m excited.”
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has been very aggressive during his tenure with the franchise and the Bjugstad/McCann trade is the latest salvo. Both players have term left on their contracts, whereas Brassard and Sheahan were both pending unrestricted free agents, so Pittsburgh’s tight cap situation didn’t exactly loosen with this deal, but the Penguins are happy to have a player such as Bjugstad to work with.
“Nick can bring a lot,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s got great offensive instincts and he’s a good 200-foot player. He skates well, he’s got a real long wingspan, he protects pucks and he’s hard to get the puck off of. We’re a team that likes to hang on to pucks and force teams to defend us. He can play that type of game. And we like his versatility – he can play wing and he can play center.”
With star center Evgeni Malkin on the shelf, Bjugstad has been playing his natural center position so far with Pittsburgh, teaming up with fellow University of Minnesota alum Phil Kessel on a line that has also featured either Bryan Rust or Dominik Simon on the wing. That line did well against Ottawa, but got caved in a bit in the loss to the Leafs – though Bjugstad did get a breakaway that ultimately ended with a save by goaltender Garret Sparks.
McCann saw duty on the third line against Toronto and with Pittsburgh jockeying for position in the Metropolitan Division, the new guys are getting auditions on the fly.
“We’re trying to put them in positions where they can play to their strengths,” Sullivan said. “The rest of it is perform-based. That’s the nature of our business: if you play well, you earn more opportunities.”
For Bjugstad, it would be nice to see more offense in his game. At 6-foot-6 and 218 pounds, he’s a big dude and in college, he proved he could put the puck in the net. At the NHL level, numbers haven’t come as easily. Bjugstad’s best goal total came in 2014-15 when he netted 24, but he has yet to crack 50 points in any given season. This year with Florida, a hand injury cost him 16 games, but he had only put up 10 points in the 27 games leading up to that. For a first-round pick, expectations were higher than that.
“Having a change of scenery might be good for me,” Bjugstad said. “I had been in South Florida my entire pro career, so it’ll be a bit different here, but hopefully I can find my stride.”
If anything, Pittsburgh is a pretty ideal place to get that support. With Sidney Crosby as captain and a number of players with Stanley Cup rings behind him, the leadership and culture surrounding the Penguins is top-notch.
“I’ve watched a lot of these guys, even growing up – it’s a great team so it’s easy to jump in,” Bjugstad said. “They make it easy on you, because they’re making the right plays. The hardest part was probably coming off the 10-day break I had.”
Can Pittsburgh still contend for a Cup? Even with Crosby and Malkin, the window seems to be closing simply due to depth. It happens with every contender eventually (Chicago is already down there) and the Penguins’ prospect cupboard is as bare as they come due to years of going for it – and succeeding on two occasions. Bjugstad and McCann make the lineup a little better and perhaps Rutherford isn’t finished his wheeling and dealing – but the time to saddle up for one more run is now and the imports from Florida will have to hit the ground running.