A collection of thoughts, news and notes from the first day of on-ice activities in Pittsburgh.
By Brian Metzer
Though the Penguins put in a day of physicals, meetings and off-ice activities on Friday; today marked the first day of on ice activities.
The sessions were open to the public and there was plenty of fan support. Most were in the house to witness the return of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Makin – both of which missed significant time last season with injuries. Crosby and Malkin did skate today and looked great in doing so, but more on that shortly.
I was in the house alongside a diverse group of media folk from around the league and Pittsburgh and wanted to throw a collection of news and notes at you.
I didn’t see group B’s practice session due to player availability, but will give you some thoughts on group A, the scrimmage between group A & B, the group C practice session and Sidney Crosby’s post skate comments…
Group A Practice:
-Jordan Staal, James Neal and Chris Kunitiz skated together and looked pretty good during their drills. Staal looked healthy, a little bigger and stronger and was clearly enjoying being available for camp – something that he missed out on last season.
-James Neal was firing the puck from the high slot. Yes, that has been his MO during his career, but the difference was that he was hitting the net and scoring. He scored more often than not during drills and most of the time his shots were beating the goaltenders high over the gloves and into the corners. He was skating with confidence and authority. He looks like a guy who wants to prove that his time in the Burgh last season was an anomaly.
-Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Kennedy and Steve Sullivan skated on a line and had almost instant chemistry. That chemistry was very evident during the scrimmage as well, where the trio was involved in all but one goal.
-Malkin doesn’t seem to be having any issues with his surgically repaired knee and flashing some speed that has been missing from his game over the past year or so. I have often said that the surgery was probably a good thing for him, as it allowed time for both of his knees to get healthy. Have a strong healthy lower body will allow Geno Machino to get back to being the dominant force that has been in the past… especially in the neutral zone, where he has always been most effective galloping through with speed, setting up the rush.
-Nick Johnson didn’t seem to be suffering any effects of the concussion that he suffered last season. He was cleared for contact late last season, but didn’t get a chance to get back on the ice then. He scored on a couple rushes during drills and looked like the good depth guy that he has been over the past two seasons.
-Brooks Orpik is not 100% as of yet, but was a full participant during today’s practices etc. He said that he will be fine for the start of the season.
-Kevin Veilleux has always been a big kid, but he looked even more so this afternoon. I got a look at him standing next to Brooks Orpik and he made the latter look small.
-2011 1st round draft pick Joe Morrow had a very good first day. He doesn’t at all look like a wide-eyed youngster and was making smart plays, jumping up in the play and looked very smooth on the ice. Morrow is a very poised young man and is definitely a guy I want to keep an eye on during the coming days.
Scrimmage between Group A & B:
-The Malkin, Kennedy, Sullivan line owned the afternoon as they were pretty much the entire offense for their team. They were making things happen on each shift and brandished the chemistry that I mentioned above. Malkin showed off that playmaking ability of his as he set Tyler Kennedy up for two goals. On the first, he got the puck to Kennedy coming down the right wing, who carried it into space and fired a shot past Marc Andre Fleury short-side. On the second, he took a slick pass from Steve Sullivan (who kept the puck behind the net with a pass off of the net to himself) and slid it to Kennedy in the slot. TK one-timed the puck behind Marc Andre Fleury.
-Fleury didn’t have the best scrimmage, but I am not too worried about it. It was pretty much his first “game-type” action since last spring and it was more exciting for Pens fans and management to see the positives on offense than to critique MAF so early in camp.
-Malkin showed some skill in scoring a goal on the penalty shot…something that is typically a bugaboo for him.
-James Neal showed off that wicked wrist shot that I mentioned and got his team on the board. He really did look like a different guy; let’s hope it continues for him. Maybe he knew that Scott Burnside of ESPN fame was in the stands and wanted to prove the scribe right in choosing him as one of his breakout players of the year.
-Dare I say that Richard Park has a pretty decent scrimmage and even scored a goal. He was centering Eric Tangradi and Jason Williams, neither of whom had memorable performances. That isn’t to say that they were bad, but they didn’t do anything to stand out.
-Zbynek Michalek looked like a guy who is going to try to get his offense going a bit more this season. He pinched on a couple pucks keeping them in the offensive zone and even slid down the wall to take passes, which resulted in shots. It could be very interesting watching him unleash that slapper from the high dot this season.
Group C practice:
-There aren’t a ton of thoughts on group C aside from the fact that it contained Sidney Crosby. The Penguins captain was zipping around the ice at high speeds, shooting the puck and flashing that playmaking ability. He looked every bit like the guy we know him to be. Though the Penguins have been very cautious in their handling of his situation, he looked a lot closer to returning than they have let on. Worth noting that playing the game with contact is a lot different than skating in drills, but it was all very encouraging.
-When Crosby hit the ice the CEC erupted… the Penguins took full advantage of Sid’s entry to get that pop, showing his trip down the runway and onto the ice. As Crosby hit the bench, he flashed a smile and acknowledged the cheers.
-Matt Cooke, who missed the end of last season serving a disciplinary suspension, was back on the ice with his teammates. He gave an interesting interview on how he has attempted to change his game and how he could have avoided some situations in the past had he been more puck focused instead of looking for big hits.
-Dustin Jeffrey was on the ice with this group and looked to be fully recovered from his off-season knee surgery. According to team officials, he isn’t yet 100%, but is close. The team can only benefit from having him healthy this season.
Sidney Crosby – Post Practice Comments:
“Felt good out there. I worked as hard as I possibly could out there. For that period of time I think that’s probably the longest I went at that pace.”
“It’s one day. Glad I felt good but I think that being said, I have to see after the next few days here.”
“It was a really good pace and I think it was tough but fun to feel that again”
“Can’t give you a seven day forecast, but today it feels good.”
“I was really happy to be back out there and obviously fun to go out there and work hard. Obviously it’s never fun when you’re tired and you’re going through drills like that, but at the same time you miss that, you miss the fatigue and having to battle through it so it was nice to go through all of it.”
“That says a lot about our fans and I appreciate all of that. I missed being out there and appreciate the ovation I got there. I’m as eager as hopefully they are to see me out there. I want to get back.
“I’m doing everything I can in my power to make sure that’s as soon as possible. That being said there’s necessary steps to take and I’m going to make sure I do that.”
“Before contact I have to talk to doctors. As far as the final say, that will be our team doctor (Dr. Charles Burke). At the end of the day he’s got to be the one who clears me to play. It will be up to him. There is constant communication. Everyone will be well aware of everything before each step is made.”
“There’s no division (between his medical team), I really don’t know how that came about.”
Quotes from around the room:
On the first day in general:
“Practice was fun… don’t know about the game…looking forward to tomorrow and redeeming myself.”
On goals for this season:
“I think that every year that is our goal to get to the finals and win. Nothing has changed this year. We believe with this group of guys that is something we can accomplish.”
Observations from the scrimmage:
“It is tough not to notice Tyler Kennedy, Malkin and Sullivan together; I was hoping to get the hat trick for TK so my hat could come on the ice. They were particularly good.”
“James Neal scores a goal. I have seen him score about 20 of those over the past six or seven games, scooping it over the goalies gloves.”
Malkin’s goals for the season:
“I think whenever you talk to Geno about goals and what he wants; every conversation comes to the Stanley Cup and winning Stanley Cups and winning multiple Stanley Cups. He will always go there when you sit down and talk to him. I think he’s looking to get back not for points or not for individual awards or scoring titles, he wants to get back and help this team win another Stanley Cup.”
On the changes that Matt Cooke is making:
“I’m interested in seeing what the product is going to be on the ice from Matt Cooke and where his mindset is going to be. I know Matt is in a different position now mentally, he’s in a different position in his focus on being a physical player and what he’s looking for and what aspects of hitting he can still do and be within the guidelines and with his new mindset. But at the same time I think Matt has that and he’s ready to come back to our team and help in the areas that make him a good player for our team.”
“I can tell you that he is in a different spot.”
“I think Matt feels real confident he can be a good player, be a similar player, but change his mindset and play within the rules.”
On James Neal:
“We didn’t see him score those goals and he didn’t score them in our jersey, so we don’t feel that… but James Neal is a plus 20 goal scorer and we think he can hit 30. He’s a guy who has typically had faster starts to a season than the finish.”
On being here from the start this season:
“Getting the legs ready and just being prepared for the season and going through the training camp, going through working on what we do as a team and not just jumping in the middle of the season. I’m expecting a lot of good things…I’m glad to be ready to go for a full season.”
Joking about TK’s big day:
“Yeah, I don’t know if Flower was prepared for those ones… TK is obviously knows how to scores goals and has a great shot… but he just got lucky… (laughs)”
On his changing approach to the game:
“I don’t describe it as a makeover. I still have the body shape and physique that I have. What it is is a change in my approach. We’re into analogies, so let’s relate it to golf. Most pro golfers when they’re inside 30 yards, they use a lob wedge and they flop it to within three or four feet. Most amateurs can’t do that. They take a 7-iron and they bump and run. I’m changing my approach.
“I always went for the big hit. Whenever I had a chance to hit, I tried to make it as impactful as I could, trying to stay within the rules. The problem with that is there are a lot of situations during that game where that approach didn’t allow for much room for error and in a hurry, things can go bad. That’s only been proven more and more the more I watch video, the more I watch other games, the more I watch other players.”
“It starts with the approach, I was always trying to hit guys as hard as I could and that’s part of the approach. There’s scenarios on the ice that even if I could hit a guy 100% clean, his momentum would bring him into the boards. At this point in time in my career I’m ready to let that go and play a different way. Thirteen years of playing guys physical, I think guys are still going to think I am going to hit them and that may work to my advantage.”
On if he could have avoided any of the previous hits he had been suspended for in the past by playing the way he is planning too:
“Tyutin is a scenario where had I gone in more focused on the puck, more focused on his stick, I would have had time to slow up once he turned.”
On the role he’d like to play:
“Obviously I would like to contribute as much as I can, I’d like to play hard every night and help the team win.”
On the team’s make-up being a huge reason for coming back:
“Yeah, for sure, my main focus here is to win a cup and that’s why I stayed. We have a great team, a team that’s main focus is winning the cup. I love Pittsburgh and I’m glad to be back.”
His comfort level in Pittsburgh playing a role in staying:
“Yeah, for sure, I have been here for four or five years… I know the systems, that makes it easy when I’m coming to camp and I know what they expect and what to expect from myself and that makes it very easy on me.”
On team having faith in him:
“Yeah, for sure, Ray showed faith in signing me and I want to prove that they made the right decision.”
On his surgery earlier in the summer:
“Definitely not 100 % but it is getting there…its probably right on target where I am supposed to be. It is about trying to get my game shape back. I have only skated like five times so far…I am in great running shape, but you get on the ice and you feel like you’re in bad shape.
On the continuity of having the defensive unit from last season coming back and comfort level:
“Yeah, I think confident is a big part of it. Obviously we carry that over from last year; we slipped a little bit in the playoffs, which I think guys were pretty disappointed in. Just paying attention to details and having a lot of the same guys helps a lot heading into this year.“