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Training Camp 5: Special Teams

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens officially opened training camp for the 2016-17 season at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. There are certainly many storylines with several key players missing due to participation in the World Cup of Hockey, as well as that whole defending the Stanley Cup thing.

We'll roll out a daily look at the 5 most intriguing items to keep an eye on in training camp. 

1. Goalie Tandem

2. Sixth Man

3. Forward Competition

4. Special Teams

5. Hunger


Defenseman Olli Maatta returned to practice for the Pens on Monday, his first since returning from playing for Finland at the World Cup of Hockey.

Also soon to return are Evgeni Malkin (Russia), Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin (Sweden) and, eventually, Sidney Crosby (Canada).

As the Pens start getting their firepower back, one of the biggest areas the team will begin to hone are special teams.

"The concepts are there," said assistant coach Rick Tocchet, who oversees the power-play unit. "We want to get the concept and the breakouts down. When the other guys come it is seamless when they come in. I think it's important that you get the concepts down."

The Pens penalty killing unit has been consistently one of the best in the NHL over the past several seasons. Pittsburgh has finished in the top-5 ranking in the entire league in five of the last six seasons - including leading the entire league in 2010-11 with an 86.1-percent kill rate.

The power play struggled at the onset of the 2015-16 regular season, as did the entire offense. But the unit started finding its groove following the promotion of head coach Mike Sullivan. And the Pens are hoping to carry over some of that late-season success into the current campaign.

"We want to build off of last year," Tocchet said. "I thought last year the guys started getting the concepts better with penalty kill and power play."

With only so much practice time and preseason games kicking off on Tuesday, the Pens are trying to be smart with the implementation of their special teams.

"We'll probably do (special teams work) the day of the game in preseason because there are so many bodies here," Tocchet said. "We have a lot of other stuff we want to get through to the guys. You have to pick your poison. As this camp goes on and we get to our numbers I know (Sullivan) wants to make power play and penalty kill a big part of our practices."

In the meantime, the club will do a lot of off-ice work just to get a basic understanding.

"We do video in the morning and then reinforce it on the ice," Tocchet said. "Video is great but there's nothing like live action. Off days we'll practice it against our penalty kill and try to create some competition. It's really a part of your practice."

After the concepts and basics are built, the coaching staff will slowly add more wrinkles and expand the playbook, including faceoff plays.

"We'll add a few faceoff plays early. Usually as the season goes on your library of faceoff plays gets bigger and bigger," Tocchet said. "You're worried about execution so you don't want to give too much to the guys early. There's feedback from the players. We always ask our centermen what they think and try to implement them in practice."

Overall, the Pens place a special emphasis on special teams. And they want to open the season in good form without rushing the process.

"You want to make sure your power play and penalty kill is straight," Tocchet said. "You don't want to experiment in the month of October. We'll try to get that done as soon as the first week of October and we get all the guys back.

"I think it's important to get that stuff done now and not wait until November."

Tomorrow we'll look at how the Pens will stay hungry this season and defend their Stanley Cup title. 

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