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Third-line center contenders

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Carter Rowney in the fold, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford continues his search to acquire a third-line center for his team, which he has narrowed down to three potential players.

However, Rutherford isn't going to panic and make a bad deal just to get a center. And so the Pens' GM is prepared to begin the season without making any moves. Therefore, the Pens would have to find someone from within to fill that void. 

Here are some in-house contenders for that position…


The Pens brass loves Blueger. They loved him when they selected him in the second-round (52nd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft. And they love him now that he's gone through several years of developing at the college and American Hockey League level.

The Latvian-born pivot played four years at Minnesota State-Mankato, winning back-to-back WCHA championships in 2014 and' 15. The 23-year-old played his first season of pro hockey with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2016-17. Blueger was arguably the Pens' best overall player at last weekend's Prospects Challenge.

Blueger isn't the fastest skater, though he did work on improving his speed this summer, but he has a high hockey IQ and is very responsible in his own zone. Blueger has a knack for reading plays and being in the right position.

"I just want to show that I'm reliable defensively," Blueger said. "The biggest thing is to defend well and take care of our own end. Offensively, when opportunity presents itself, make plays like I know I can. Try to build off of that rookie tournament."


The Pens think very highly of Johnson and his potential. The team coveted the late bloomer following his spectacular sophomore season at Minnesota-Duluth, where he posted 18 goals and 37 points while leading the Bulldogs to the NCAA Championship Game. The Pens invited him to attend their annual Prospect Development Camp in the summer and shortly after signed him to a contract.

Johnson, 23, will have to adjust to the game at the pro level, dealing with speed and skill that he's never seen before. But his biggest asset is his foot speed. At last weekend's Prospects Challenge, he was skating circles around the competition. That speed will help him compensate for mistakes and ease the learning curve.

Johnson certainly has areas of his game in which he needs to improve, mostly face-offs. He was a lifelong winger until last season when he made the switch to center.

"I'm just trying to play my best and hope that's good enough to fill that spot," Johnson said. "All around I have a solid game. There are a couple areas I need to work on. I think I can fill the role if need be."


McKegg has a decent amount of experience in pro hockey having played 65 games in the NHL and 244 in the AHL. He is still fairly young at just 25 years old.

McKegg has shown a knack for scoring goals throughout his career. He's recorded seasons with 22 and 19 goals in two partial seasons in the AHL with Toronto. He also notched 49 and 37 while playing junior hockey with Erie of the OHL.

"You just try to show them what you've got and help the team anyway you can," McKegg said. "It's nice having some (NHL experience) the last couple of years. It can only help you. There are a ton of good players here and they're hungry and looking to impress."


One wild card possibility is veteran center Jay McClement. The 34-year-old is in camp on a professional tryout contract. So he's not just fighting for a job as third-line center, he's fighting for a contract period.

McClement has played 13 seasons in the NHL with St. Louis, Colorado, Toronto and Carolina. He's a durable player that is good in the face-off circle and can kill penalties. Though he doesn't chip in a lot offensively, McClement is solid in his own zone.

"It's all about opportunity. That's all you can ask for when you're on a PTO, is an opportunity to show your stuff, and hopefully things work out," McClement said. 

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