By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)
PITTSBURGH (AP) — It wasn’t the hastily arranged private plane ride from Miami to Pittsburgh. Or the police escort from the airport to PPG Paints Arena. It wasn’t the sight of a black-and-gold jersey with his name on the back hanging in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ locker room. It wasn’t even racing to the bench and jumping over the wall and onto the ice with his new teammates without exchanging so much as an introductory handshake.
No, Jared McCann‘s ”whoa” moment from the most exhilarating and surreal weekend of his professional life came Sunday, when the newly acquired forward arrived at Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby‘s house to watch the Super Bowl with the rest of the gang.
”There’s like an area to the side there, and it’s Hart Trophy, Hart Trophy, Hart Trophy,” McCann said, referring to Crosby’s three NHL MVP awards.
Welcome to Pittsburgh, where the climate isn’t the only thing that’s a shock to the system.
On Friday morning, McCann and Nick Bjugstad thought they were part of the long-term plans for the Florida Panthers. By Sunday night, they were hanging out in the home of one of the game’s biggest stars while playing for a team where anything less than a Stanley Cup parade through downtown in mid-June is considered a disappointment.
No pressure or anything.
”As soon as I walked in the rink here, they have the (championships) banners hanging everywhere,” McCann said. ”It’s like: ‘You know what? We win here.’ You get that feeling. You just have confidence. You know you have guys that are going to show up every night and play well, and I want to be a positive influence for this team.”
The Penguins are counting on that from both the 22-year-old McCann and the 26-year-old Bjugstad, brought over in a trade with Florida for veteran forwards Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard and three 2019 draft picks.
The early returns have been promising. Both players hardly looked overwhelmed while playing a back-to-back against Ottawa and Toronto in their first 27 hours with their new club. Bjugstad joined the second line and picked up an assist in a victory over the Senators while McCann played solidly centering the third line between forwards Tanner Pearson and Patric Hornqvist.
”I thought they handled it great coming into a new dressing room 10 minutes before the game, getting thrown in there right into a game, playing some pretty good minutes, too,” Crosby said. ”There’s a lot to be said about that. Sometimes that’s the best way, get thrown into it like that.”
McCann credited Hornqvist for helping put him in the right spots on the ice over the weekend while the 6-foot-6 Bjugstad tried not to overdo it while centering the second line in place of injured Evgeni Malkin.
”It’s almost better not having time to think,” Bjugstad said.
That came on Monday when they went through their first practice in Pittsburgh. If Bjugstad wasn’t getting pulled away for a private moment with assistant coach Mark Recchi, then McCann was peppering anyone who would listen with questions.
While they want to catch up quickly for a team that heads into Tuesday’s game against Carolina tied with Washington for second in the Metropolitan Division with 30 games to go, they also have the benefit of time. Neither player is a rental. Bjugstad is signed through 2021 while McCann’s contract runs through the end of the 2019-20 season.
Coach Mike Sullivan still hasn’t settled on who will play where once Malkin – who is day to day with an upper-body injury – returns. Bjugstad could be effective as a third-line center, a spot the Penguins have been struggling to fill since Nick Bonino left following the team’s second straight Stanley Cup in 2017.
Bjugstad also has size (6-foot-6) and a skillset that includes a 20-goal season, making him a candidate to find a spot in the top six. McCann, meanwhile, is an effective penalty killer who believes he is prepared for whatever the Penguins might throw his way. He already is taking pointers from 42-year-old Matt Cullen, who had made a career out of finding ways to do all the little things coaches love. It’s not a bad blueprint to follow.
”I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to become the player I know I can be,” McCann said.
First things first, however. McCann acknowledged he might have to stop at a shopping mall to pick up some pants. Seems he was in such a rush to get to Pittsburgh he mostly packed shorts for the trip north, not exactly ideal in a city where the sun is more rumor than fact between November and May. If that’s his lone misstep after the craziness surrounding his arrival, he’ll take it.
”I had a great time in Florida,” McCann said. ”But I feel like this is the next stepping stone in my career.”