Who’s next to follow Teddy Blueger’s long road to Penguins lineup?
When the Pittsburgh Penguins re-signed Teddy Blueger to a two-year contract on Tuesday, assistant general manager Bill Guerin praised the 24-year-old center’s ability to “trust the process of going through the proper steps to get to the NHL.”
A look at Blueger’s career path to date shows Guerin wasn’t kidding.
Blueger was the Penguins’ second-round pick in the 2012 draft. He attended Minnesota-Mankato for four years, then played two full seasons in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before making his NHL debut on Jan. 30 last season against Tampa Bay.
That’s a long process to trust – almost seven years.
To find another player who went as long as seven years between being a Penguins draft pick and making his NHL debut for the team, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1990s.
Brian Bonin was the Penguins’ ninth-round selection in the 1992 draft, just after he was named Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey. He went to the University of Minnesota for four years, winning the Hobey Baker Award in 1996, before spending most of the next three seasons in the minors in Cleveland, Syracuse and Adirondack. Finally, he made his Penguins debut April 8, 1999 against the Flyers.
“It’s really hard to get a call-up,” Guerin said last season. “I tell guys, you can’t necessarily just play your way into a call-up. Something’s got to happen. Then when you’re ready and you’ve got that window, we can call you up. But you’ve got to be playing well.
“Teddy’s been doing this for a long time. You’ve got to be resilient. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to be consistent.”
In Blueger’s case, the slow road to the NHL seems to have been the correct path.
In college and his early days in the AHL, he learned to play the responsible two-way game that will likely be his calling card as a bottom-six, penalty killing center in the NHL.
Over the last two seasons, he started to add the requisite offensive production to his game. At the time of his call-up in January, he was fourth in the AHL with 21 goals in 45 games, and once he was promoted, he chipped in six goals and 10 points in 28 games with the Penguins.
Add it all up, and he’s become the type of well-rounded player that coach Mike Sullivan can slot into the fourth-line center spot of his lineup card and consider that position filled for the season.
Given the Penguins’ penchant for trading away top draft picks with a win-now mentality in the last decade or so, they probably rely on blue-collar hard-working prospects making their way to the NHL more than most organizations.
Here’s a look at three Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players who could follow Blueger on the scenic route to Pittsburgh.
• Thomas Di Pauli
Di Pauli doesn’t fit the Blueger profile exactly because he was drafted by Washington in 2012, not Pittsburgh, but he never signed with the Capitals and joined the Penguins as a free agent as soon as his four-year Notre Dame career ended in 2016.
The Penguins love his speed and fitness. He profiles as the same kind of fleet-footed penalty killing left wing that Carl Hagelin was during his run with the team. The problem is he just can’t stay healthy. Di Pauli has played only 108 games in three full AHL seasons.
• Sam Lafferty
The Hollidaysburg native has spent only one full season in the AHL, so he hasn’t yet been forced to exercise the patience that Blueger did, but there are some similarities between the players. Most notably, Lafferty and Blueger both showed the same slow-but-steady progression through a four-year college career that kept them on the radar but nowhere near the top of any analyst’s prospects list.
A fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, Lafferty had a solid rookie season in the AHL. Coming out of Brown, he had 13 goals and 49 points in 70 games.
• Anthony Angello
Like Lafferty, Angello is only one year into his AHL apprenticeship, but he’s already traveled a five-year road since being drafted by the Penguins in the fifth round in 2014.
Angello spent one season with Omaha in the USHL before playing three years at Cornell. A right-handed power forward prospect, he had 16 goals and 29 points in 65 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last year.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .