Crazy intro over, Pens newcomers McCann, Bjugstad settle in

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.”

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After chaotic arrival, Penguins’ newcomers could provide key depth

AP
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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.”

[Related: Penguins land Bjugstad; Panthers get Brassard, picks]

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.

Last offseason they added Ryan ReavesMatt Hunwick, and Antti Niemi.

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.

More: Penguins lock in; Panthers prep for Panarin pursuit?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Florida Panthers ’15-16 Outlook

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Jaromir Jagr is extremely important to the Florida Panthers, and not just because he found such great chemistry with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.

One can imagine a scenario where the Panthers’ bounty of youngsters make a huge leap and help Florida burst onto the scene in its market.

Still, many would probably agree that the Panthers are more likely to make incremental improvements in 2015-16, which pivots back to Jagr: if this team wants any butts in seats, their veterans may be the ones to draw them. Even if it’s really about the young guns.

Discuss Florida’s attendance issues here.

Barring that meteoric rise, it will take time for crucial casual fans to really get acquainted with the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Huberdeau, Barkov and even Aaron Ekblad.

In the meantime, the Panthers can trumpet Jagr’s continued gallop through the record books to entice the less-hardcore among their potential base. Just look at how much he could climb if the 43-year-old continues to defy the aging process:

All-time goals list:

3. Brett Hull – 741 goals
4. Marcel Dionne – 731
5. Jagr – 722

All-time points:

2. Mark Messier: 1,887 points
3. Gordie Howe: 1,850
4. Jagr: 1,802

Remarkable stuff, right?

Roberto Luongo may be a subtle draw, too, although goalies probably don’t bring in audiences quite like a seemingly ageless, legendary forward might.

Again, the truth is that Jagr would ideally serve as a supporting cast member on the ice. The Panthers will probably just market him as if he’s still the marquee star – at least until the team is clearly in contention – and who would blame them?

Panthers’ biggest question: Can the old guys hang on while the young guys get better?

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The Florida Panthers are a bit of an odd team, in terms of their mix.

They have Jaromir Jagr, who at 43 is the oldest player in the NHL by a considerable margin. They also have a couple of 38-year-olds in Willie Mitchell and Shawn Thornton, plus a couple of 36-year-olds in Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell.

Yet you can’t call the Panthers an old team. These aren’t the New Jersey Devils we’re talking about here.

Not with 19-year-old Aaron Ekblad, the league’s reigning rookie of the year, and 22-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau, who received the same honor in 2013.

Also, Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Brandon Pirri, Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic, and Dylan Olsen. All of them under 25 years of age.

Oh, and don’t forget Lawson Crouse, the 18-year-old winger that could make the team. And Rocco Grimaldi, the 22-year-old forward who had 42 points 64 AHL games last season.

You get the point.

“We’ve got young players that are very capable of playing for us next year,” said GM Dale Tallon. “We don’t want to shut the door on that. We want those guys to get every opportunity to be on our team. I want to be the youngest team in the league and the best team in the league at the same time.”

The key next season will be for the old guys to hang on while the young guys get better. If that happens, the Panthers have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs, and even making some noise once they get there.

On the other hand, if key veterans like Jagr, Campbell and Luongo start showing their age and/or the youngsters experience too many growing pains, they could stumble.

Related: Roberto Luongo is under pressure

It’s Florida Panthers day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Florida Panthers.

For the third season in a row, the Florida Panthers fell short of the playoffs.

This time around, there were signs of moderate progress, as they finished 10th overall in the East with a 38-28-15 record (91 points). Final wild card team Pittsburgh finished seven points ahead of them, so there’s still work to do.

For especially jaded fans, this may sound like a broken record, yet the team’s extreme mix of potential and experience could make for intriguing results.

At one end, you have veteran star power with Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo. They even have Brian Campbell for one more year, as his oft-cited $7.14 million cap hit will expire after 2015-16.

On the other end, a bountiful crop of young players earned from all these years of underwhelming play.

Aaron Ekblad won the 2015 Calder Trophy, while this year’s first-rounder Lawson Crouse may also make an immediate impact. Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are all showing varying degrees of promise. Bjugstad’s the oldest of these young players, and he’s just 23.

Expectations should climb in Gerard Gallant’s second season as head coach, at least from those who are paying attention to a team that frequently slips under the radar.

Off-season recap

For the most part, the Panthers stayed idle in free agency, either letting veterans walk (Tomas Kopecky) or shoving them out the door (Brad Boyes). Perhaps re-signing Jagr constitutes their “big splash,” then?

They did make one eyebrow-raising move in adding Marc Savard’s contract in a deal that sent Jimmy Hayes to the Boston Bruins for Reilly Smith.

Florida seems content with letting its young players continue to grow alongside Jagr and Luongo.