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Kuehnhackl Excels In Top-Line Role

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
LONDON, ONTARIO – It wasn’t much of a surprise to see Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes pair forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi together on the Penguins’ top line for the first game of the team’s prospect camp against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon.

Jeffrey after all finished the 2009-10 season as the American Hockey League’s 11th leading scorer after posting 71 points (24G-47A) with WBS, while Tangradi is arguably the team’s top power forward prospect who scored a WBS-leading eight power-play tallies.

What was a little surprising was who flanked Tangradi and Jeffrey – 2010 fourth-round draft pick Tom Kuehnhackl. In fact, even Kuehnhackl was a bit taken aback when he saw his name next to theirs when the Penguins arrived in London on Friday night.

“When I first saw that I thought they made a mistake,” Kuehnhackl said. “I am 18-years-old and I am playing with the two best players in the tournament. At the first practice I just tried to learn their styles and how they play on the ice.”

Sure, it probably would have been easy for Hynes to place a veteran with AHL experience such as Keven Veilleux or Joey Haddad on the top line, but Hynes believes Kuehnhackl has the skill set and mentality to mesh with high-end talent.

“He has good hockey sense and a good compete level,” Hynes said. “I think he has the personality where he can handle the challenge of playing with some of our high-skilled guys.”

Kuehnhackl handled that challenge quite well on Saturday in the Penguins’ 5-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators. The German native picked up an assist on Veilleux’s second-period tally, while also creating several quality scoring chances both for himself and for his linemates.

“It was my first game in a Penguins uniform so the first shift I was pretty nervous,” Kuehnhackl said. “After a while, when you get into the game, you just try to play your game and your style of hockey. I think it was a good start for me.”

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Hynes was happy with how Kuehnhackl acquitted himself in his debut, and he will be looking for more of the same on Sunday when the trio is again expected to play together when the Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs square off at 7 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre.

“I think for a young guy in his first professional tournament he made some very good plays under pressure,” Hynes said. “He is not afraid to get to the hard areas of the ice like the front of the net. He is good along the wall and on breakouts. He shows that he has some heart to go along with his skill.”

Prior to the start of the rookie tournament Kuehnhackl talked about wanting to make sure he was good on the finer details of the game – being the third man high, knowing his defensive responsibilities and getting pucks out of the D-zone on breakouts.

Penguins forward Tom Kuehnhackl was impressive against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
During the third period against the Senators, Kuehnhackl was standing along the right wing boards when a breakout pass was wrapped along the wall to him. Despite have a Senator closing in strong, Kuehnhackl stood his ground, chipped the puck past the defender and sprung Tangradi and Jeffrey on a two-on-one.

Later in the same period, Kuehnhackl dove to the ice during a penalty kill to knock a puck off the stick of a Senator and out of the zone, allowing the Penguins to get a change.

“You can tell that he has a hockey mind and that he wants to know the details of the game,” Hynes said. “I think he is a very good intellectual player, so he can read and react well and play within a structure.”

“I think I did a good job with those things,” Kuehnhackl said. “It’s easier to get into the game if you are not making turnovers and losing battles. I think we all did a good job with that. I think the coaching staff likes to see that. I want to keep it up.”

Following camp with the Penguins, Kuehnhackl will head to Windsor will he will suit up for the Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League during his first campaign in North America. Kuehnhackl actually spent the past couple weeks attending the Spitfires training camp, where he was able to work out some of the jitters before coming to London.

“We had a five-day training camp in Windsor where we would practice in the morning and work out after and then have a scrimmage,” Kuehnhackl said. “It was pretty hard, especially the first game because you play on the smaller rinks and everything is faster and more physical. Once I played a couple of games it became a lot easier for me.”

When Kuehnhackl does get back to Windsor, Hynes says that he must continue to work on his strength so that when Kuehnhackl returns for next season’s rookie camp, he is able to be that much more of a factor in high-traffic areas.

“He has all the tools, he has heart and he has hockey sense,” Hynes said. “He has to mature in his game at the junior level. He needs to develop his body so that at this time next year he can execute a little bit more because he is stronger on pucks and can battle harder in the corners. It will also help prepare him for the rigors of three games in three nights and four in fives.”


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