The Pittsburgh Penguins have their bottom six centers under contract for next season in Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger. With contract negotiations at a standstill for Evgeni Malkin, players like Blueger may be asked to play a larger role for the 2022-2023 season. Heading into a contract year, Blueger may be primed for a breakout season, but can the Penguins actually expect more from him in 2022-2023?
The improvements of Teddy Blueger
When the Penguins selected Blueger in the second round of 2012 NHL draft, they drafted a talented player with 2nd/3rd line center ambitions. Coming out of the same high school hockey program that Sidney Crosby played for, scouts frequently stated that he had the anticipation and creativity to play at the NHL level and his offensive skills were the highlight of most reports.
After a four year career at Minnesota State, capped off with 35 points in 41 games his senior season, Blueger graduated to the AHL affiliate of the Penguins. He brought his same skillset and high IQ to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Over his three seasons in the AHL, his game pivoted and evolved into the two-way player Blueger is now. He added penalty killing and a much improved defensive awareness to his repertoire, in addition to eclipsing the 20 goal mark twice with the AHL Penguins.
In 2018, the Penguins elevated Blueger to the NHL team and he's stuck ever since. Since his call-up, he has played exclusively as the 3rd or 4th line center. Despite playing lower minutes, Blueger has seen continual improvement in each season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Blueger continues to be a player who drives offense every time he is on the ice. This past season, he posted career highs in goals, assists, and points (9-19-28) in only 65 games played.
With the rash of injuries the Penguins faced, Blueger was asked to be a source of consistency in the bottom six. He responded with his best offensive and most responsible defensive season. After trading Zach Aston-Reese, Blueger became the Penguins best penalty killer. His face-off improvements this year also led to being frequently deployed by head coach Mike Sullivan in key situations.
The need for more
While Blueger has certainly been a solid player for the Penguins, he has never been more. The biggest thing that Blueger has failed to improve at the NHL level is his goal scoring. He has never been described as a sniper, but his production leaves a lot to be desired.
Entering his age 27 season, Blueger's career high is nine goals. He certainly could have scored 10+ this past season, had he not been on the receiving end of a dirty hit to the head in February. Still, Blueger needs make a specific effort to put the puck in the net more next season. He has the skills to do so and a pedigree of scoring at every level, it's time to make that true in the NHL.
The Penguins need 15 goals from Teddy Blueger next season. In order to do so, two things need to happen. First, Blueger needs more offensive zone time. Last season, Blueger began nearly all shifts in the defensive zone. Giving his intelligence and awareness more opportunity to be in the offensive zone could lead to increased results for both him and his linemates.
Speaking of linemates, the second thing that needs to happen is Sullivan needs to find a capable player to pair with Blueger. For the past several years, Blueger played with Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev/Brock McGinn. Tanev and McGinn have 10-15 goal resumes, but ZAR was a black hole offensively.
Combined with their defense first mindset, Blueger's lines have rarely been sources of consistent offense. Adding a player that can carry the puck or finish a play would provide a huge boost to Blueger and the bottom six. With several players in Wilkes-Barre currently knocking on the door, perhaps Sullivan will experiment with different younger options for next year.
In the meantime, Blueger needs to focus on improving his game next year. If his offensive game can match his defensive game, Blueger could go from solid, to an essential member of this team. The Penguins need that desperately from Blueger, and it will be interesting to see if he delivers.
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