Adam Payerl’s secret weapon was the sidearm shot. He played lacrosse during summers in his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, and the hockey skills that made the Penguins bring him into the organization translated into a devastating sidearm from the forward spot in lacrosse.
“That was a good offseason sport,” Payerl said. “But now hockey is my main focus.”
He used his lacrosse stick to score 20 goals two summers ago playing attack for the Kitchener-Waterloo Braves. This year, the Pens could be looking to their minor leagues for the next 20-goal scorer in Pittsburgh.
Payerl, Jayson Megna and Tom Kuhnhackl became the talk of the team’s annual development camp as the forwards who could make their Pittsburgh debuts this season. Pittsburgh could skate a team if the season started tomorrow, as 13 forwards are currently on the NHL roster for 12 slots. In an 82-game season, though, the Pens will need fresh legs provided by these fresh faces.
“Over the course of the season, we feel like with the development of those players that you’re gonna have that influx of young legs, young energy that would be able to come up and help Pittsburgh,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes.
Let’s start with Payerl, 22, whom Hynes says could compete for a spot on the NHL roster “right now.” The 6-foot-3, 218-pound center cuts one of largest, strongest frames in the locker room. Lacrosse moves aside, Payerl said he moved away from being a skill guy who went undrafted, and into using his size to impact games.
"Definitely as a power forward kind of guy, bring a physical element to my game every night,” Payerl said. “I think I can chip in in different areas as well. I think I can be an offensive threat, play well in my D-zone as well."
Next there is Megna, 23, a 6-foot-1 speedster who scored a game-high two goals in the development-camp-ending scrimmage at CONSOL Energy Center. Though he was the second-oldest of the 21 forwards at camp, Megna is relatively green in major hockey experience. The undrafted center went from the United States Hockey League to Nebraska-Omaha at age 21 and led all team freshmen by scoring 31 points his first season, then signed with the Penguins last August.
Megna posted an “exceptional” AHL camp, Hynes said, and played 56 games in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton while dealing with lower-body injuries. The Illinois native scored two goals and added three assists for WBS in the 2013 Calder Cup playoffs before impressing coaches at development camp.
“He’s another one of those guys who made big strides last year,” said development coach Bill Guerin. “I wouldn't put him as a big numbers guy, but definitely effective. With his speed, he'll give people fits.”
The third recurring name was Kuhnhackl, 21, the youngest of the trio who could compete for NHL minutes. The German native also suffered an injury in his debut AHL campaign last year, but Kuhnhackl’s ended his season on Dec. 2 after only 11 games.
The 6-foot-2 right winger showed goal-scoring flashes during his first Ontario Hockey League season in 2010-11, notching a team-leading 39 goals for the Windsor Spitfires plus a team-high 11 goals in 18 OHL playoff games. Son of Erich Kuhnhackl, Germany’s “hockey player of the century” and an IIHF Hall of Famer, Tom possesses as strong a hockey pedigree as a team could want.
“We're looking for big things from Tommy,” Guerin said. “He's got a big frame. He's a big kid. He's a good athlete. He shoots the puck a ton. We're looking for big things. We need him to make the next step.”
Kuhnhackl, Megna and Payerl are working towards that next step following their development camp week wearing a Penguins jersey. Payerl’s sidearm lacrosse shot may not be the only secret weapon the Pens have, as all three rookies will knock loudly to don that jersey again for NHL action.