Once David Perron got over his mixed emotions about being traded again, the Pittsburgh Penguins right wing started to feel something quite different on Jan. 2, something he hadn't felt in a long time.
"I was probably the happiest guy in hockey that day," Perron told NHL.com last week before Pittsburgh's game against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center.
Nobody can blame him if he was. He went from last place to the Stanley Cup chase. He was moved out of a difficult situation with the Edmonton Oilers so he could become the right wing on a line with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
No offense to Leon Draisaitl and Matt Fraser, who were Perron's linemates for his last game with the Oilers, but playing with them is not like playing with Crosby and Chris Kunitz in Pittsburgh.
"Stepping into the room the first day, the way the room is shaped in Pittsburgh it's kind of rounded a little bit, and you could feel the confidence from the guys," Perron said. "I was sitting there going, 'This is awesome. This is going to be a lot of fun.' It just made me feel comfortable right away."
Perron heads back to Edmonton to play his former team on Wednesday feeling even better about his new home in Pittsburgh and on Crosby's right wing than he did when he got to the Penguins 12 games ago. He also discovered that playing with Crosby has forced him to find a level to his game he hadn't previously reached.
Perron has been a hit in Pittsburgh with nine points on six goals and three assists since the trade, but he's adjusting to life on the right side of No. 87 and trying to master all the tools that will make him Crosby's linemate for a long time.
"You think you get a sense of how he plays [from watching him], but until you play with him, I don't know, you just don't really have that sense," Perron said. "The biggest thing for me is just to get involved in the play and not watch, just play the game like I would with anyone else. It's definitely been amazing to try and improve my game."
Quietly there are people around the Penguins, Crosby included, who think Perron doesn't realize how effective he can be, that he doesn't even know how good he is. Even Perron admits he's a nervous guy just trying to adjust to the system and play in his role.
"I'm trying to fit in any way I can with this team," Perron said.
Left Wing - PIT
Goals: 11 | Assists: 17 | Pts: 28
Shots: 123 | +/-: -23
It's partly on Crosby to make sure Perron plays a style that fits into the Penguins game plan, which means it's on Crosby to get Perron to be as big of a threat off the rush as he already is down low.
Crosby said once Perron fully grasps the Penguins' breakout system it'll make him a greater threat and make the line with Kunitz that much more difficult to match up against. For Perron, that means adjusting to Crosby's speed through the neutral zone. That's a work in progress.
"I have to come back and gather more speed to come up with him on the play," Perron said. "I just have to keep doing that more. Let's say I would never do it before, well now I've done it a few times and I think, 'Oh, this is pretty cool,' and he's like, 'You should have done it six other times.' That's where I'm coming from. That's always been one of my strengths down low, protect the puck, make little plays, set up guys for more room. I'm appreciative he sees that, but I need to win a race to go battle down there."
Perron has had to adjust his game down low too, particularly when Crosby has the puck. He can't get caught watching.
"You expect him to beat his guy, but it's not always going to be the case," Perron said. "There are some good players in the League, some strong ones, and you have to support him, almost pretend he's going to lose it. But if you see him beat his guy you have to get open right away because it's coming fast."
Crosby said he has enjoyed playing with Perron because there have been no surprises, only improvements through 12 games. That's why Crosby likes playing with Kunitz and why he liked playing with Pascal Dupuis. The predictability of his linemates allows Crosby to play his game.
"He sees the ice really well," Crosby said of Perron. "He's pretty strong on the puck. He wins a lot of battles that way too. He's not a guy that's really difficult to play with. He plays a straight-line game for the most part. He's a pretty complete player."
Perron also is a player in the process of regaining his confidence. He lost it in Edmonton, where he was playing out of position on some nights and with linemates who weren't giving him the best chance to succeed. Toss in the losing record and it was hard for Perron to feel good about himself or his game near the end of his time there.
"Losing does that," Perron said. "Then you go into the next game, they score the first goal within five minutes, and you go over it all over again. It doesn't mean as a professional that you don't try as hard; you try just the same, but there is a level of play that you can't reach when you don't have that confidence."
Along with Crosby, Penguins assistant coach Gary Agnew has helped Perron slowly restore his confidence. Perron had Agnew as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues in the 2012-13 season.
"What we tried to do was talk to him about what game he had played in St. Louis, what game he played in Edmonton, and what game we wanted him to play here," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "Actually there are a fair number of similarities in our system and structure to what they were doing in St. Louis. Gary saw him play in a certain structure and knew what his best assets were. We're starting to see them."
Perron is adding to the list. He knew he'd have to the moment he was traded, when he saw the opportunity to win and realized he could potentially change his fortunes. The happiest guy in hockey is trying to make both happen now.
"A lot of people have come up to me and said [Crosby] can be hard to play with, but it has nothing to do with his game, it has to do with how you play with him," Perron said. "He'll expect you to be in a spot and that half-second that you got caught watching, the puck was there and you would be there if you played your normal game. It has everything to do with you."