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For the Penguins, the skating never stopped

By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about 22 hours ago

The legs feed the wolf.

It’s that line, plucked from the movie “Miracle,” that keeps bouncing around inside my head as I watch the Penguins close practice with a whole bunch of skating.

If you were here at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you know what I mean. It’s been intense. Looked like four laps in 40 seconds, then something different today. Wasn’t exactly able to pin it down.

“I don’t know what it is exactly,” Trevor Daley said. “All we know is go as fast as you can go.”

The Penguins do. If these two days have shown us anything, it’s that preparing to play this way is not an easy process. Nor does it come as a surprise.

“It’s a reflection of what our team is,” Daley said. “We want to be a quick, high-paced, play fast, play quick and do it for the longest (period of time).”

Coach Mike Sullivan was asked today whether it’s reasonable to expect the Penguins to play to the identity he helped them carve out for a full 82-game season.

Sullivan absolutely believes they can. And maybe do more. I don’t want anything to get lost in context, and we’re obviously not bound here by print guidelines, so here’s his whole response:

I really believe it was a comfort zone for our team. I think that’s the strength of this group — their mobility and their desire to play a speed game. I think that’s our competitive advantage. I think our players believe that. I think they want to play that way. I do think it’s repeatable. I think this group has another level that we’re going to push ourselves to get to. We’re going to challenge these guys right from Day 1. We’re trying to create a competitive camp here. We’re trying to have an emphasis on conditioning because if we’re going to play a skating game, we have to be in shape to play that type of game. I think what allowed us to play that type of game night in and night out was our ability to use the bench, use four lines. We were able to keep certain players’ minutes in a reasonable timeframe that gives them the ability to recover. To have that luxury of the depth that we had and we have, I think gives us the opportunity to play that speed game.


Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan works on the ice during training camp Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

• I talked to Leland Irving about a few things. Will have more in a few days, but he’s an easy one to root for. Lives in British Columbia in the offseason. Has two kids, one more on the way. He’s 28, a former first-round pick who never quite lived up to that potential, here on a PTO trying to stick around.

He’s played 13 games for the Flames. With Marc-Andre Fleury needing a backup as Matt Murray sits with a broken hand, his development wouldn’t be damaged the way Tristan Jarry’s would by sitting around. Have to think he gets a chance. But he also has to be capable should something happen.

“I’ve got a lot of experience in the eight years that I’ve played,” Irving said. “I’ve been able to get a couple years in overseas, one in Finland, one in Russia. Nice to be back in North America last year with the Iowa Wild. Looking forward to what the season has to offer.”

Teddy Blueger has a couple goals early in camp. Has looked quite good at times, more skill than I remember. On Saturday, he got a puck from behind the net and went five-hole with it.

Blueger is an intriguing prospect. A second-round pick in 2012, Blueger had 11 goals and 35 points in 41 games for Minnesota State. Then when he made a 10-game cameo with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, his did nothing. Like literally nothing. No points.

So far this camp, Blueger has been noticeable on the offensive end and reliable on defense.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s been fun,” Blueger said. “It’s a steep learning curve my first camp like this. I think there’s still a lot to learn. It’s been good. Just trying to work hard and do my best.”

Blueger doesn’t have the same sort of speed as, say, Carl Hagelin. In reality, it’s probably not even close. It’s a weakness in Blueger’s game and, with Sullivan calling the shots, one Blueger knew he had to improve.

“It’s definitely something I wanted to improve upon and something I want to keep working on,” Blueger said. “The style of play, especially when you’re in Pittsburgh, is a lot of pace and a really fast game. It helps when you can get up and down the ice. Working on your skating and speed is a big part of that.”

Jason Mackey: jmackey@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.


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Impressions from Day 1 of training camp

By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

Let’s jump right in. Some quick-hitting observations following the first day of Penguins training camp:

• If Phil Kessel was limited today because of offseason hand/wrist surgery, I sure couldn’t tell. Looked perfectly fine. Battled in the corners. Did everything that was asked. Afterward, once he finishing addressing his World Cup tweet, I asked him about the hand/wrist.

“It’s OK,” Kessel said. “It will take some time here and just get back into it.”

•Kessel skated in the third practice group, which didn’t scrimmage. The other two did. Some entertaining stuff.

Team 2 won, 3-2. Which means that I won an unofficial bet with Sam Werner. What do you think, should he buy lunch on Saturday?

Thomas Di Pauli scored 38 seconds in, first shift, first shot. Went all Mario Lemieux on us. And then deflected all credit.

“That was all (Conor) Sheary and (Nick) Bonino,” he told me. “They made some nice plays down low, and I kind of boxed out my defender.”

Justin Schultz tied it with a snapper, and Teddy Blueger scored coming down the right wing. Ethan Prow answered shortly thereafter, and his shot-pass that Scott Wilson finished delivered the final margin.

• Was really impressed with Prow. Sad part is, no matter how much he shows here, he’s going to start the season in the American Hockey League. There’s simply not an open spot with the big club. Maybe, if somebody gets hurt or has a horrid camp, something changes. But it also wouldn’t be the worst thing for Prow, who’s only beginning his pro career, to learn a little down there first.

• Wilson’s skating looks strong and crisp. Sam wrote a little about him, in case you missed it. If Wilson’s legs are healthy, look out. He has the hands and showed ’em off on the goal from Prow. Although, to be fair, it was an especially nice feed from the defenseman.


Scott Wilson fights for the puck against Reid Gardiner during training camp Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

•I noticed Tom Kuhnhackl’s skating quite a bit, too, when I ventured over to the other rink. He talked last week about wanting to improve his foot speed. He has. Nice burst from him.

• The whole team skated a ton today. Mike Johnston loved his sprints, and Mike Sullivan does too. Maybe in a different way, though. Didn’t nail down the exact specifications of what Sullivan was doing, but it was something like four laps in 40 seconds. There was a fairly substantial amount of fatigue. Kris Letang, of course, was barely winded.

• Talked to Di Pauli about a few things. One of them was arriving here in early September, which he did, and how much it helped him.

Apparently Di Pauli and other Penguins, young and old, played a lot of miniature golf to pass the time and build camaraderie.

“We have a lot of free time, so it’s either playing cards or mini-golf,” Di Pauli said.

Di Pauli actually isn’t very good at miniature golf. And he refused to tell me his worst score.

“I don’t want to say,” Di Pauli said. “One day was bad. That’s also due to the fact that I was teammates with (Daniel) Sprong. He let me down.”

(If you’re worried about Sprong the hockey player, not Sprong the golfer, what I can tell you is this: His shoulder rehab has gone great, but even the best case scenario has him back at the end of December ... though likely in early 2017.)

• Goaltender Sean Maguire isn’t in camp because of an undisclosed injury. I have no clue what the injury is, but I do know that he once missed an entire college season because of a severe concussion. He’s had issues with them in the past.

I asked Sullivan if Maguire’s injury was concussion-related. He said he was awaiting several medical updates and expected to know more later today.

“I don’t know the details of his injury to this point,” Sullivan said. “I’ve got to spend some time here with our medical staff when I’m done with you guys. I haven’t really had any time at all to spend with these guys to get an update on where people are at. That’s my next pursuit here when I leave here. I don’t want to comment on it because I don’t know the details.”

Sullivan just got back from Toronto. Maybe it was an unfair question on my part, although I’d think he’d be getting updates on his players. Regardless, I hope Maguire’s OK. Never want to see that.

• Last and maybe least, Sidney Crosby is on a postage stamp. Please try to control your excitement. And I don’t cover postage stamps -—obviously — but how in the world do Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky not have postage stamps? Or do they?

LINKS TO TODAY’S P-G COVERAGE

I also have an analysis of Derrick Pouliot and what his new look means. Will be around midnight.

Penguins notebook: Kessel clarifies tweet that criticized USA Hockey (Mackey/Werner)

World Cup of Hockey notebook: Four Penguins still have shot at title (Molinari in Toronto)

Crosby all business as World Cup clash with Ovechkin, Malkin and Russia looms (Molinari in Toronto)

Confident Schultz ready to compete for spot (Mackey)

After ankle injury and recovery, winger Wilson says it's 'great to be back' (Werner)

Miss our Penguins Prospectus series? Here's a quick recap (staff)


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On Pouliot, Wilson and more questions facing the Penguins at training camp

By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 days ago

The Penguins on Thursday afternoon released their training camp roster.

As expected, there were few surprises. No Sergei Gonchar or Tom Sestito PTOs. Just the usual suspects and a pretty decent amount of talent in the pipeline.

While there isn’t a ton of competition for jobs — you could argue their 18 skaters are set — I thought it might be an interesting exercise to examine the bottom of the Penguins’ NHL depth chart heading into camp.

Forwards: The X-factor here, to me, Scott Wilson. You remember Wilson. He was supposed to be Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust before they did what they did in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Wilson, of course, played just 24 games and finished the year on injured reserve because of a right foot/ankle injury. In those 24 games, Wilson scored five goals. Played some top-six minutes, too.

Assuming Wilson’s healthy — I’ve heard nothing to indicate he’s not 100 percent — he’ll have to prove he’s more than the Penguins’ 13th forward. But the unfortunate reality of this business is that injuries happen.

This training camp is also coming off the World Cup of Hockey, which will force coach Mike Sullivan to provide some of his players with additional rest to navigate an 82-game season and a short summer. Wilson will get ample opportunity to prove himself.


Marc-Andre Fleury will share starts with Matt Murray this season. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

Defense: The top two pairings are likely set. Left to right, I’d project Olli Maatta and Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin and Trevor Daley. The biggest change could be flipping Maatta and Daley, but that’s your top four.

The third pairing should be the most interesting. Watch Derrick Pouliot. I keep hearing good things about him, including how well his pre-camp conditioning tests went Thursday.

Pouliot worked out with Gary Roberts for a second consecutive summer. That’s never a bad thing. But it sounds like it really stuck. “It’s one thing to do it,” one source said. “It’s another to believe it.” I’ve gotten several “just wait and see” responses when asking around about Pouliot … which is exactly what I’ll do.

If Pouliot cracks the top-six, that means that, barring injuries, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz will sit. Cole was a mess at the beginning of last season and nearly played his way out of the lineup. Given a second shot, he adopted a more physical style, played it well and never came out again.

Schultz is in a contract year. Given his offensive talents and the opportunities he’ll have to pile up points, you think he’s not motivated? Again, some real intrigue here.

Goalies: I’ll be really interested to see how the Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray dynamic will work. Both are wonderful people, but both probably also believe they deserve to take the lion’s share of reps.

That sounds great … until you actually have to do it. But that’s a conversation for the start of the regular season, not training camp. The Penguins offered some intrigue when they released their training camp roster, specifically as it relates to PTO Leland Irving.

My first inclination was to make a joke about how Jim Leyland has finally returned to Pittsburgh, but I think this says something more serious about Tristan Jarry and his shaky standing with the organization.

Irving is 28, and he’s a former first-round pick of the Calgary Flames (2006). He’s certainly not going to supplant Murray or Fleury, but he offers a failure obvious insurance policy. Irving went 12-22-6 with the Iowa Wild in the AHL last season despite putting up a respectable 2.68 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.

He’s played 13 games in the NHL, all for the Flames, and certainly has a decent amount of experience.

THIS ’N AT

Some quick-hitting observations:

  • Beyond Wilson, the next-in-line appears to be Jake Guentzel. This surprises me. Guentzel is fast, but doesn’t have a ton of pro experience and could probably stand to add a few pounds. No denying Penguins management loves him, though.
  • Got a lot of questions in my chat relative to Evgeni Malkin. I’ve watched the same World Cup games you have, and I’m not blind. So … let me say this: The Penguins would never deny a player the opportunity of representing his country. They couldn’t. However, if Malkin gets an extended break during training camp to either rest, heal or both, I wouldn’t be surprised. Looks like he needs it.

Helpful links:

Roster release with schedule

Training camp roster


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Working out at Penguins facility, McKees Rocks native Skoff trying to make his 'own story'

By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 month ago

Matt Skoff has seen a few star-studded scenes.

While working out for the past month at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, Skoff has stopped shots from Brandon Saad, Vince Trocheck and J.T. Miller, three local players who enjoyed breaking seasons in 2015-16.

At the opposite end of the ice has been John Gibson, the No. 1 goaltender for the Anaheim Ducks and, like Saad and Miller, a member of Team North America in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, which represents the top under-23 talent from the United States and Canada.

“I grew up playing with these guys,” said Skoff, a McKees Rocks native who played his hockey at Montour and at Penn State. “It’s fun to see where they’ve gone, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to make my own story here.”

Skoff’s story may eventually read like the other Pittsburgh stars listed above, but it will take a few more chapters to get there.


Montour goalie Matt Skoff stops a shot during the PIHL AA championship game in 2009. (John Heller/Post-Gazette)

 

While most players skating in Cranberry wear gear given to them by their NHL club, Skoff, 25, remains outfitted in Penn State equipment. He had a stint with the Reading Royals of the ECHL last season, where he signed an amateur tryout contract, but the 6-foot-1, 191-pound netminder is still weighing his options for the upcoming season.

Those include, best case, an AHL tryout or perhaps returning to the ECHL. Either way, Skoff said he’s learned a lot playing against some of the best young players in the league, not to mention someone like Penguins veteran Chris Kunitz, who has joined the group recently.

“My eyes — getting used to shots like these — that’s the biggest thing,” Skoff said. “Just getting experience. These guys all have NHL experience. It’s fun to be out here and see their tendencies. When you give a guy time and space who’s been playing in the NHL, it’s tough.”

So is the experience more intimidating or enjoyable?

“It’s both,” Skoff said. “They’re really nice guys. They’re very approachable. I think that makes it a lot easier, when someone that’s playing above you is very approachable and nice. Especially Tyler Kennedy. He’s been nothing but nice to me. I remember watching him play for so many years with the Penguins and winning the Stanley Cup. It’s cool to see. That whole hockey player attitude is very approachable.”

Skoff is the all-time leader in nearly all of Penn State’s meaningful goaltending stats — games played by a goalie (77), games started (73), minutes played (4,420:36), victories (32), winning percentage (.500), saves (2,114), shutouts (three), goals-against average (2.88) and save percentage (.909).

The Nittany Lions’ season ended on March 18, and the ATO was announced March 21. The quick turnaround was tough for Skoff. So was the fact that he knew nobody.

“There wasn’t too much of a layover,” Skoff said.

He wound up playing 78 minutes and compiling a 1-1-0 record with a 3.10 GAA and an .879 save percentage. The numbers are pedestrian, but the experience was a learning one for Skoff.

“I went from playing with 20 of my best friends to being the new guy on the team. I had to get a little adjusted to that,” Skoff said. “Other than that, obviously it’s a faster-paced game. I think there’s better players. Up the pyramid you go, it’s just that much more difficult.”

OTHERS LIKE SKOFF

Sam Werner and I have enjoyed catching up with Pittsburgh’s best local players. If you’ve missed anything, here are six more stories to check out:

Former Penguins center Tyler Kennedy is fearful of his future

Stars defenseman Stephen Johns deals with constant reminders that Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season

Comfortability key for Upper St. Clair native Vince Trocheck

New contract, marriage and preparing for World Cup all part of hectic offseason for J.T. Miller

After frustrating year, Brandon Saad raring to go in World Cup

Training locally, Mt. Lebanon’s Matt Bartkowski is looking for NHL work

Jason Mackey: jmackey@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.


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Extras on Matt Cullen re-signing with the Penguins

By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 month ago

By now you hopefully have read my story on Matt Cullen re-signing with the Penguins for one year, $1 million. A bargain, if you ask me.

If you’ve followed Cullen at all, or especially if you covered him, the man is incredibly expansive in his answers, one of the best quotes in the Penguins dressing room.

I talked to Cullen for about six minutes Wednesday night. The Penguins do a really awesome thing where they make new acquisitions available to the local media in separate phone calls for about that length of time. We all try not to push out of respect for the player’s time.


Matt Cullen lifts the Stanley Cup after Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

In our chat, we hit on a few topics that didn’t make the aforementioned story:

• You saw Cullen eating Lucky Charms out of the Stanley Cup with his kids, right? Then Marc-Andre Fleury did it, Kris Letang and others. Cullen started his own mini-trend. I asked him about that.

“It’s a good idea. I don’t have very many of them. I’ll take it,” Cullen said. “I was kind of following what the guys were doing, but it’s so fun to see the kids. They absolutely light up. I’ve never seen a box of Lucky Charms go down so fast. It was unbelievable. It was so fun. It was so special having it at home and having the boys be a part of it.”

• Speaking of Cullen’s sons. Apparently the two youngest ones, need a new daytimer.

“The day before the Cup arrived, my two young boys came running into my room at 5:30 in the morning and woke me up,” Cullen said. “They said, ‘Dad, where’s the Cup?’ I was like, ‘It’s coming tomorrow. Go back to sleep.’ It was funny, just the excitement. It makes it so fun for me to see it through their eyes. It was pretty cool.”

• Logic would tell you this will be Cullen’s last year. Then again, you also don’t expect a guy who’s 38 playing on an $800,000 deal to score 16 goals.

Will this be Cullen’s last year? I’m not wiling to say it will be. Cullen said probably but left himself a few outs when I asked.

“It will probably be it,” Cullen said. “I’ve learned to never say anything 100 percent, but it will very likely be it. I said this last year, and I don’t want to overuse it, but I really like it’s a gift. I really do. To be able to play in the league at this point in my career, at my age, but more important to play in a place that I love playing and my family absolutely loves, I feel very fortunate to be able to do that. To see it work out today and sign it, to be able to play likely my final year here in Pittsburgh, I’m really thankful. I’m so happy it’s going to work out.”

Jason Mackey: jmackey@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.


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