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Sundqvist eyes open spot on Penguins' fourth line

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Oskar Sundqvist is prepared to make his NHL debut.

Sundqvist, one of Pittsburgh's final cuts last preseason, is eyeing a spot on the Penguins' opening night roster. He fell short of that goal in 2014 after leading Pittsburgh with two preseason goals.

Entering this season, there is a hole at center on the Penguins' fourth line, Sundqvist's natural position. Although he did not participate in development camp because of a lower-body injury, Sundqvist is expected to be available for Pittsburgh's rookie tournament and training camp.

The 21-year-old hopes to again reach the final stages of training camp and to top the list of potential candidates available to play when the Penguins open their season against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 8.

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"It's all about the camp, how I perform there," Sundqvist said. "Like last year, I had my best time during the year during the camp. So I'm just looking for me to make a big impression on [Penguins coach Mike Johnston] and I'm hoping that's in his mind still.

"We will see [if I'm prepared to play in the NHL]. I haven't been on the ice yet, so I don't really know about that. But hopefully I feel mature enough to move here. So I should be ready to play in the NHL."

Sundqvist is a gritty forward who can use his 6-foot-3, 209-pound frame to earn and control the puck in impressive fashion. He possesses an ability to play both ways, providing explosive offensive tendencies with an innate ability to carry the puck into a corner and provide ample time for a top line to step back onto the ice.

The latter facet of his game could provide what the Penguins are looking for from their fourth line. Added scoring, an asset Pittsburgh's bottom six has been sorely missing for a few seasons, also would be welcome, but Sundqvist's defensive ability is what could earn him a spot come October.

"It really doesn't matter where I play," Sundqvist said. "I can play anywhere. It doesn't matter. Where the coach tells me to play, I'll play … They're missing one fourth-line center and they'll bring in a new one that will be tough to compete against, but I'll still do my best to try to see where it goes."

Sundqvist helped Skelleftea to its second consecutive Swedish Hockey League championship in 2014 with four goals and six points in 13 postseason games. He finished the 2014-15 season with nine goals, 19 points and a plus-15 rating in 41 games.

"When I first got called up, I got the chance to play on the fourth line and develop a defensive game," he said. "That was going on for two years and, of course, two years of defensive play, of course it develops. I think that's the reason."

Sundqvist was slightly critical of his offensive touch, and improving in that area seems to be a primary focus before competing this September. But Penguins defenseman Derrick Pouliot, who watched Sundqvist during Pittsburgh's 2014 development camp and played with him last preseason, said Sundqvist is reliable at both ends.

"He's a very good player. He has that offensive side to his game," Pouliot said. "He's a big body. He can skate and he can score. So he did well last year. He was one of the last guys cut, so I expect him to in and compete for a spot. … He's a good two-way guy.

"He's got the size to his advantage and he's responsible in his own end, so that's a big thing for being successful in this league. I think he could step into that role (fourth-line center) and play whatever role they need him to play. He'll bring the offense and he'll be good in his own zone, so you could put him there, for sure."

Pittsburgh assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald said he views Sundqvist as a player who could open the season with the Penguins fourth line, but he clarified Sundqvist must have another impressive camp, and that might be more difficult to achieve than it was a year ago.

"Expectation-wise, we have to manage those," Fitzgerald said. "He did have a great camp last year. One of the things Oskar's not going to have this year, he's not going to have those games in August playing with Skelleftea … practicing and participating in the rookie tournament in midseason form. That's a fact. He's going to have a regular summer. He's going to rehab here. He's going to train, he's going to get stronger, he's going to get on the ice and basically train like a North American.

"So we have to temper those expectations. But yes, we do believe he has qualities to be a fourth-line center on our team."

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