By Dave Fryer
Photo: David Hague — Inside Pittsburgh Sports
Another hearty crowd of a few thousand Penguins fans showed up at Consol Energy Center to witness Day 2 of their team’s training camp. And while the intensity was down a notch from yesterday, the attitude and execution of the team sustained into today.
As planned and expected, the groupings from yesterday’s practice remained the same. Moreover, the line combinations were largely the same across all teams, but defensive pairings started to become evident.
Also evident was the coaching staff’s clear intent on molding this team into exactly what Head Coach Dan Bylsma wants – a speedy group that locks down defensively and transitions very quickly. Much of today’s drills centered on transitions and defending the attack, focusing on the individual battles involved in those rushies.
There was a strong emphasis on defensemen making themselves as an outlet on both regroups and a breakouts. Bylsma’s system calls for the weak-side defender to get to the middle of the ice on the breakout, often catching an outlet pass in stride as a second wave to the attack.
This caters very well to the likes of Paul Martin and Kristopher Letang, though it seems as if Bylsma will have those two paired together.
Another palpable observation today was how deep this organization truly is at the forward position. The young forwards are unmistakably gifted with offensive skills, and other than the obvious separation of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the top, there is not a whole lot of drop-off from top to bottom when considering the roles each player will fulfill.
PRACTICE GROUP B
First on the ice this morning for a 45-minute workout was the “B” grouping. Mike Rupp once again exhibited a powerful stride that made him very effective in the transition drills. Arron Asham also carried his offensive prowess into today, finishing several plays around the net.
But the most-surprising forward skating in the systems drills was none other than Bylsma, who often filled in on a line with Alex Smigelski and Tyler Brown. Bylsma not only showed that he still has some of the skills that made him a serviceable NHL player for parts of 9 seasons, but he also demonstrated the enthusiasm that reflects the current attitude of his team. And for the record, today happens to be Bylsma’s 40th birthday.
Alex Goligoski was the best defenseman in his group again, but Ben Lovejoy is still the one exceeding the most expectations. Lovejoy truly looks NHL ready and poised to secure his place on the roster.
His aggressive play certainly appeals to the coaching staff, and if his performance continues into the preseason games, it will not take long for Lovejoy to officially earn that spot.
But that’s not to say that Deryk Engelland has performed poorly over the first two days. Engelland has been at least as good as expected, meaning he could also be placed on the major league roster when the team concludes their training camp. At this point, most every educated observer would place a clear gap between Engelland and which ever defensemen would be considered as the #8 man on the depth chart.
Given that Lovejoy and Engelland were prohibitive favorites to compete for the role as the team’s #6 defenseman, it can somewhat be assumed that the coaches intend to put the winner of that job on the ice with Goligoski to start the season.
That is a bit of a curious move since Goligoski would be largely considered the team’s #5 defenseman entering camp. But the improved play of Goligoski and the emergence of Lovejoy should make the team’s management confident in what those two can do together.
The goaltending tandem of John Curry and Mattias Modig combined for a surprising shutout in the Day 1 scrimmage, but their performance was more on the side of underwhelming on Day 2. Neither netminder – Modig, in particular – moves very well, and their reactive instincts are well below the level need in today’s NHL.
The “C” team took to the ice after the resurfacing to go through some warm-up drills in preparation for the scrimmage against the “B” unit. Missing from the line-up was winger Ryan Schnell, who would eventually return to the group during their practice session.
Without Schnell, the team rotated four players through their third line: Tim Wallace, Ryan Craig, Keven Veilleux, and Nick Johnson. No other line-up changes were made, including keeping Eric Tangradi with Malkin and Mike Comrie.
This meant Tyler Kennedy remained with Dustin Jeffrey and Brett Sterling. The featured defensive pairing was the aforementioned Martin-Letang combination, but all 5 defensemen were rotated, working Carl Sneep, Corey Potter, and Steve Wagner into regular shifts.
The lines from the “B” team remained the same as they were in their practice session, with the obvious exception of Bylsma not skating with the fourth line. Another forward was rotated through that spot through the game, causing some disruptions in the combinations of the other lines.
But the top line was still composed of Asham, Matt Cooke, and center Mark Letestu. Letestu was not as strong overall in today’s scrimmage, despite some offensive production. He is certainly being pushed by Jeffrey and will need to stay on top of his game to hang onto the job as the third-line center but is the front runner at this point.
The “C” group, who was seeing their first scrimmage time, sought to create more offense out of the gate in today’s game. They buzzed the opposing net early and nearly converted that into a goal when a centering pass from Comrie caromed into the air and almost ended up in the back of the net.
Lovejoy made himself known again early actively pressuring the puck and finishing his hits. His confidence seems to be at an all-time high. The frenzied start by the “C” squad only aided Lovejoy’s game, as he confronted the attack head-on.
Despite the advantage early on, the C group could not muster a goal. Instead it was the B team grabbing the early lead, as it was Letestu notching his second goal of the weekend.
The play started with the kind of quick transition Bylsma wants to see, and Letestu took advantage of a rare mistake by Martin to gain a shooting lane and first the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury. Matt Cooke assisted on the goal, which came at 7:51 of the opening period.
Letestu is considered to be engaged in a positional battle with Jeffrey, and with his counterpart gaining some notoriety, Jeffrey rose to the occasion to even the score and close the gap Letestu had create above him.
Jeffrey looked much like Malkin in deftly handling the puck in tight before slipping a pretty shot past Modig at 13:35. Kennedy was credited with the only assist, drawing a round of applause from the crowd when his name was announced in the scoring.
Letestu began to fade a bit as the scrimmage continued, including a bad turnover late in the scrimmage shortly after he won a faceoff. But Jeffrey put his game in high gear after scoring his goal nearly…..
scoring again moments later on a 2-on-1 break with Sterling. His two-way play was superb over the duration of the scrimmage, showing that he is more defensively reliable than Letestu.
Malkin was more comfortable on the wing today, working well along the boards through the neutral zone. Malkin’s play along the boards in the offensive zone has always been exceptional, and by playing right wing, he has a better ability to work directly from the outside-in off the boards before there is much defensive support against him.
However, Malkin’s hands were slightly off today, causing him to fumble around with the puck as he tried to separate himself from the defender.
Bylsma’s emphasis on using the defenseman coming through the middle really showed through today with Martin and Letang on the ice. Martin is absolutely living up to all the hype Ray Shero has put on him.
He is able to catch the puck well in stride and maneuver up the ice, while Letang’s approach is more geared towards speed, using swift skating and quick hands to make plays. It will be curious to see if the coaches keep those players together in the preseason games as, despite the slight difference in approach, both players look to fill the same space.
This consideration has to be even more relevant when the pairing of Goligoski and Lovejoy lack that asset in either player.
Defenseman Chris Potter caught the attention of everyone in the building with a crushing hit on Jesse Boulerice in the neutral zone. Not to let himself only be noticed once, Potter again cleaned up his own end with a solid open-ice hit later in the scrimmage.
Similar to yesterday, the scrimmage saw very few quality scoring chances due to strong defensive play by both squads. It appeared the B team finally broke through with a second goal at 12:15 of the second half, but the goal was disallowed due to a high stick on the puck.
That sent the game into a sudden-death shootout. Tangradi was the first shooter, but his laser of a shot found the crossbar and not the back of the net. Letestu took the first shot for the B team and used it to win the game by beating Alex Pechurski between the pads.
So the positional battle between Jeffrey and Letestu wages on, with both players coming away from today with a sense of satisfaction in what they did over the weekend.
PRACTICE GROUP C
The C group returned to the ice for their workout, much of it used to develop more chemistry between Comrie and Malkin. At first, Comrie seemed to have the “Jan Hrdina to Jaromir Jagr” disease of only looking to pass to his teammate, but progressively those two got a better feel for each other and started clicking nicely.
With Schnell re-joining the group for the skate, it can only be assumed that he is nursing some sort of injury from yesterday that is best healed without taking game contact. So with him on the ice, one of the players from the third line was dressed in a gray jersey to form part of a fourth line.
Yesterday that player was Johnson. It was no surprise to see Johnson moved up today, but it was a bit curious to see Veilleux as the guy who was presumably moved down. But given that both those players are right wingers, it seems that swap is only relative to the positions they play.
But the foursome of Johnson, Veilleux, Wallace, and Craig gave the entire Penguins organization proof of their forward depth in this session, as each of those players worked the puck very well and found the back of the net several times.
The AHL squad in Wilkes-Barre has been very successful over the past several seasons, and this year should be no different with the depth shown on the front lines this weekend.
Despite all of this offensive talent on the ice, the player who showed off the most finesse during the session was Letang. His skills with the puck – including a lethal wrist shot – should make him a key consideration on the power play this year, which will need to be revamped with the departure of Sergei Gonchar.
The team undoubtedly underachieved in this area last season, just as Letang has not quite lived up to his abilities offensively. An increase from the latter could lead to big things for the former this year.
Goaltending Coach Gilles Meloche was on the ice again today working with the goalies, and he spent extra time in this session schooling Fleury on shots from the back post. Fleury has the natural athletic ability and overall quickness to make those saves regularly, but all Penguins fans have seen plenty of occasions over the past few years where Fleury is either beat on these shots or beat on rebounds from those shots simply because of a lack of technique.
Those areas of Fleury’s game have improved – albeit slowly – of late, largely because of the presence of Meloche, not only as a knowledgeable coach but also as a constant presence for Fleury, who was bounced around and exposed to a lot of different coaches during his formative years with the organization.
PRACTICE GROUP A
When Sidney Crosby sets foot on the ice, the tone in the building clearly changes. But it was Brent Johnson who slightly altered that tone early, robbing Chris Kunitz with a nice glove save in the session’s first drill.
That was only the start to a strong practice for Johnson. No one would ever imagine that there is a question about who the team’s starter and backup are for this season, but it is reassuring to see the reliable Johnson further entrenching himself as the backup.
After several seasons of changes through the organization at that position, Johnson provides the Penguins some much-needed stability in many forms.
While someone will have a big role to fill as the team’s third line center, the most pressured position on the forward lines right now falls on the shoulders of Pascal Dupuis. Dupuis has gone from once being “that other guy” on a line of Crosby and Marian Hossa to now being “the guy” that has to produce on that line.
These things do not go unnoticed by veteran players, and Dupuis was focused through the practice on improving his shooting and work around the net. He possesses a deadly shot on the rush, but when playing with Crosby, he will be spending less time carrying the puck over the blue line and more time catching and finishing going to the net.
Forward Joey Haddad showed a lot of offensive ability throughout the session, again providing more visible proof of the offensive depth Shero has accumulated. But Haddad underachieved last season in splitting time between Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre. It was his first season as a pro, but this will still be a key season for the 21-year-old who is coming off a strong prospect camp.
Word out of the locker room yesterday was that Simon Despres was extremely disappointed in his play on the ice. As a result, Despres approached today’s workout with a stronger sense of focus. He is a much better player when he is aggressive, but indecision lingers and prevents him from always playing that kind of game every shift.
Despres showed a good ability to handle the puck and consistently get it on net in some positional work late in the extended workout, but his shot is not as heavy as his counterparts due to some flaws in his mechanics.
So at this point, it should come as no surprise that last season’s first overall pick is likely headed back to his junior team. To clarify the needless debate on that, Depres is not eligible for an AHL assignment this year as the CBA states that CHL players with junior eligibility remaining are only permitted to be reassigned to their junior squad and not to a minor league team.
Zybnek Michalek looked tremendously better today. His style was far more fluid and his execution was much crisper. Based again on the groupings, the assumption is that Michalek will be initially partnered with Brooks Orpik. The reasoning for this would certainly be to create that much-desired “shutdown pair” that the team was missing in last year’s post-season.
Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo are underdogs for a spot on the NHL roster, but both players stand a chance to get a look with the NHL team at some point this season. Their performances at this camp might not get them on the team in October, but it could go a long way in determining who gets the first call when someone is needed.
Bortuzzo has all the tools to be an excellent AHL defenseman. That is partially a backhanded compliment because he does not look to be NHL-ready just yet.
Strait is a year older than Bortuzzo and that seems to be the difference in his development, despite both having only one season of pro hockey experience. Strait led WBS with a +22 last season, and his stellar positional play is a large reason why.
He plays his gaps very well and consistently puts himself in the passing lane. Both players should assume a large role in Wilkes-Barre this season as they await their opportunity to come to Pittsburgh.
The practice ended with the NHL forwards – Crosby, Kunitz, Dupuis, and Eric Goddard – going to one end to do some work with Tony Granato, while the rookie forwards worked at the far end on some basic skills. The defensemen filled the middle of the ice, following the instruction of Todd Reirden before joining the rookie forwards to do some point shots with screens in front.
During that drill, Michalek showcased a tremendous ability to get the puck to the net quickly after catching a pass. But the highlight of that time belonged to Crosby, who was in a drill where Granato was applying stickwork to the player in the slot while that player tried to break free to catch a pass for a shot.
Granato went extra tight on Crosby, pushing the limits of the rules with his stickwork. But the crafty Crosby broke free by passing his stick around his own back to break free to catch a pass, and of course he finished the play by roofing the puck to the top corner.
The Penguins will follow the same format for Monday’s practices, with Crosby’s group taking on Malkin’s group in the scrimmage. They will then work towards their first live game action of the season, facing Detroit on Wednesday night at the Consol Energy Center.
— Dave Fryer is a contributor to Inside Pittsburgh Sports, covering the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is the Head Coach of the ACHA Division I hockey team at Robert Morris University. —