The Penguins opened training camp on Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township. The 59 players invited - 34 forwards, 19 defensemen and 6 goaltenders - were split between three teams, except for Patric Hornqvist.
The winger had a procedure done in the summer on his hand and is finishing his rehab. Pens GM Jim Rutherford expects him to rejoin training camp for full workouts at some point, probably towards the end, and to be ready for the start of the season.
Team 1 (which had Sidney Crosby) and Team 2 (featuring Evgeni Malkin) practiced separately and then held a scrimmage, which was tied 5-5 after two 20-minute periods. Team 2 ended up winning in a shootout. Team 3 practiced after. Here's some thoughts, musings and observations from the day…
* It was truly wonderful seeing Kris Letang back on the ice. He's been through so much in his career with injuries and his health, the latest setback coming when he got shut down in late February with a herniated disc in his neck, and to see him bounce back yet again is fantastic to watch. "I'm pretty happy," he admitted. "The few weeks after the surgery, you're in pretty bad shape and you can't move. You're stuck in a bed. To be out there and be able to keep playing, I'm really excited. Really fortunate. I'm happy and I feel lucky to be on the ice."
* Letang said he felt like his conditioning was where it usually is at this time of year, adding that his legs felt great. And after watching him, I can attest. Letang looked like his normal self, moving so quickly it looked like he was floating, which had head coach Mike Sullivan marveling. "We're thrilled to see him on the ice," Sullivan said. "I think he's excited to be a part of it again. I think his skill level is evident. He sticks out when he's out there. His skating ability is tremendous. When we were doing the conditioning skates at the end, he's a half a zone ahead of everybody when he wants to be. That's just an example of his skating ability and his fitness level. He's a special player."
* Crosby and Jake Guentzel were reunited on a line (with Dominik Simon rounding out the trio), and picked up right where they left off in the spring. Early in the scrimmage, they got off on a 2-on-1 with Derrick Pouliot. Crosby drew Pouliot towards him, then made a slick pass over to a streaking Guentzel, who went in and deked for the score. He ended up with two goals on the day. It's still super early, but if Guentzel keeps up like this, I don't think we'll be seeing a sophomore slump from him after his breakout rookie season.
* Ryan Reaves half-joked he'd never seen anyone more mad about losing a training camp scrimmage than Crosby. "That competitive nature, obviously it trickles down the team," Reaves said. "I think the boys follow that." Reaves went on to say that Crosby did a good job of making him feel comfortable on his first day with a new team after spending his entire career up to this point with St. Louis. "It's been easier than I thought," Reaves said. "Coming into a new team, when I've been with one for 7 years, it's been a little nerve-wracking. But everybody's been really welcoming."
* Reaves got shaken up when he and Tom Sestito collided on the boards, a couple of big boys taking each other out while trying to avoid hitting each other. Sestito went to the locker room, while Reaves was able to stay on the bench and said afterward he felt fine. Sullivan said that Sestito is being evaluated and they're hopeful it won't be anything serious. "I didn't mean to run into anybody, that's the problem," Reaves said. "I'm not supposed to be taking out guys. I'm here to protect the guys. We were talking about it before, I think this isn't really my time to shine. I work on conditioning and a couple skills, but I think exhibition is where I want to shine and show my skillset."
* During the scrimmage, Crosby always matched up with Malkin, who played with Kessel. The two of them didn't start last season together, but ended it together, and Kessel said that familiarity is helpful for him - especially going into a new year. "I think whenever you can get comfortable with a centerman, I think that helps," he said. "It's hard to jump around, switch lines, switch centermen a lot. I think if you can make chemistry early and stick with someone for a long period of time, it makes it easier out there."
*Malkin and Kessel skated with rookie Zach Aston-Reese, and on paper, that line is an intriguing one. Aston-Reese is similar to Hornqvist with how he does his best around the net and creates space for his linemates, which makes him a good fit playing with elite talents like Malkin and Kessel, who always want the puck. The trio got off to a little bit of a slow start, but that's to be expected on the first day. I would love to see Aston-Reese get another look there.
* In regards to putting a young player alongside veterans - like Aston-Reese with Malkin and Simon with Crosby - Sullivan said that it's about trying to put them in a position to play to their strengths. "We look at the certain skillsets that players have and we try to put them with complimentary players," he said. "We're trying to give them an opportunity to play to their strengths and play a role that they would play for the Pittsburgh Penguins if they were going to play on our roster. We try to spread our guys throughout the three teams that are participating at this point, and we've tried to put the young players with some of our established players and cast them in the type of role that allows them to play to their strengths."
* A few of the young guys who were at the Prospects Challenge last week stood out in the scrimmage…
- We saw glimpses of that incredible skill we all know Daniel Sprong possesses. He scored a shootout goal with a bullet of a shot and set up a regulation goal with some fantastic vision and execution.
- Freddie Tiffels was somewhat snakebitten at the tournament, as he had a number of Grade-A scoring chances that just wouldn't fall. He finally converted today, when he drove to the net and beat the goaltender with a beautiful backhand deke. Tiffels is, as former director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton put it, "a thickly-built young man who has good size and speed." Pittsburgh's 2015 sixth-round pick used both to his advantage in order to drive to the net, and at one point late in regulation, executed a phenomenal backcheck to strip an opposing player of the puck and keep the score tied.
- Defenseman Lukas Bengtsson can really skate, and what stood out both today and at the tournament was how he didn't hesitate to jump into the play. Whenever he got a chance to be an outlet, he took it. It's good to see that kind of confidence from a younger guy.