Penguins giving Nick Bjugstad look as penalty killer
It is not so much of a job requirement as it is the job itself.
To to be a third-line center for the Penguins, killing penalties is a must. Especially because the No. 1 and 2 centers haven’t been asked to do it much over the past decade-plus.
Ever since an 18-year-old Jordan Staal forced general manager Ray Shero to keep him on the NHL roster in the fall of 2006, the Penguins’ No. 3 center has had the task of taking defensive-zone draws against the opposition’s top center and blocking shots from the defensemen capable of reaching the mid-90s on the speed gun.
Staal probably did it better than most.
Brandon Sutter did it better than he got credit for.
Nick Bonino did it with such abandon, his body often looked like a ripe cadaver.
Riley Sheahan did it because the Penguins had no one else who could do it.
Even Derick Brassard did it a little bit (but not that well).
Now, Nick Bjugstad will be expected to do it, too.
During Saturday’s 3-1 preseason loss at Columbus, the Penguins’ No. 3 center logged 1 minute, 55 seconds of short-handed ice time. While hardly an ample total, it represented a considerable jump over the 1:32 of short-handed time he experienced in 64 games split between the Penguins and Florida Panthers last season.
“I’ve done it growing up and everything, but the last few years, (with) Florida, I didn’t (penalty kill),” said Bjugstad, who joined the Penguins on Feb. 1 via trade with the Panthers. “It would have been nice to because (unless) you’re playing second power-play unit or you’re not playing (penalty kill), you’re sitting on that bench. You’re trying to find ways to keep rhythm in the game.”
Throughout his NHL existence, Bjugstad has been a rare participant on the penalty kill.
With the retirement of Matt Cullen, now a development coach with the team, the Penguins need someone to account for the Cullen’s 158 minutes of short-handed ice time (most among the team’s forwards) and a team-leading 150 short-handed faceoffs.
While Sidney Crosby was integrated more onto the penalty kill last season, his short-handed appearances are usually reserved for the late stages of a penalty in hopes of creating offense. The bulk of the penalty killing chores for the team’s centers will be handled by Bjugstad, Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger.
McCann and Blueger have far more extensive experience in that area than Bjugstad.
“Still learning,” said Bjugstad, 27. “The system is part of it. Trying to dial those in. The coaches have done a really good job of talking to us. Matt Cullen has been quite a bit of help so far. No (penalty killing) for me last year, obviously coming to a new team. Hopefully, I can excel in that role and help the team out in that area.”
Considering Crosby and Evgeni Malkin command so much playing time at even strength and on the power play, the penalty kill serves as an avenue for the No. 3 center to get on the ice more often.
“It keeps you into the game,” said Bjugstad. “If there’s a ton of penalties and you’re sitting on the bench, you’re getting cold. You want to be out there trying to help your team whatever way it is. If it’s penalty killing, I’m all for it. It seemed to go pretty well (Saturday). An emphasis of winning the faceoff right away and getting it out right away is a big thing for me. Continuing to work on those faceoffs is huge, too.”
At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Bjugstad is the Penguins’ tallest player and boasts a reach longer than most in the NHL. Ideally, those long limbs can clog up shooting and passing lanes.
“I can bring some dynamic with my reach and taking away space a little bit,” he said. “The big thing for me is learning not to try to go at guys, be a little patient and just take the middle of the ice away.
“That can go one of two ways. You can open too much of a triangle, and these guys in this league are smart enough to put it under you. So there’s something to be said that you don’t get too long. But I definitely think my reach can help and benefit me on the (penalty kill).”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said: “He has all the attributes to be a good penalty killer. He’s big, has a long reach, he has good hockey sense and he can skate. From our standpoint, we believe he has what it takes to be a good penalty killer. We just have to try to help him with giving him the reps that he needs and also, just coaching him along the way so that he can continue to get familiar with some of the concepts. But so far, we think he’s done a really good job.”
In two preseason appearances, Bjugstad already has logged 6:43 of short-handed ice time. He’s willing to take on as many minutes the coaches will grant him no matter the circumstances.
“You’ve got to take it where you can get it,” Bjugstad said. “I just want to help the team whatever way I can. As long as I’m on the ice contributing, I’ll do what I need to do. I’m going to continue to do my homework on it and work on it during games.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .