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Penguins' youth providing vital depth during playoffs

Strong development, production from Sheary, Murray, Kuhnhackl, Rust has Pittsburgh in second round

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

When he was working for the Pittsburgh Penguins, working to develop the young players that have played a vital role in the team advancing to the Eastern Conference Second Round, Tom Fitzgerald would tell his story of development, perseverance, professional survival. He wanted to be sure players like Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray grasped what was ahead of them, what they potentially could become.

Fitzgerald was drafted as a goal-scorer, a first-round pick of the New York Islanders, No. 17 in 1986. He finished college at Providence, road the busses in the American Hockey League, and eventually played 1,097 NHL games as a bottom-six checker.

He developed, adapted, found his niche and took advantage of his opportunity.

"Where's your seat on the bus?" Fitzgerald was saying by phone Monday. "That's what Al Arbour taught me? '[Bryan] Trottier, [Brent] Sutter and [Pat] Lafontaine are in the back of the bus and I know they're playing power play, but I can use you here and here, and if you do this you're going to play a long time.' Then you go, 'I'd rather play a long time.' 

"The majority of kids that we deal with at the American Hockey League level, they're me. You figure it out. You take advantage."

The Penguins are in the second round, preparing to play the Washington Capitals, in part because players like Sheary, Rust, Kuhnhackl and Murray have taken advantage. So was Scott Wilson before he got hurt last month.

They made the best of their chance in the AHL last season under John Hynes, now coach of the New Jersey Devils. Now they're making the best out of their chance in the NHL under Mike Sullivan, who initially replaced Hynes in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL before replacing Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh on Dec. 12.

"When the coaching change was made and opportunities presented themselves for lineup positions at the NHL level, I knew these guys could do it," Sullivan said. "I knew they were capable. And I believed in them. I trusted them. They help us win."

Sheary went undrafted out of the University of Massachusetts, and got his first taste of pro hockey because Fitzgerald and Penguins scout Al Santilli liked him and no team was willing to offer him an NHL contract.

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Sheary beats Lundqvist from the slot 

The Penguins had used up their 50 NHL contracts, so they signed Sheary to an AHL amateur tryout contract late in the 2013-14 season. He played two regular-season games in Wilkes-Barre and became a top-six forward in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

"When Conor was a senior, my son was a freshman at BC so it was easy for me to get info him," Fitzgerald said. "I was like, 'Geez, this kid has some Johnny [Gaudreau] in him.' It was always like, 'If we put him in this lineup, I wonder what he'll do.' "

He's playing and producing on Pittsburgh's first line with Sidney Crosby. He scored two goals and three points in the Penguins' five-game first-round series win against the New York Rangers.

"He looks really comfortable," Crosby said.

Rust was a four-year letter-winner at the University of Notre Dame before he turned pro two years ago.

"He needed all four years at Notre Dame," Fitzgerald said.

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm5: Rust scores his second of the game

It helped him develop. A season in the AHL allowed him to figure out his game. Now he's on the Penguins' productive fourth line with veteran center Matt Cullen and Kuhnhackl. They combined for nine points in the first round. Rust had two goals and an assist in Game 5.

"When me and Kuhnhackl got called up, we got lucky because we were really familiar with each other and we were playing together right away," Rust said. "It's kind of been that way ever since. We've been kind of inseparable. With a guy like Cullie fitting in between two rookies he's able to show us the way and we're able to learn from him."

Kuhnhackl might be the closest comparable to Fitzgerald.

He came from Germany to play in the Ontario Hockey League and scored 39 goals in his first season with the Windsor Spitfires. But in 2012, when he turned pro, the goals dried up. He had to change. He had to get stronger. He had to find his niche.

"We thought the best thing for him was to go to Wheeling in the East Coast Hockey League and play meaningful minutes in every situation," Fitzgerald said. "That's where Clark Donatelli had him on the PK. When he came back up he was slowly integrated into the penalty kill and that became his role."

Kuhnhackl scored a shorthanded goal in Game 1 against the Rangers. He played 12:49 per game in the series, 1:48 on a penalty kill that finished 17-for-19.

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm1: Kuhnhackl scores on shorthanded rush

"He reinvented himself into a bottom-six player," Fitzgerald said.

And then there is Murray, who may be the shining star of the group.

"Our rookie tournament when I first got here [in 2014] was when I got the best look at him," said Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, a former NHL goalie. "I said to our guys right then, 'He's good.' "

Murray proved it last season when he set an AHL record for longest shutout streak at 304:11.

"The thing that really got us was last year, when he had that long shutout streak, just how hard the team played in front of him for him to keep that alive," Hynes said. "They would block shots, play for him, try to help him out -- you could tell there was something special about him."

Fitzgerald compared Murray to Devils goalie Cory Schneider because they share the same happy-go-lucky, talk-to-anyone attitude off the ice and the same calmness in the crease.

Murray showed all of that in the last three games against the Rangers, when he made 85 saves on 89 shots. He joked about using clichés during a press conference after Game 4, in which he had a 31-save shutout at Madison Square Garden.

"It's scary how good this kid is," Fitzgerald said.

Some would say it's shocking how good all of the Penguins' AHL call-ups have been. Except it's not shocking. This was the plan. They developed, adapted and found their niche. When the opportunity arose, they took advantage.

"It's a real credit to them," Hynes said. "It's gratifying to see them have success because you saw them before they got there, when they didn't have the limelight, when they were riding the bus, working hard in practice and making the improvements that they needed to make."

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