By Dave Fryer
GROUP A FORWARDS:
Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Connor (AHL), Eric Godard, Joe Vitale (AHL), Joey Haddad (AHL), Casey Pierro-Zabotel (AHL), Geoff Walker (ECHL), Nick Petersen (QMJHL)
GROUP A DEFENSE:
Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Simon Despres (QMJHL), Robert Bortuzzo (AHL), Brian Strait (AHL), Jason DeSantis
GROUP A GOALIES:
Brent Johnson, Brad Thiessen (AHL)
GROUP B FORWARDS:
Mike Rupp, Mark Letestu (AHL), Matt Cooke, Maxime Talbot, Craig Adams, Arron Asham, Jesse Boulerice (AHL), Chris Collins (AHL), Zach Sill (QMJHL), Tyler Brown (OHL), Alex Smigelski (collegiate)
GROUP B DEFENSE:
Alex Goligoski, Ben Lovejoy (AHL), Derek Engelland (AHL), Andrew Hutchinson (NHL-AHL), Derek Peltier (AHL)
GROUP B GOALIES:
Mattias Modig (ELITSERIEN), John Curry (AHL)
GROUP C FORWARDS:
Evgeni Malkin, Mike Comrie, Nick Johnson (AHL), Eric Tangradi (AHL), Tyler Kennedy, Kevin Veilleux (AHL), Ryan Schnell (tryout), Ryan Craig (NHL-AHL), Tim Wallace (AHL), Dustin Jeffrey (AHL), Brett Sterling (AHL)
GROUP C DEFENSE:
Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Carl Sneep (collegiate), Corey Potter (AHL), Steve Wagner (AHL)
GROUP C GOALIES:
Marc-Andre Fleury, Alexander Pechurskiy (WHL)
Day 1 Report
A new season with a new building and a new crop of players brings about a renewed hope for the 2010-11 edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins. An estimated 6,000 enthusiastic fans helped open the doors on the first on-ice session for the team this season, and the action on the ice showed those are not the only doors to be opened this season.
With a void on Sidney Crosby’s wing created by the departure of Bill Guerin, the first question answered this morning was who would be playing with the NHL’s goal scoring co-champion from last season.
As the first group took to the ice, led by Crosby, it became apparent that Pascal Dupuis would join Chris Kunitz on Crosby’s flanks.
Crosby was strong out of the gate, skating with a jump and handling the puck with deft skill that no other NHL player can match. That helped lead a team that looked more energized than they have in the past.
Surely the fresh confines of the new Consol Energy Center help provide some boost, but it cannot be denied that the longest off-season of rest that the team has had in 3 seasons played a major factor in their liveliness. The first group of players set a tempo that would be sustained into the scrimmage and throughout the final two practice groups.
The second line of the “A” group had Eric Goddard, Chris Conner, and Joe Vitale skating together. The final line for the “A” team featured Casey Pierro-Zabotel between Nick Peterson and Joey Haddad, with Geoff Walker getting mixed in as an extra forward.
On defense, newcomer Zybnek Michalek and promising prospect Simon Despres drew the most interest. Michalek seemed a bit slow afoot and stumbled a few times in the drills and scrimmage, but his positioning and ability to disrupt the offense was evident.
Despres was very good with the puck, making quick outlet passes to exactly the right man. However, without the puck, Despres looked a bit unsure and indecisive.
Brain Strait also was among the “A” defensemen, and his play was steady yet unspectacular as he bids to make the NHL squad. Brooks Orpik was also with the first group and showed no signs of being slowed by recent surgery.
The second portion of the morning featured the camp’s first intra-squad scrimmage game, matching Crosby’s “A” group against a “B” group headlined by a lot of key guys who are not usually in the headlines. Crosby remained with Kunitz and Dupuis, and despite not producing any goals, the group created a lot of sustained offense through some skilled cycling and quick puck movement.
Chris Conner found the puck several times, but his lack of size and separation speed limited what he was able to do with it.
The team rotated 5 defensemen through the scrimmage with Brooks Orpik-Zbynek Michalek being the top pairing but with the rotation of 5 defensemen, the pairs were often mixed.
Brent Johnson manned the pipes for the first period of the two-period scrimmage, being replaced by Brad Thiessen for the second segment.
The “B” group’s biggest headliners were newly-acquired Arron Asham and defenseman Alex Goligoski, who has quickly become an incumbent into the line-up. Asham skated with Matt Cooke and Mark Letestu on what is assumed will be the first formation of the team’s 3rd line for the season.
The question on that line, of course, is Letestu, who will look to take over Jordan Staal’s spot on that line. Letestu made a strong argument for himself to stay there by notching the game’s only goal at the 15:50 mark of the first frame.
To start the play, Asham made an impressive move down the right wing to get a lane to the net. His shot in tight fluttered off Johnson and over the net, but Max Talbot was fresh onto the ice to keep the play alive, and Letestu rammed the puck in from the top of the crease, over a fallen Johnson.
Talbot was taking a regular shift with Mike Rupp and Craig Adams on a line that looked tremendously effective. Rupp looked intent on repeating his key contributions from last season, and Adams continues to be the hard-working, reliable veteran that made him an underrated component on last year’s squad.
Rookie camp star Zach Sill centered the “B” team’s third line with Chris Collins and Jesse Boulerice.
With two extra forwards, the “B” team formed a fourth line with Alex Smigelski and Tyler Brown picking up a rotated linemate.
On defense in the “B” group, Goligoski showed why there should no longer be any doubt about him being a lock on this team. He was very solid in all parts of his game and even appeared much more agile than he did last season.
But the attention on the “B” group’s blueline clearly centers around Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland, who are essentially battling each other for the spot as the team’s #6 defenseman. Lovejoy, the assumed favorite, established himself as the front-runner for the job by being very active and physical in the scrimmage.
John Curry started the scrimmage for the “B” squad and did a good job at minimizing his rebounds to keep the opponent’s off the scoreboard. He was replaced by European addition Mattias Modig, who was strong in his positioning despite seeming to lack the quickness of today’s top NHL goaltenders.
Those two combined to post the shutout and win in the game. They did get a little help from the goalpost after a nice touch-pass from Crosby to Dupuis allowed Dupuis to get Modig down and out, but his
backhander slid across the goalmouth, off the post, and back across the goalline without ever going over.
Crosby also had a chance to tie the score late in the scrimmage when a penalty on the “B” team gave the “A” group a penalty shot (all penalties resulted in penalty shots). Crosby was tremendous in shootouts last season, but his shot found the mask of Modig instead of the back of the net this time.
The shutout by the “B” team was not just earned by the efforts of the two goaltenders. In fact, the low-scoring game overall was very indicative of what seems to be coach Dan Bylsma’s theme for the camp: defense first, protect the house.
Many of the drills for today emphasized that very thing, and it showed in the scrimmage with both teams focused on their defensive positioning and locking down the inside scoring areas.
Practice Group “B” Notes
The “B” group returned to the ice after the scrimmage for their workout, and Aaron Asham continued to show good offensive ability, something he is not exactly noted for. Lovejoy was also persistent in his active, physical play during the drills.
Alex Smigelski was arguably the best player on the ice during the team’s summer rookie camp, earning him an invitation to this month’s pro training camp. A virtual unknown out of NCAA D3 Williams College, Smigelski grabbed some attention again with a nice goal from the slot during a 3-on-5 drill. Smigelski didn’t stop there….
scoring two more goals on very pretty shots during the next drill. Smigelski stands nearly no chance of making the NHL team, but his performance should earn him a pro contract inside the Penguins organization.
Practice Group “C” Notes
The “C” group took to the ice for the final session of the day, and with the way the players were divided up, it was no surprise to see Malkin skating with Mike Comrie, the newest Penguin. However, this session produced the biggest surprise of the day with the placement of Tyler Kennedy.
Kennedy was skating with Dustin Jeffrey and Brett Sterling. Jeffrey is a future NHLer, but he is not projected to have an inside edge to earning that this fall.
Sterling was signed over the summer on a 1-year deal and has only had a cup of coffee in the NHL during his 4-year pro career. So that line would likely be considered the overall 5th line in the organization, not a place many would have projected to see Kennedy start at in camp.
Eric Tangradi skated with Malkin and Comrie, a spot one would assume will be filled by Jordan Staal once he returns from injury. To further enforce that notion, Comrie skated as the line’s center, with Malkin on the wing.
Assistant Coach Tony Granato spent considerable time during the session working with Malkin on the nuances of playing the wing, most notably in the mock face-off drill to start the practice. Tangradi exhibited better hands than most knew he had, but he lacks the lower-body explosiveness that players like Malkin use to separate themselves at this level.
Still, Tangradi’s ability to make things happen, coupled with his size and strength, does not make it much of a trivia as to why he is skating among the Top 6.
Speaking of size, 6’5½” forward Keven Velleux was the easiest player to identify on the “C” group’s third line. Velleux’s sustained development was slowed last year by major shoulder surgery, but his lower body looks stronger than ever, increasing his ability to posses and protect the puck in
Tim Wallace took the other wing on that line, with Ryan Craig skating as the center. Nick Johnson, who made a strong showing in Wilkes-Barre and during a brief stint in Pittsburgh last year, was strangely relegated to the fourth line of the “C” squad.
He skated with rookie center Ryan Schnell in the drills, often joined by Granato to complete a line in
Paul Martin was in the spotlight on defense, and his mistake-free game on defense and overall command of the ice probably made most onlookers forget that Sergei Gonchar is no longer on this team. Kris Letang will also be needed to help replace Gonchar’s offensive output, and as he does every season.
Entering the first year of a new four year – $14 million deal, the pressure will be on Letang to bring more consistency in the offensive zone. Martin is looked at as the kind of partner who Letang will benefit greatly from.
Goaltending Coach Gilles Meloche worked with the goalies through all three sessions, doing more of that in the extended practice for the “C” group. Not coincidentally, much of Meloche’s work was related to Bylsma’s coaching of the team on protecting the front of the net when the puck is down low.
The “C” team had 3 goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury, Patrick Killeen, and Alex Pechurskiy.
Fleury rivaled Malkin as the fan favorite in this group, and those two drew the day’s biggest rise out of the crowd during a zone drill midway through the practice.
Malkin collided with Fleury behind the net, sending Fleury to the ice and his stick sliding to the corner. The puck made its way back out front, where Fleury dove back to the crease to cover the puck.
Not to let the incident behind the net go unnoticed, Fleury got to his feet and threw
the puck at Malkin. It’s hard to tell if Fleury did that as a joke or out of frustration, but it certainly caused a stir on the ice and in the crowd.
So with the conclusion of Day 1, many questions have been answered while new questions have been created. But there is no question that this team is eager to start the season and excited with the new additions and positional battles that will play out as the October 7th opener approaches.
—Dave Fryer is a contributor to Inside Pittsburgh Sports, covering the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dave is a college hockey coach and recruiter for Robert Morris University—