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Tim Benz: Teddy Blueger should be a constant, not a question for Penguins

Tim Benz
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Penguins center Teddy Blueger celebrates after scoring against the Maple Leafs during the first period Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019 in Toronto.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan made many eye-opening moves heading into the Flyers game on Monday night.

• He reconfigured the power-play units.

• Nick Bjugstad was placed on Evgeni Malkin’s right wing.

• Patric Hornqvist became a fourth-liner.

• Teddy Blueger got scratched.

Each of those moves drew varying reactions from Penguins fans and produced varying degrees of effectiveness during the team’s 4-1 win in Philadelphia.

Except for scratching Blueger. That made no sense. To anyone.

Since getting called up against the Lightning on Jan. 30, the 24-year-old forward registered two goals and an assist, to go along with numerous shifts that displayed energy, speed, hockey sense, defensive responsibility and tenacity.

Yeah. Aside from that, totally worthy of a healthy scratch.

As soon as Blueger was put back into the lineup Wednesday against the Oilers, he scored again as part of a 3-1 Penguins victory.

Given the team’s struggle to find scoring consistency of late, one would think leaving Blueger in the lineup would be a natural conclusion. So why was he taken out in the first place?

“I’m not going to get into the decision-making process as to why we did what we did. But there were a number of reasons,” Sullivan said when I posed that question Wednesday night. “But we feel as though (Blueger) is a guy that’s in the mix for someone who is in our top 12 (forwards). He has made a strong case for himself.”

A strong case? Yes. I’d say so.

It’s at least a better case than the ones made by Dominik Simon and Garrett Wilson, who have been granted much longer stretches of time to show their abilities to contribute in the NHL.

Blueger has three goals in seven games. Wilson has one in 28, and Simon has seven in 48.

Maybe Sullivan’s decision was a psychological ploy. Perhaps it was a chance to see how the rookie would handle a seat in the press box after gaining some initial success and positive publicity.

Or maybe it was just a bad decision based on any of those other reasons Sullivan didn’t want to disclose.

Regardless, there is a more important conversation to have now. After Blueger scored what proved to be the game-winning goal against the Oilers on Wednesday, can Sullivan be at the point where he trusts Blueger enough to make him a regular in the lineup? The same way he did after recalling the likes of Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl during his first two years as coach?

“He’s a real good player,” Sullivan said. “We can play him at wing. We can play him at center. He a real good penalty killer, a good 200-foot player. That fact that he has chipped in offensively with a few goals has been a bonus for us.”

Thanks to a gracious suspension of just one game for his stick-swinging incident against the Flyers, Evgeni Malkin will — presumably — be back in the lineup Saturday when the Penguins host the Calgary Flames.

Zach Aston-Reese made his return Wednesday, too. So at least one more player will be booted off the line chart.

It better not be Blueger again.

“I feel like I have played pretty well,” Blueger said Wednesday. “Obviously there are some nuances and stuff to learn. But the game is slowing down, and I’m feeling more comfortable out there.”

It’s not as if Blueger comes without pedigree. He’s a 2012 second-round pick on a team bereft of high draft choices in recent years. That’s greater draft capital than any of those other former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. And with 39 points in 45 games in the AHL this year, it’s not as if he has disappointed in the minors.

Yet, there seems to be one last gap, one last hurdle he needs to clear before the coaching staff pencils him into the lineup on a nightly basis as they did with his recent AHL peers.

“He’s approaching it, if he’s not already there,” Rust said after the win. “He plays so hard offensively. But he has endurance to go play hard defensively and back check.

“To have that in our lineup is huge.”

Seven good games shouldn’t earn a permanent spot on the team. But it should earn a long, earnest look.

It should earn a stretch of games where he is at least allowed a bad one without fear of a bus trip back to Wilkes-Barre.

That should begin Saturday, if it hasn’t already.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.