PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Penguins took the ice for warmups on Friday night before their game against the Ottawa Senators they were not anywhere close to having a full NHL roster.
They were already shorthanded because superstar center Evgeni Malkin was out of the lineup due to an undisclosed upper-body injury, perhaps the result of his fight with Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos on Wednesday night.
Then there was the issue of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.
Both players were acquired earlier in the day in a four-player, three-draft pick blockbuster with the Florida Panthers that saw Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan go the other way. With Brassard and Sheahan on their way to Florida, Bjugstad and McCann were desperately trying to get to Pittsburgh in time for puck drop.
If they didn’t make it on time the Penguins were only going to have 10 forwards at the start of the game.
They quite literally could not have cut it any closer.
At 6:56 p.m. ET, less than 10 minutes before game time, the scoreboard at PPG Paints Arena showed both players frantically running down the tunnel toward the Penguins’ locker room.
It was around that time the official game rosters and lineups were published with both players in the lineup. It did not matter what time they were dressed or when they got there, they were playing. Period.
It was not until the national anthems were wrapping up that both players finally emerged from the tunnel and joined their new team on the bench.
Then with no warmups, no pre-game meeting, and really no chance to even introduce themselves to their teammates they were thrown right into a game with their new team.
Bjugstad ended up playing 16 minutes and recorded two shots on goal and an assist in the Penguins’ 5-3 win, while McCann played 10 minutes.
“Usually I have my coffee and do some stretches, but I didn’t have any of that today,” laughed Bjugstad. “We got here around I think 6:50, ran out there, basically made it for the anthem. I have dreams every once in a while where I’m late to a game and that’s kind of what it felt like. Luckily, it worked out pretty good.”
McCann said their day began like any other. They took part in the morning skate in Florida in preparation for the Panthers’ game against the Nashville Predators and then returned home at lunch time. It was then that they got the phone call and were informed by the Panthers that they had been traded to the Penguins.
After briefly speaking to Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford they were on a jet headed to Pittsburgh.
Both players said they had little to no interaction with the coaching staff prior to the game.
“It was basically just say hi to the coaches and get on the ice,” said McCann when asked about their last-minute arrival to the building, while admitting he had no idea what time he actually entered the building, only recalling their sprint from the car to the locker room.
“They didn’t have time to say anything to us,” added Bjugstad. “There was the anthem, there were a few things said on the bench and that was it. I got a call earlier in the day from Jim [Rutherford] and Mike [Sullivan] and they said we’re going to try to play you tonight and it was kind of a whirlwind from there. Definitely excited to get that first one out of the way. This is going to be fun to be with these guys.
“We didn’t have much time. But we’ll always remember that, sitting on the plane wondering if we were going to make it on time. We need to thank our pilots for getting us here on time.”
Even after all of that chaos, they don’t really have any time to get settled in their new city before having to hit the road again. After their frantic day on Friday that included a trade, travel, and then playing in an NHL game they had to board another plane to Toronto for a 7 p.m. ET game against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
It is about as hectic of a 24-hour period an NHL player can have.
“I thought they had strong games tonight under difficult circumstances,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’re really excited about both guys. They’re really good guys and I think they’re excited to be Pittsburgh Penguins.”
Now that they both are Pittsburgh Penguins, their new duty is to provide some depth and stability to the bottom half of a roster that has been constantly overhauled over the past couple of years.
Friday’s trade continued what has been a now two-year trend by the Penguins of undoing every transaction within a year of completing it.
Within a year all three were traded.
During the season they acquired Jamie Oleksiak, Sheahan, and Brassard in three separate trades in an effort to bolster the depth that had been lost after their second consecutive Stanley Cup win in 2017. Within a year all three of those acquisitions are also now gone, and it is again worth pointing out that the trade that saw them move Oleksiak was a literal re-do of the trade where they originally acquired him.
On one hand, it shows that general manager Jim Rutherford will work quickly to correct his mistakes when he makes them and isn’t stubborn enough to keep hoping they will work.
It also shows an incredible sense of urgency in doing whatever it takes to try and win another championship with the current core of Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel. You only get players of that caliber for so long and you owe it to them, your franchise, and your fanbase to go all in on winning while you have them.
On the other hand, is this really a sustainable way to run a team with this much constant overhaul? Not only is it a sign that the moves you are making are not working, but it’s costing even more assets to correct them. Just think back to all of the assets they gave up to originally acquire Brassard before last year’s trade deadline. He was not cheap and not only cost them their 2018 first-round draft pick, but also one of their top prospects in goalie Filip Gustavsson as well as Reaves, who was originally acquired as part of a trade that saw them give up their 2017 first-round draft pick.
Then they had to give up three additional draft picks as part of the deal to get Bjugstad and McCann. That is a lot of roster movement to end up at this spot.
Time will tell if this latest trade works out as expected.
The Penguins obviously like that both players are younger than Brassard and Sheahan and have term remaining on their contracts beyond this season.
They also may be better fits in the roles the Penguins need them to play. Brassard just never seemed to work in Pittsburgh as a third-line center, a role that he had never played at any point in his career. No matter what they tried to do to get him going, it just never clicked.
Sheahan had his moments, but they just never came consistently enough.
Bjugstad’s career has been derailed by injuries at times over the past few seasons but he has shown the ability to be a 20-goal, 50-point forward, while McCann is reportedly a player the Penguins have had their eyes on for quite some time.
Their debut in Pittsburgh went about as well as could have been expected given the circumstances.
Now, they have a little under half a season to get up to speed with their new team and try to provide the essential depth they will need to help the Penguins make another run at the Stanley Cup.