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Lemieux trying to grow game at Penguins camp

Right wing had solid season in USHL, wants to get stronger, earn college scholarship

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa -- Austin Lemieux stepped onto a sheet of ice bearing his last name Wednesday, and in the shadow of his father's retired No. 66, which hung in the far corner of the rink.

The son of Mario Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins' most decorated legend, filled a black and gold jersey at 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, one inch and 60 pounds smaller than his father stood during his 17 NHL seasons.

"You have to be respectful when you have the Lemieux name and make sure you carry yourself well," Austin Lemieux said. "Just approach every day like a new day."

Lemieux wasn't aware if his father watched him Wednesday, when Pittsburgh's 2016 Prospects Development Camp began at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Whether Mario watched or not, the 20-year-old right wing was proud to wear the same colors his father once wore.

"It's an absolute honor," Lemieux said. "I didn't think I would get here this year. I'm hoping a little down the line, maybe a few years in college if I have an opportunity, but it's great for me to be here today."

Lemieux's tall, slender frame stood out from his peers, as did his soft hands, which he used to snap a shot through goalie Tristan Jarry.

"I felt pretty good until the end," Lemieux said. "It was a good skate today. I'm preparing for tomorrow though." 

He had six goals and 14 points in 57 games with Omaha of the United States Hockey League this season. It was a solid showing in a step up in competition after playing the previous two seasons with the Penguins Elite U-18 team. 

"[Playing in Omaha] was a good learning experience," he said. "It's a process. It's a marathon, not a sprint. I'm just trying to get better every day."

There is clear room for improvement.

At 170 pounds, Lemieux is one of the lightest skaters at development camp; only right wing Tyler Kelleher (161 pounds), and centers Jake Guentzel (167) and Cameron Hebig (168) weigh less. Lemieux said he's tried to build muscle while trying not to sacrifice speed.

Some of that strength was on display during a stickhandling drill Thursday. Lemieux stood near one of the faceoff circles, chopping the puck back and forth, while defenseman Ethan Prow slid his own puck under Lemieux's stick, wrapped it around the stick blade and repeated the process. The two then traded places.

Paired with possibly the Penguins' best puck-moving defense prospect, Lemieux did well to keep up but was noticeably less fluid. That's to be expected, since Prow was a finalist for the 2016 Hobey Baker Award as the best NCAA player, and Lemieux is hoping to secure a college commitment for 2017-18 after playing for Omaha again next season.

But Lemieux's hands have considerably improved since May 17, 2009, when he and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby starred in a viral Internet video. A 13-year-old Lemieux struggled to take a puck off Crosby, who lived with the Lemieux family for eight years. Crosby, 21 at the time, stickhandled through his legs, off his skates and under Lemieux's stick blade.

Lemieux wants to follow not only in his father's footsteps, but Crosby's as well.

"The goal is just to get better," he said. "And see what I have to do to reach the NHL."

A bit of extra motivation toward that goal awaited Lemieux and the other 34 prospects when they arrived Tuesday. The Stanley Cup greeted them, which Pittsburgh player development coach Mark Recchi hoped would showcase the organizational culture.

Lemieux probably doesn't need much of an introduction. His father won the Stanley Cup two times as a player, and now twice as co-owner of the Penguins; he was also inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997 immediately following his first retirement.

Despite his familiarity with Pittsburgh's hockey past, Lemieux would do well to adapt to their current speed-oriented style. More than anything, Recchi said he hopes Pittsburgh's up-tempo, aggressive nature rubs off on Lemieux and the other prospects.

"We play fast. We play smart. We play the right way," Recchi said. "They're all fans of the game. They all watch hockey too and we told them it starts in practice and it goes from there. We want to see that out here. It's only going to be short, but we want to see pace and we want to see them going."

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