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September 19, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Penguins training camp groups

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Here’s how the Penguins have split the team for practices through Sunday.
Today, Group A will practice from 9-10:15 a.m., Group B from 10:30-11:45.
On Saturday — which is free and open to the public — Group B will practice from 9-9:45 a.m. and scrimmage from 10-10:45 a.m. Group A will practice from 11-11:45 a.m. and scrimmage from 12-12:45 p.m.
On Sunday, Group A will practice from 9-9:45 a.m. and scrimmage from 10-10:30 a.m. Group B will practice from 11:15 a.m.-12 p.m. and scrimmage from 12:15-12:45 p.m.

Group A
4    Rob Scuderi    D
6    Scott Harrington    D
9    Pascal Dupuis    F
13    Nick Spaling    F
14    Chris Kunitz    F
17    Blake Comeau    F
27    Craig Adams    F
36    Bryan Rust    F
41    Robert Bortuzzo    D
42    Kasperi Kapanen    F
45    Adam Payerl    F
47    Simon Despres    D
49    Oskar Sundqvist    F
53    Tom Kostopoulos    F
54    Tom Kuhnhackl    F
55    Philip Samuelsson    D
57    Marcel Goc    F
58    Kris Letang    D
59    Jayson Megna    F
61    Matia Marcantuoni    F
63    Conor Sheary    F
64    Clark Seymour    D
65    Alex Boak    D

1    Thomas Greiss    G
31    Eric Hartzell    G
37    Jeff Zatkoff    G

Group B
3    Olli Maatta    D
7    Paul Martin    D
8    Brian Dumoulin    D
10    Christian Ehrhoff    D
12    Daniel Carcillo    F
16    Brandon Sutter    C
19    Beau Bennett    F
23    Steve Downie    F
25    Andrew Ebbett    F
32    Pierre-Luc Leblond    F
33    Reid McNeill    D
34    Bobby Farnham    F
38    Zach Sill    F
39    Josh Archibald    F
43    Scott Wilson    F
44    Taylor Chorney    D
46    Dominick Uher    F
48    Anton Zlobin    F
50    Jean-Sebastien Dea    F
52    Harrison Ruopp    D
56    Nick D’Agostino    D
72    Patric Hornqvist    F

29    Marc-Andre Fleury    G
30    Matt Murray    G
60    Tristan Jarry    G

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September 18, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Some web extras from Thursday

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Forward Chris Kunitz has played 659 NHL games for three teams — the Ducks, Thrashers and Penguins.

Not once, however, has he seen an offseason like the Penguins recently experienced.

“It’s the first time in my career I’ve had coaches and the general manager fired. That part is tough,” Kunitz said. “I think the tough part is the change in the locker room, too. You build a lot of good friendships with guys who aren’t here anymore. Your family was adapted to being with each other when you guys are gone.

“It’s tough for the family, but no season is ever the same. You always have different personnel, different players here. It’s something we have to pick up quick — get that chemistry and rhythm together.”

Kunitz is coming off a 35-goal season, but he’s the only one on the team’s presumed top line who’s completely healthy. Captain Sidney Crosby, along with fellow center Evgeni Malkin, is being held out of the start of training camp. Winger Pascal Dupuis will sit out contact drills.

Asked if he expected to continue to have Crosby and Dupuis as his regular linemates — there have been rumblings of moving Dupuis to the third line — Kunitz didn’t take the bait.

“I have no expectations,” Kunitz said. “I’m going to go out there and earn my spot, wherever they’re going to put me. That’s how you look at camp. You come in, do your job and make sure they put you where you want to be.”

 

>>The what-the-heck-just-happened-here summer the Penguins had produced some colorful and emotional responses, as the team held its first formal media availability session Thursday.

One of my favorites was defenseman Rob Scuderi, who’s about as honest of a quote as you’ll get in the Penguins room.

“Change is a little bit scary,” Scuderi said. “Plus, you hate to see good people lose their jobs or leave the team. But in this line of work, it’s inevitable. It’s up to us to get past it and move on. All the teammates we had are good people, and we wish them the best. Same thing to the coaches.

“We have to focus on what’s in here. The season’s not going to stop because some people left. If we want to make what’s best for the Pittsburgh Penguins, we have to focus on the now.”

 

>>Fellow beat man Josh Yohe wrote about the team bringing in forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling in an offseason trade that sent James Neal to Nashville. They’ll lead by example, Yohe says.

Spaling is a high-character guy: extremely likable, works his butt off, a solid third line presence. Hornqvist will get a long look on Malkin’s right wing.

Hornqvist didn’t need much of a sell on Pittsburgh — “You have great players around you. Crosby and Malkin can make things happen from nothing. We didn’t have that in Nashville,” he said — but that didn’t stop the Penguins from trying.

According to Hornqvist, they sent a gift basket for Hornqvist’s daughter, Isabella, who was born in March.

“From the day I was traded here, they’ve treated me really well,” Hornqvist said. “They sent a gift basket for my daughter. They really treat me well and take care of me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

 

>>Forward Daniel Carcillo, who’s here on a tryout contract, knows he needs to stay on the right side of the law in order to earn a roster spot.

Carcillo said Thursday that he and general manager Jim Rutherford “have had some really good talks” about what lies ahead — which, in this case, means remaining aggressive but legal.

“I might as well stop playing if they take (the aggressive part of his game) away,” Carcillo said. “You just have to walk a fine line.”

 

Plenty more to come from practice Friday morning. In the meantime …

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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September 17, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Some introspection from London

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LONDON, Ontario — We’re all kids.

Yes, I know I’m only 30 years old, young for a beat guy, still a new parent, practically still a kid myself. I get it.

What I’m talking about here is, when it comes to hockey, we’re all still kids. Or at least the majority of us are.

We all love this game. We love watching it. We love being around it. Those playing love playing it. Those scouting love scouting it. I love writing about it.

If I ever forget this … well, I hope I don’t. I’m lucky. We’re all lucky.

Spending six days in London, Ontario provided me with a chance to think about such things, and I figured the eve of training camp was as good of a chance as any to share them.

I’ve mentioned the sticker books in the past. Used to collect them with my dad. I wish they still existed so I could do that with my son, who’s eerily drawn to the TV screen whenever there’s hockey on.

Other memories I have include a Wayne Gretzky-emblazoned — yeah, like he used it or something — red, plastic hockey stick that I covered in various sticker cards, one of my favorites a Hartford Whalers decal.

My dad and I used those sticks to play floor hockey in the dining room, which he had cleared of everything except for four helmets that served as goal posts.

Only now that I’m older and have a family of my own do I realize how truly awesome of a parenting move that was.

I remember going to games at the old Civic Arena, how the first period was for nachos and the second was a bathroom break.

How you got there early enough for warmups.

How every game meant the purchase of another puck that I kept arranged by divisions and conferences.

While many hockey players have fond memories of pond hockey, we here in Western Pennsylvania played street hockey.

We yelled “car” and begrudgingly pulled our nets to the sidewalk. We hit cars and didn’t tell anyone.

When we got older, we met at the park or (in my case) Elroy Elementary and played pickup games for hours.

In high school, we begged the gym teacher to change whatever we were supposed to do that day and let us play hockey — which actually, believe it or not, worked.

Thanks, Mr. Juriga.

One series, continued day after day, was so intense and left us so exhausted that we’d show up late for our next class, drenched in sweat.

Sorry, Mr. McLaughlin.

There was a school lockout where we drafted teams and spent the next four days promoting — more trash-talking about — the game.

Good memories, all of them.

My point here is that somewhere around 100 “kids” took the ice for a four-team rookie tournament at Budweiser Gardens because they love this game.

Some will make it to the NHL. More will not.

I actually wound up eating lunch one day next to a player’s mom, who talked about what an up-and-down journey this can be, trying to make it in professional hockey.

Next time you think of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and other poor role models, think about some of the absurd sacrifices that hockey parents make.

At the root, of course, is a love for a rather strange game. One I was thankful I got the chance to think a little more about.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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September 16, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Kuhnhackl’s connection; Pens prospects drop finale

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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,

Mackey

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September 16, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: 10 Penguins observations entering camp

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Greetings, hockey fans. Thought you might like some tidbits as we enter training camp.

 

The Penguins have been working out informally for the past couple of weeks at Consol Energy Center and Southpointe, respectively. Attendance has been strikingly good, as almost every player on the roster has worked out during this stretch, perhaps a good indication of how hungry this team is and how much the players wish to please the new coaching staff.

 

In fact, the only locks to make the team who haven’t appeared yet are Kris Letang and Simon Despres. It’s September hockey, so it’s not to be taken too seriously … but, I’ve made some observations and figured I’d pass them along.

 

1. If you think the Penguins will feature anyone but Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis on Sidney Crosby’s line, you’re probably wrong. The players scrimmage at the end of every one of these workouts. And, wouldn’t you know it, Crosby, Dupuis and Kunitz are almost always together. They’re pretty inseparable. If Crosby has any say regarding his linemates — and it’s hard to imagine a new head coach is going to tell Crosby who his wingers are — it says here those two will flank Crosby to begin the season.

 

2. Dupuis looks great. Would it be wise to play him 20 minutes a night in October? Absolutely not, and I don’t believe the Penguins will do that. But, if you never knew that Dupuis blew his ACL in December, you’d swear he was 100 percent. He looks great skating and should be poised for a strong season.

 

3. If Crosby’s wrist is bothering him, he’s doing a fine job of hiding it. He is shooting the puck with authority. Also, and perhaps more importantly, Crosby is handling the puck beautifully. You’ll recall during the postseason that Crosby was having trouble receiving passes. At the time, no one knew his wrist was a problem. Everything looks fine.

 

4. While we are talking health, Beau Bennett told me recently that his wrists feel better than at any point during the past year. This is a huge year for Bennett, and he knows it. I expect him to begin the season on a line with Evgeni Malkin. Bennett looks fine handling and shooting the puck.

 

5. OK, one last health-related note is necessary. Olli Maatta looks spectacular. Does that mean he’ll be ready to start the season on Oct. 9? I wouldn’t bet on that. Shoulder surgery is a big deal, especially for defensemen, who routinely skate backwards to retrieve pucks before getting drilled into the boards, with their shoulders often exposed. However, coach Mike Johnston recently said that Maatta is progressing especially well from the injury. Good news, obviously.

 

6. Rob Scuderi is hungry for redemption. He knows many fans have written him off. He knows his performance last season wasn’t acceptable. Scuderi told me on Monday that his struggles coincided with the mental hurdle of dealing with the ankle injury he sustained early in the season. He also said that every disappointing season he has endured was the result of an injury that took place early in the season. One last thing: He wasn’t making excuses. Scuderi sounds like a man who was exceptionally unhappy with how he played last season and is hungry to prove himself.

 

7. Christian Ehrhoff wears a Batman T-shirt under his uniform. I felt like everyone needed to know this.

 

8. I believe Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist are going to be a very positive influence on the Penguins’ locker room. Hornqvist carries himself with a quiet confidence. Spaling is one of those people that you immediately like upon being introduced. Great personality, a lot like Brandon Sutter. You’ll like him.

 

9. Crosby bulked up this summer. Because of all the injuries he’s sustained in recent seasons, Crosby hasn’t always had time to work out in the summer. In the summer of 2011, he was still recovering from The Concussion. In the summer of 2012, I think Crosby was still getting himself completely healthy from The Concussion, plus the lockout was a distraction. In the summer of 2013, he had recently dealt with a broken jaw. Heck, he even had a wrist injury this summer, but is clearly recovered and clearly had time to work out during the summer. His upper body looks bigger.

 

10. Kasperi Kapanen is oozing with confidence. I’m not saying he’s arrogant or cocky. But he feels like he belongs. You can see he’s the son of a former NHL player. Kapanen looks so comfortable in the locker room, and so comfortable on the ice. It will be interesting to see if he’s given a real chance to make the team. I still think it’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t be shocked by it.

 

Camp opens on Thursday, and the first practice is Friday. More observations will come soon.

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September 15, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Meet the Pens’ new speedster

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LONDON, Ontario — Matia Marcantuoni is fast.

Really fast.

Almost Brian Gibbons or Luis Mendoza fast.

Marcantuoni insists he never raced the former Penguins speedster, but it’d certainly be interesting to see who would win in a race.

As for the race to a prominent role with the big club, with Gibbons now in Columbus, it’s Marcantuoni who hopes to have a greater impact long term.

“Growing up I was more of a playmaker, a skill guy,” Marcantuoni said after scoring a goal off a rebound in the Penguins’ 5-4 shootout win Sunday at Budweiser Gardens. “But at the pro level, I feel like I’ll best fit in as a role player, penalty killer and speed guy.”

Has penalty killing always been part of his game?

“I think it’s something they expect from me,” Marcantuoni said. “(Killing penalties) is a big thing for me because I have speed, and I’m willing to block shots and get the puck down the ice. I definitely think it’s one of my biggest attributes.”

Marcantuoni was drafted by the Penguins in the fourth round in 2012, 92nd overall.

The 6-foot, 200-pounder has played for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League for the past four years, tallying 42 goals and 98 points  in 184 games.

If he’s to stick with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or, eventually, the big club, Marcantuoni is going to have to do it with his speed, skating and abilities on the penalty kill — much like Gibbons.

“Not only is he quick, but he’s really strong on his skates,” Penguins prospects coach John Hynes said. “When he gets into puck battles, when the defensive players lean on him, he’s really strong on his skates.”

So penalty killing is sort of his calling card?

“Yep. For sure,” Hynes added. “Penalty kill and a high-end energy role, that he can use his skating, speed and strength. On special teams, (his role) would be penalty kill and faceoffs.”

>> The prospects are off today. A few guys are skating at 12:30 p.m. I’m heading to the rink and will have something off of that. The third and final game is at 2 p.m. Tuesday against the Maple Leafs.

>> Jaden Lindo is here. Remember, Lindo is the Penguins’ sixth-round pick (173rd overall) who’s missing this tournament — along with first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen (hand) — because he’s still recovering from a knee injury.

Lindo had 18 points and nine goals with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack in 2013-14, and I asked Hynes about Lindo on Sunday.

“He’s injured. He’s just skating,” Hynes said. “He won’t be ready for main camp. He’s just working with our trainers and getting back. He’s a little ways away before he can get in full equipment and get on the ice with the team. He’s just skating on his own right now.”

>> The Penguins have four college guys here in forwards Josh Archibald (Nebraska-Omaha), Bryan Rust (Notre Dame), Conor Sheary (UMass-Amherst) and Scott Wilson (UMass Lowell).

The group has made an impact — with Archibald scoring twice, Sheary adding an assist and Wilson and Sheary getting opportunities in Sunday’s shootout — and Hynes has been impressed.

“Sometimes you’re not sure what to expect because they’ve never been here,” Hynes said. “They’ve never been to main camp. They come to development camp, but then they don’t have a chance to be in this environment. You see they feel comfortable.

“You can for sure see what they bring. Is it as consistent we like? That can always get better. But, yeah, we’ve been real happy with how they’ve been able to play and produce. Most importantly, the comfort level they have. They’ve looked good so far.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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September 14, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Catching up with Stephen Johns

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LONDON, Ontario — The Chicago Blackhawks played here Saturday night and dropped a 4-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Budweiser Gardens. They face the Penguins at 2 p.m. today, then play the Ottawa Senators at 7 p.m. Monday before a nine-hour bus ride home.

Why does this matter?

It’s keeping Wampum native Stephen Johns — a defenseman in the Blackhawks system — from watching his beloved Pirates.

“They’re heating up now, which is good,” Johns said. “Especially now that they’re good, it’s awesome. It’s exciting.”

Some might say the opportunity Johns is facing is more exciting.

He’s a 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman trying to make an impression at his first rookie tournament. The past four years, Johns played at Notre Dame, where he tallied 57 points and 15 goals in 164 games. He was taken by Chicago in the second round (60th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft.

“I’m a strong, physical and defensive player who can hop up in the offense and try to chip in as much as possible,” Johns said. “I’m trying to be a guy they rely on on the back end. I want to try and be a leader and help the team win any way possible.”

Johns, who played in the Pittsburgh Hornets system, made his professional debut with the Rockford IceHogs last season and recorded five points in eight regular season games.

The atmosphere here is much like the American Hockey League, Johns said, which should bode well for his chances.

“There’s a lot of familiarities with this and the AHL, kind of the caliber of play,” Johns, 22, said. “It’s fast. Guys are hitting because they’re trying to compete for spots. Everyone is playing as hard as they can. It’s tough, but it’s good.”

Johns visited home for a week at the beginning of August. “To be home for one last time before the grind starts,” he said. Pirates games were a must. Same with hunting, fishing and a few bonfires. He also spent time with his brother, Ray, and his kids.

Now, though, it’s time for Johns to move up the ranks of professional hockey.

“I miss home already, but this is my job now,” Johns said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

A few links from today’s print edition:
Mike Johnston might throw a few curveballs at us … make that post routes.

Columnist Joe Starkey wonders how long Johnston will remain relatively anonymous

Jean-Sebastien Dea stole the show yesterday in a 4-3 win over the Senators

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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September 14, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: ‘It’s fun to play right now’

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Offseason surgery limited Penguins forward Anton Zlobin at the beginning of last season, but the Moscow native has recovered nicely — his shoulder, sure, though more so his game.

Eight goals and 19 points in 46 regular-season games during 2013-14 was fine. That’s a season for some guys.

But Zlobin truly caught fire in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs, where he finished with six goals and four assists in 16 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

That strong finish carried over to the Penguins’ rookie tournament opener Saturday against Ottawa at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario, when Zlobin scored 80 seconds in by driving to the net and flipping a beautiful backhander past Senators goaltender Andrew Hammond.

“Last year was a tough year,” Zlobin said. “After surgery, I had a long time to rehab, around eight months. This year, I’m in very good shape. It’s fun to play right now.”

Sure looked like it during the Penguins’ 4-3 win.

Zlobin played on a line with center Jean-Sebastien Dea and winger Tom Kuhnhackl, and that group was easily the game’s best.

“We have some forwards who have some skill,” Penguins prospects coach John Hynes said. “When you put those guys together, they look pretty good.”

Especially Zlobin, who was drafted in the sixth round (173rd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft.

Hynes said Zlobin struggled in camp last year. He was overweight. His conditioned lacked.

Much of that changed, though, as Zlobin’s shoulder improved and he was able to play more. Now, Hynes said, “He’s a responsible player so you can play him in all types of situations, which is good for him.”

>>One thing I did not expect to see was a fight less than two minutes into a game, especially not one with as much apparent animosity as what transpired between Pittsburgh’s Patrick McGrath and Ottawa’s Darren Kramer.

Somebody was bloody. McGrath yelled at the Ottawa bench. This was by no means just for show.

Hynes talked before this thing about wanting guys to showcase what could get them to the NHL. McGrath, it seems, heard him loud and clear; in 45 games with Wheeling last season in the ECHL, McGrath racked up 176 penalty minutes. His 18 fighting majors led the team and ranked second in the league.

“That’s part of what this tournament is,” Hynes said. “When the game is over, people should be able to walk away and say, ‘(Jean-Sebastien) Dea and Anton Zlobin looked great offensively. You take a guy like Patrick McGrath or an Adam Payerl and you saw what they also brought to the table.’ It was a good performance that way from Patrick.”

>>Winger Josh Archibald flashed some of the skill and speed that made him a Hobey Baker finalist at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Archibald took a pass from Oskar Sundqvist along the left-wing boards. He thought back to a pregame scouting meeting, one that detailed Ottawa’s big defenseman who struggled to get their feet moving, and broke loose.

As he got closer to goaltender Chris Driedger, Archibald faked like he was going to go wide side but instead snapped a shot and beat Driedger short side, a beautiful goal.

“The goalie thought I was cutting across and started cheating,” said Archibald, who had 43 points and 29 goals last season at UNO. “I saw a little opening short side and was lucky enough to get it in there.”

My game story focuses on Dea making a strong impression.

A profile on Mike Johnston, who loves football, tapas and practicing to music

Columnist Joe Starkey spent some time with the Pens’ new coach, who’s anonymous … for now.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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September 12, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: McNeill seeing stars

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Reid McNeill has yet to make his NHL debut.

That hasn’t stopped him from having his name mentioned along with several prominent defenseman.

While playing with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League in 2011-12, McNeill’s regular defense partner was a 15-year-old named Aaron Ekblad.

Sound familiar?

That’s because Ekblad, now 18, was taken first overall by the Florida Panthers in June’s NHL Entry Draft.

“It was a great experience,” McNeill said of playing with Ekblad. “Right out of the gate, the kid was a star. I think he put up about 40 points (29 actually) as a 15-year-old in the best junior league in the world. I tried to help him out as much as I could with my experience in the league.”

McNeill, 22, said he remains close with Ekblad and wished him luck before the draft. Seemed to work out pretty well, no?

McNeill was traded to Barrie after playing with the London Knights from 2009-11. The package deal that sent McNeill to the Colts enabled London to draft current Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta in the 2011 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft; Maatta was taken first overall.

McNeill is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman who this season added a physical element to his game. After struggling early on with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, McNeill found a comfortable edge and wound up playing in 55 regular season games, finishing a plus-5 with five points and 119 penalty minutes.

“Early on, I didn’t feel like I had a role on the team,” McNeill said. “I sat out a lot at the start of the year. As the year went on, I developed more of a physical edge, something some other guys couldn’t bring. It was something the team needed.”

The mentor role is something McNeill has always enjoyed. He was defense partners with former Knights captain and current Penguins prospect Scott Harrington in London from 2009-11. This season he played quite a bit alongside Harrison Ruopp, who was recently bumped up from Wheeling.

“I was 20 when Aaron was 15,” McNeill explained. “Being such a young kid coming into the league, he did a lot of things that 15-year-olds would do. I just tried to help him out, but he was unbelievable.”

McNeill has kept tabs on Ekblad. He’s monitored his progress. And like many, McNeill said he’s expecting big things from the top overall pick.

“He’s a little more offensive than I remember, but his game is such a two-way game,” McNeill said. “He’s developed so much since he was a 15-year-old. I expect him to do great things.”

>>Associate general manager Jason Botterill, assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, head coach Mike Johnston and assistant coach Rick Tocchet, among others, watched Friday’s workout at Budweiser Gardens. Johnston stood and watched the practice-ending shootout from glass. General manager Jim Rutherford and assistant GM Bill Guerin are expected to arrive tonight.

“It’s good to see them coming out here to see us,” forward Adam Payerl said. “It shows they care enough to get to know the young prospects in the system. You just want to play your best and try to make a good impression on them when they’re watching.”

Quotable:

WBS coach John Hynes on what he’s expecting to see over the next four days:
“It’s not necessarily pressure that they have to score goals or do something outside of what their skill set is, but they want to be able to impress with their work ethic, how they play. Like I said, we talk to the players a lot about, ‘There has to be something that separates you.’ Everyone comes here with a different skill set. Some guys are workers, some guys are skill guys. But they have to be able to show those things.”

Harrington on sensing an opportunity with injuries to Maatta and Derrick Pouliot:
“I think every year is equal opportunity. It’s unfortunate for some of those guys who’ve had some injuries over the summer. Maybe for guys who have been able to train all summer, it’s an opportunity for us to show what we’ve been able to accomplish. I’m really just focusing on my game and myself, trying to play the best that I can and not get hung up on if guys are hurt or where they are in their situations.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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September 10, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Ehrhoff ready to contribute

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When defenseman Christian Ehrhoff learned that the Buffalo Sabres planned on buying him out of his contract, he listed for his agent a group of teams he wanted to play for — ones he identified as having a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

Only a few minutes into free agency on July 1, one of those teams landed Ehrhoff for a one-year deal worth $4 million, largely considered one of the better bargains of an otherwise upside-down day.

“I think the biggest thing that happened this summer — and we were very fortunate — was with Ehrhoff,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “We knew (Matt) Niskanen was going to deserve to get a big contract. It was going to be hard for us to fit him into our cap.

“The fact that Ehrhoff got bought out and was willing to come here on a one-year deal, at his salary, that, as I sit here today, makes me feel more comfortable than going into camp wondering where our younger defensemen are going to fit in.”

The Penguins have a ton of young, talented defenseman, but bringing in Ehrhoff should, at minimum, serve as a solid bridge until those guys are ready.

An all-around defenseman who finished first in power play time for the Sabres and second on the penalty kill, Ehrhoff led all Buffalo players with 27 assists. His 33 points were tops for any Sabres defenseman. Ehrhoff even blocked 119 shots, seconds on Buffalo.

“I’m an all-around defenseman,” said Ehrhoff, who averaged 23 minutes, 54 seconds last season. “I think I can play wherever they need me — power play or penalty kill. I can log high minutes. I’m excited to see where and how I fit in.”

Ehrhoff, 32, has been extremely durable, playing in 587 of 622 games over the past eight years. He set career-highs with 14 goals and 50 points while helping Vancouver to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010-11.

In 692 career games, Ehrhoff has 69 goals and 244 assists and is a plus-51. He has 34 points in 73 postseason contests.

“After I got bought out, I sat down and told my agent some teams that I thought had a good shot at winning,” Ehrhoff said. “The Penguins were on the short list. They called, and everything happened really quick. I’m excited to be here.”

On Tuesday after an informal workout at Consol Energy Center, I asked Ehrhoff, who signed before former Penguins Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik went to Washington, whether he thought about playing with those guys or whether he expected them to be gone.

That wasn’t a huge factor either way, Ehrhoff insisted.

“I didn’t know how the team would end up, how the defense would end up,” Ehrhoff said. “It was kind of obvious that those guys weren’t going to stay, at least it seemed that way. That didn’t really play into my decision. I wanted to be on a good team. I think even with those guys leaving we have a good group of players here.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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