Because there were so many grand-opening events and player-organized skates at the venue, it made today feel a little less historic, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. Today was the first official Penguins practice at the new UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
The Penguins used a lottery system to give out free tickets to attend camp practices this week. I’m pretty sure the number of tickets allotted was based on parking. The bleachers weren’t completely full today, but the parking lot was. So, if you’re planning to stop by Saturday and/or Sunday, I’d be aware of that possible issue. Maybe carpool if you can.
On the ice, the first thing I was looking for today was line combinations. Who would play on the left side with Crosby-Kessel? How about with Malkin-Hornqvist? What would the bottom six look like?
We’ll have to wait for answers to those questions. Coach Mike Johnston, as he promised he would, had a plan for his practice combos today. He paired young players with his star centers to give them a taste of the pace it takes to play at the game’s highest level.
Malkin’s linemates were Scott Wilson and Josh Archibald. Crosby’s were Bryan Rust and Daniel Sprong. See what I mean?
Now, here’s a little note on the mechanics of Johnston’s practice today.
Johnston broke the first day of camp into three parts. First was a video session outlining some of the team’s systems and strategies. Then came a structured practice. Finally, there was an off-ice workout.
“We try to build off our video session, take it to the ice, and obviously get our pace and tempo the way we want it,” he said.
There was some conditioning work too. The dreaded first-day-of-camp bag skate. This note explains:
After a 45-minute skate on the main rink, the Penguins practice groups moved to a second ice surface for some “conditioning” work Friday morning. That means a bag skate, and players were on their knees, gasping for air before too long.
Pascal Dupuis loved it.
He wore a red no-contact jersey as he recovered from a knee injury during camp last year. He didn’t play after November due to blood clots. He was perfectly happy to feel tired after a tough skate.
“It’s good to be part of that group and not be the outsider looking in,” Dupuis said.
Given the nature of the practices and the lack of game-like line combinations, it was hard to get any kind of feel for who is in the lead for any of the contested spots in the lineup.
Here’s a note on one of those contested spots, featuring a little mayhem.
Several young forwards – Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and others – have been competing for an opening-night job on the Penguins’ fourth line for a while now, having attending last week’s rookie tournament in London, Ontario.
Bobby Farnham aged out of that tournament, so he joined the fray Friday.
That makes it a much more entertaining fray.
Farnham, however, said he’s trying to show facets of his game other than the penalty-drawing, hair-on-fire, agitating style that won over fans during 11 games with the Penguins last year.
“Being responsible in all three ends of the ice and maybe bringing a little bit more offensive side that maybe you didn’t show as much in the little stint last year,” Farnham said.
Once practices were over, attention turned to Phil Kessel. He was mobbed in the locker room by a horde of reporters, many of whom made the trip down from Toronto.
I find that a little weird. It’s not like Kessel is a Maple Leafs icon. He played there for a couple of years, scored a whole bunch of goals and became a lightning rod for some fans and reporters. It’s not like he was Wendell Clark, Mats Sundin or Doug Gilmore or something.
Regardless, he seemed to handle the attention without incident. One player in the Penguins locker room wasn’t surprised by the horde.
A player who was acquired July 1 from the Toronto Maple Leafs sat in the Penguins locker room Friday with hardly any reporters in front of him.
Not Phil Kessel. He was swarmed, largely by media members who made the trip from Toronto. It was defenseman Tim Erixon.
“There’s obviously a lot of focus on hockey in Toronto, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Erixon said. “Phil’s looked really good. He’s an absolute raw talent. There aren’t a lot of guys that can do what he can do. He’s going to have a good year.”
Erixon, the son of longtime New York Rangers forward Jan Erixon, was a first-round draft pick in 2009. He’s got good size and skill and has turned in three excellent seasons in the AHL. He’s been included in deals for Kessel and Rick Nash and has played 93 NHL games.
“If teams want you, that’s a good thing, but obviously I’m a little sick of moving around here,” Erixon said. “I’m looking very much to make this my home for a little bit. That’s my one goal.”
After the assembled media cleared out, a group of USHL teams moved in. Some details:
When the Penguins aren’t on the ice, the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex is hosting a USHL showcase this weekend, with the Youngstown Phantoms, Muskegon Lumberjacks and Team USA’s U-18 and U-17 teams playing games at 5 and 8 p.m. tonight and 4 and 7 p.m. Saturday.
It’s a high level of hockey. Nearly two dozen NHL draft picks are on the four teams playing in Cranberry.
“No other junior league in the world had more draft picks than the United States Hockey League at this past 2015 NHL draft, which I think surprises a lot of people when they hear it for the first time,” USHL commissioner Bob Fallen said. “I know it surprises a lot of people in Canada.”
For the players, it’s a chance to get an up-close look at how the Penguins do things.
“You look around at the facility. It’s not bad. Maybe it’s not the Golden Mile Ice Rink we played at when I was (with the Penguins). A little bit different,” said Troy Loney, a co-owner of the Phantoms. “They get a chance to see what the pro teams do. The USA teams were watching the Penguins practice this morning. I think it’s a rush for those guys to see the pro teams play. It also gives them perspective. They have goals and aspirations. What is the next level? What am I seeing out there and how do I get there? You come to a facility like this, and I think it gives them a good idea.”
Looking ahead, Johnston said he is planning some special teams work tomorrow morning. That should be very interesting. Here’s why:
A little after 10 Saturday morning, according to Johnston, the Penguins will begin a 30-minute practice session where they will start to work on special teams.
Most eyes will be on the power play, which is perfectly understandable.
The Penguins’ first unit will be a virtual all-star team, however it’s configured. There’s a good chance the top quintet will fling the puck around – from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin to Phil Kessel to Patric Hornqvist to Kris Letang – in downright artistic fashion.
But there will be other players on the ice during the special teams drills too.
“We have several openings on the PK this year because of turnover and personnel,” Johnston said. “We want to, tomorrow in that 30 minutes, get a good evaluation of our power-play players but also on guys killing penalties.”
The power play is the sizzle. The penalty kill is the steak, and there are plenty of new items on the menu this season.
Only two of the top 10 players in shorthanded ice time from last year’s team – Rob Scuderi and Letang – return this season. The top six forwards – Brandon Sutter, Craig Adams, Nick Spaling, Marcel Goc, Maxim Lapierre and Daniel Winnik – are all gone.
The process of replacing them begins tomorrow morning.
Finally, a bit of housekeeping:
The Penguins officially announced Friday the installation of walk-through metal detectors at Consol Energy Center, replacing hand-held wands. The new procedure will be in place starting with the preseason home opener Tuesday against Carolina.
Perhaps you’ve noticed we’re trying some new formats here on the blog, trying to make it more like a day-long journal than a collection of random notes. At this point, I’m trying to show what I saw or what I thought during practice (in regular type) and how that led to the topics I actually ended up writing about (in italics).
It’s the kind of thing that’s probably going to evolve as camp and the season go on. If you feel strongly about it one way or the other, hit me on Twitter (@BombulieTrib) or send me an email (email@example.com).
Bye for now,