This offseason, Teddy Blueger's name keeps coming up as the perfect role model for younger players coming into the league.
Members of management - including assistant general manager Bill Guerin, player development coach Tom Kostopoulos and director of amateur scouting Patrik Allvin - have lauded Blueger for his work ethic, determination and ability to trust the process of going through the proper steps to reach the NHL after being drafted in the second round (52nd overall) back in 2012.
And now, the 24-year-old forward has been rewarded with his first one-way NHL contract - a two-year deal with an average annual value of $750,000.
"It feels really good to have it done and know where I'm going to be and know that I'm going to be a part of the team there," said Blueger, who was a restricted free agent. "Been working for it for a while. It kind of took me a while to get there from the draft, but now that I'm finally here, it's been awesome."
After the Penguins called his name, Blueger went to Minnesota State-Mankato, using all four years of his college eligibility before making the jump to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of his senior season in 2016. Blueger went on to play the next three-plus seasons in the American Hockey League, patiently working on his game.
He said it could get frustrating going through times where it seemed like a lot of other players were getting called up and getting chances while he wasn't, but Blueger leaned on Kostopoulos a lot and learned to just focus on himself and trust that it would eventually work out - and it did.
"If it was up to me I obviously wish I could have gotten (to the NHL) sooner, but that's just how it goes," he said. "I think I was fortunate enough to play with guys like (Kostopoulos) and other guys that we had in Wilkes, like Garrett Wilson, just people that became good friends. In my time there, I grew a lot as a player and developed and I think obviously it helps me."
Blueger finished with seven goals in 54 games during the 2016-17 season before posting 21 goals in 70 games during the 2017-18 season. And when he got called up on Jan. 29, 2019, Blueger came to Pittsburgh with 21 goals - this time, in just 45 games.
He made his NHL debut on Jan. 30 vs. Tampa Bay and played nine of 10 games before getting scratched for three and returning to WBS for one. At that point, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told Blueger to control what he could, and to trust him - he was going to be part of this moving forward.
Blueger returned to Pittsburgh's lineup on March 1 at Buffalo and didn't miss a game the rest of the regular season, finishing with 10 points (6G-4A) in 28 games. He also made his postseason debut in Game 2 of the First Round against the New York Islanders.
"I had so much fun being there last year even though it was only 2-3 months," Blueger said. "The guys were all awesome. Obviously I know a couple of the guys really well just from playing with them in Wilkes and stuff. I had a good run there for a bit and was able to play some more minutes and stuff and got more and more comfortable.
"I would say the first 10-15 games, it took some adjusting. I was just worried about chipping the puck forward, dumping it in. After that, it started to slow down a bit and I was able to hang onto the puck more and make more plays and get more comfortable that way. I thought I played better after that."
After the season ended, Blueger represented Latvia at the 2019 World Championship in Slovakia, where he posted an impressive faceoff win percentage of 62.7.
"I wasn't really doing anything weird or different than I normally do," he said. "It just kind of started to align a bit and I was winning a couple. Then obviously the more and more you win them, the more confident you get and the more you get into a rhythm, and the easier it gets. It was a short tournament, so I was kind of able to maintain that rhythm for the most part and do pretty well."
After the tournament, Blueger took a week-long vacation in Italy with his girlfriend and spent some time in Latvia before returning to Minnesota. Blueger is training with Penguins director of sports science Andy O'Brien and playing in Da Beauty League along with Jake Guentzel and Nick Bjugstad.
While Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford recently said that Blueger has established himself as a regular NHL player - which he appreciates - he doesn't plan on changing his approach, which is to work as hard as he can to get better knowing that he still has to earn everything he is given.
"Just because I have a one-way doesn't necessarily mean I'm a lock on the team. I still have to perform and play well," Blueger said. "So I'm just kind of getting ready for that, trying to be as prepared as I can for camp and play as well as I can to make a mark and fight for a spot on the team and fight for a bigger and bigger role going forward."