As a team that almost always trades away their first round pick on a yearly basis, the Pittsburgh Penguins talent level from players age 18-24 isn’t really that good. It’s a natural consequence of where this organization is in their franchise life-cycle. They’re about to make the current league-best 13th straight trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era has already been a smash hit with three Stanley Cup wins, and more are desperately sought before the stars totally leave their primes.
The challenge is finding the right supporting players. As we saw with tail-end of the Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma era in Pittsburgh, the Penguins had traded a lot of high picks and didn’t add the right type of players through trades as time dragged on. To Shero’s credit, he actually seemed to realize this and some of his draft picks (like Olli Maatta, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guenztel) have been key players now. It just took them too long to develop to save Shero being as draft picks from 2010 can take until 2015 to develop into NHL caliber players.
Current general manager Jim Rutherford has been bold and aggressive in trading players. While his batting average can be debated, another deal you can move pretty firmly into the win column is the February move to add Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad from the Florida Panthers in exchange for slumping and ill-fitted Derick Brassard, fourth-liner Riley Sheahan, and a trio of draft picks — the 2019 second rounder being the only one of expected value.
As Rutherford told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, adding McCann was no mistake or recent idea that they had.
“I’ve liked McCann since he was drafted,” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday. “Both McCann and Bjugstad have been on my radar for over a year; I’ve been trying to get them out of Florida for that length of time.
“It just happened that the timing was right, and we got what we really needed.”
McCann especially has been a revelation. He has scored 11 goals and added four assists in his first 26 games as a Penguin. The highlight so far was undoubtedly the spinning effort on a shorthanded goal last night in Dallas.
A big part of why McCann has done so well, is just how versatile he’s been. As mentioned, that goal was on the penalty kill, a role he’s growing into. McCann has played wing on Sidney Crosby’s line. He has played some center. He’s currently being used with Teddy Blueger and Phil Kessel on what could be considered the make-shift second line due to Malkin’s injury.
The Pens are a team without a lot of youth, and the forwards are no exception. Guentzel is a star player, of course. Blueger is just now playing his first NHL games at the age of 24. Zach Aston-Reese has made a jump from undrafted free agent two years ago to NHL regular. Dominik Simon is a decent depth player as well. There are a couple of other longer-term (and probably longer-odds) type of prospects in the minors like Anthony Angello, Sam Lafferty, and Sam Miletic.
And after that... there isn’t much else. Guentzel, Simon, ZAR, and Blueger as under 25-year-old NHL forwards in an organization is probably the least inspiring young nucleus in the league. That’s okay when you boast a Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist core, but every team loves youth. Fresh legs. Energy. Excitement.
McCann can provide that. He’s under contract next season too for $1.25 million, which is a tremendous bargain to the team if he continues to produce close to what he has been doing so far. For a guy who can play center or wing, for any line, kill penalties, take a power play shift, you name it. McCann, 22, is the second youngest player on the NHL team right now, and almost two years younger than every other forward.
McCann has offered a little bit of everything, and a lot of goal scoring. Best of all, his addition has been an injection of youth and should offer solid contributions for years to come.