Blueger Return Will Have Great Impact on Penguins

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Take a look at the meat grinder of games the Penguins have coming up on their schedule. Their next seven games will be against a team inside the playoff picture as it stands today: Carolina twice, Vegas, Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville, and St. Louis.

They don’t get a break until a trip to Arizona on a Saturday, over two weeks from now, that rounds out a three-game road trip. Talk about brutal.

But this will also be a nice test for the Penguins as they head towards the trade deadline, while trying to figure out exactly what this team needs to get going again. They’ve felt stale for a few weeks now after rattling off 17 wins in 19 games between December and January.

They’ve continued to win some games since, but when they do, it’s not in convincing fashion. They limp through a portion of the game early on just to flex their muscle and eventually win it late. Putting a full 60 minutes together has been rare for the Pens as of late.

Do they need a massive trade to get them going? I really don’t think so. Sure, they could make a minor move or two to help with depth on the defensive end, and potentially pick up a cheap forward. But they won’t be competing with teams to get the big names on the market.

One thing a few people forget to is that the Penguins biggest additions will come without making trades at all.  Two important pieces will be returning to the lineup in the relatively near future: Teddy Blueger and Jason Zucker.

While it looks like Zucker is still a few weeks away, Blueger could be back as early as tonight against the Lightning. His presence has sorely been missed on the penalty kill, and in general.

Pittsburgh had been the premier penalty killing unit all season prior to Blueger’s jaw injury. While still clicking at a solid rate, they’ve fallen to third in the NHL without him. That’s not a coincidence.

Blueger's biggest impact is his ability to win defensive zone draws, which is a huge factor in the penalty-killing unit. Obviously, possessing the puck and not allowing the opposing power play to set up is the key to running a top unit, but winning the faceoffs in your own end can be just as important. He’s one of the more underrated penalty killers in the entire league and his absence has magnified that importance.

Blueger, 27, was a second round pick of the Penguins in 2012. He spent a lot of time maturing in the minors before debuting in 2018-19’ and then becoming a full time staple the following season.

His highest point total is 22 which he’s reached the last two seasons. However, the first of those came in 69 games. He reached that total in just 43 last season. Blueger is at 17 points in 40 games this season and looked primed to shatter that career-high in points until the injury. He still has plenty of time to do so, but not to as much of a degree.

We’ve seen his continual evolution since his debut. Blueger was never projected as a lights out scorer. He plays a more defensive-style of hockey, which is why he’s the ideal player for a Mike Sullivan-coached team. However, he’s continued to score frequently in a bottom-six role. He has eight goals already and could reach double-digits for the first time in his career this season.

The Penguins employ Blueger on a very team-friendly deal as well. It’s long been said Blueger could be the third line center. That was obviously the plan until the Penguins made the splash move and acquired Jeff Carter last season to strengthen their depth down the middle.

Blueger’s return does so much for the flexibility of the Penguins. Blueger’s return frees up someone like Carter to possibly slide up to the Malkin line on a permanent basis until Zucker comes back. 

Blueger enjoyed a lot of success with Brock McGinn and Zach Aston-Reese this season. They’ve been the shutdown fourth-line the Penguins very much enjoy deploying. McGinn stepped into Brandon Tanev’s spot from last season and the line seamlessly continued to be huge for Pittsburgh.

With Brian Boyle playing some solid hockey for a 37-year old, the Penguins can deploy him in any position offensively and he can succeed.

The residual effect would likely see Dominik Simon lose his lineup spot. He has all of three goals in 49 games this year. With the Penguins struggling enough recently to manufacture goals, Simon should be demoted to the press box to try and see the game from above for a little while.

Zucker’s eventual return will make the Penguins even more dynamic, but we’ll save the talk about him for when he’s closer to getting back on the ice.

Whether Blueger returns Thursday or within the next few games, the Penguins will be a much-improved team upon him coming back and that can’t be overstated enough.