As Monday’s trade deadline starts to come into focus, one aspect of this season’s annual NHL swap meet will be very different for Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford than last year’s.
This time, he won’t be looking for a third-line center.
Last year, anticipation for the Penguins adding a player to slot in behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin was at a fever pitch. It eventually culminated in the ill-fated acquisition of Derick Brassard from Ottawa.
This year, Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann are already in the fold, added in the trade that sent Brassard and Riley Sheahan to the Florida Panthers earlier this month.
The 18-month period of upheaval at the position has revealed a truth about playing third-line center for Penguins: It can be rewarding, but it’s not for everyone.
First, ice time isn’t always going to be plentiful. A center playing behind two of the greatest talents of this generation simply isn’t going to get as many minutes as he would with most other clubs.
This is something Brassard never fully adjusted to.
“That’s part of the deal, and when you watch those guys play, you understand why,” veteran center Matt Cullen said. “Obviously, those are the guys you want on the ice, and those are the guys you want deciding the game. We all understand that. We all want those guys on the ice as much as possible in the right situations.
“When you’re in the bottom six, it’s about making the most of the time you get and being ready when you get it. It’s not always easy, but you have to be prepared mentally.”
Second, Crosby and Malkin are going to receive the lion’s share of offensive-zone starts. Any coach with an ounce of sense would see to that. The third-line center will start the majority of his shifts in the defensive-zone.
This is something Jordan Staal and Nick Bonino embraced.
“It’s an adjustment if you haven’t done a lot of it,” Cullen said. “It’s something you learn to take pride in and sort of relish, starting in your own end and still being able to generate offense. That’s the attitude you need going into that spot.”
For most of the past few games, Bjugstad was playing on the wing on the second line, and McCann held down the third-line center spot. During Sunday’s 6-5 Penguins win over the Rangers, coach Mike Sullivan bumped Zach Aston-Reese up to the second line and shuffled Bjugstad to the middle of the third line, and the new combinations sparked a late-game rally.
Whether Bjugstad or McCann holds down the role in the long run, there’s a good chance neither will balk at it like Brassard did.
While Bjugstad has repeatedly professed his ability and willingness to play either position, he grew up as a center. It’s clear he has an affinity for playing in the middle.
“As a center, you’re always kind of moving. You’re always flowing with the play,” Bjugstad said. “As a wing, you’ve got to find ways to get speed. I’ve felt the last few years it was an adjustment at first playing wing.”
McCann, meanwhile, has an obvious desire to prove himself as a two-way contributor, even though he has a great shot and was a scoring sensation in juniors.
“I think it’s the position where you’ve got to strictly be the two-way guy. You’ve got to focus on defense first,” McCann said. “Personally, I feel like being really good defensively turns into offense.
“I’m not going to cheat for offense. Those are the junior days, when you could just sit out by the red line and get the puck. It’s a lot different game now, and I feel like I’m a lot better player now because I’ve taken on the defensive role better.”