LONDON, Ontario — The Penguins have the market cornered on German hockey players.
Which is why it should come as no surprise that, at a retirement party for former NHL player Marco Sturm over the summer, Penguins prospect Tom Kuhnhackl got the opportunity to introduce himself to a few fellow Germans in the organization — forward Marcel Goc and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.
“I walked down to the locker room after the game,” Kuhnhackl explained. “It’s my hometown team. I know the coaches, so they let me go in. I introduced myself and talked to them. They’re great guys. They’ve played in the NHL and have a lot of experience.”
Kuhnhackl grew up in Landshut, which is about a 20-minute drive from Sturm’s hometown of Dingolfing. In addition to Goc and Ehrhoff, Kuhnhackl said he has also spoken with Penguins goaltender Thomas Greiss, who was born in Fussen.
Kuhnhackl is in the final year of his entry-level contract, and he knows he needs to give management a reason to sign him to a new deal.
After bouncing between Wheeling (ECHL) and Wilkes-Barre (AHL) last season, Kuhnhackl wants to get more consistent with his game and play a physical style, one befitting of his 6-foot-2, 196-pound frame.
“I started off real well last year, then I kind of fell in a hole,” said Kuhnhackl, who finished with 15 goals and 24 points in 64 games between the two leagues. “I couldn’t get out of it. That can’t happen this year. If I’m in a hole, I have to help the team in a different way, maybe with a fight or a big hit or something.”
>>Despite Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kuhnhackl was part of a forward group that exceeded expectations.
Kuhnhackl scored a power play goal during Saturday’s 4-3 win over Ottawa then struck again in the shootout Sunday. Jean-Sebastien Dea led all scorers with two goals and three assists. Anton Zlobin and Josh Archibald each added a pair of goals.
“We have a speedy team,” Kuhnhackl said. “I think a lot of people were surprised about our offense.”
Added prospects coach John Hynes: “(Tuesday) we didn’t score any goals, but I think when you look at the forward group in general, there was speed, hockey sense, and there was some offensive things that were created because of that.”
>>One of those was a shot by Bryan Rust about eight minutes into the game that Toronto goaltender Antoine Bibeau dove to his left to snare with his catch glove, an absolutely beautiful save.
“That was a momentum swing,” Hynes said. “They got some life from that.”
Brett Findlay tapped home a Jeremie Fraser point shot and Patrick Bowles buried a feed from Connor Brown to give the Maple Leafs a 2-0 lead in the second period.
Penguins forward Adam Payerl fought Fraser in the third, trying to give the team some life, but Bibeau, who made 25 saves, wasn’t budging.
“He was good,” Payerl said. “He was hard to beat.”
>>With Brian Dumoulin a healthy scratch, fellow defenseman and London native Reid McNeill served as captain on Tuesday.
“He’s been around,” Hynes said of McNeill. “He’s played in the tournament for a little bit. He’s going into his third year pro. That’s how we evaluated the captains. This week is more about experience and guys we felt deserve it.”
>>The Penguins open camp with physicals Thursday, and Payerl will be there.
Expect him to challenge for a spot. After all, he had a two-game cameo last year and certainly didn’t look out of place with the big club.
“If you look at the lineup, there’s a couple spots there,” Payerl said. “It’s just a matter of who earns it in camp. I want to be one of those guys who makes a hard decision for the coaches.”
Be GRATEFUL to each other,