We were able to catch up with Matt Cullen, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Oskar Sundqvist for the first time this training camp on Saturday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex (all four players practiced Friday as well).
"It feels great," Hornqvist said of being back. "Had a really good summer and the World Cup was really fun, but it's nice to see the boys and be back here and start working for another good season."
Before we get to them, here's a few updates from head coach Mike Sullivan…
- Sidney Crosby is going to join the team on Tuesday.
- Carl Hagelin has been skating on his own and is more than likely to join the group Sunday in practice.
- Teddy Blueger and Thomas DiPauli have lower-body injuries that are going to keep them out for a time frame that is longer-term - 6-8 weeks.
- Bryan Rust is making progress and is continuing to rehab the injury he had after last season. They are just trying to be as precautionary as they can so that when they do put him back in the lineup, he doesn't have any setbacks. "Rusty is dealing with more than just a broken finger," Sullivan said. "There hasn't really been any setbacks. The rehab that he's gone through has been expected and he's making progress and our hope is that we're going to have him sooner rather than later here."
Now, back to the players…
Malkin represented Russia at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and his team lost to Canada 5-3 in the semifinals. He called going up against the eventual champion a "good experience," saying Russia could learn from playing such a powerhouse team.
"It's like a perfect team we played against," Malkin said. "We had a good experience. Maybe we (can) watch video with the coaching staff, learn a little bit how to play (better) next time.
It's a good teacher. Canada, it's like a perfect game."
While Malkin said he enjoyed the tournament, he wasn't pleased with his overall performance - finishing with three points (1G-2A) in four games.
"It was a good chance to play against the best players. But it wasn't easy," Malkin said. "Now it's a new level, it's a new season. I need to start now. I didn't play great, I'm not happy with my game in the World Cup. But I will play better here. It's here and now."
Malkin said his focus is on playing more with the puck.
"My game is always if I have the puck, spend more time with the puck," he said. "The last four or five games in the World Cup I tried to use my partners, but my confidence is when I play with the puck."
Hornqvist and Team Sweden also advanced to the semifinals, falling 3-2 in overtime to Team Europe.
"It was really fun, playing against the best players in the world so early in the season," he said of his experience. "You get in shape pretty quick. So that was a good experience, I had fun and too bad we couldn't win."
Both him and Malkin did say getting into such competition early was beneficial for them.
"It's a great way (to get ready for the season)," Hornqvist said. "You play against the best players in the world. Then your season obviously starts a little early, but still, those seven games I played were against the top players in the world. So you get in shape pretty quick and you feel ready to go."
Hornqvist's hard, gritty and physical style of play combined with a short summer could have made it tough for him to fully rest and recover. But he said he feels good despite that.
"I took four weeks off right after the season then I started working out pretty hard right away because I had the World Cup there to get in shape for," he said. "But my body felt really good after the season, obviously some bumps and bruises. But overall, it was pretty good. It was a nice transition for me."
Cullen, who has been dealing with a lower-body injury, participated in his second day of practice this afternoon.
"You come to camp ready to go and you just have a small little thing to deal with," he said. "You never like missing any time, but I feel good and it was nice to be back out there. I'm really happy with the way that I've been feeling throughout the summer and even coming in here minus this little setback here for the week. After a couple days of practicing and I skated the day before, I feel good."
Cullen said the goal is to skate in Pittsburgh's final two preseason games.
"I think that (Sunday's game in Columbus) might be kind of quick, so two would be great for me," he said. "I would like that. Then it's nice, we have another four or five days of practice following the preseason before the season starts. I feel a lot better, even just today, I feel kind of back to where I want to be."
Cullen has been to over 20 training camps in his career, so he knows what to expect when it comes to these.
"Number one it's just really fun to get back here," he said. "This summer blew by and it's fun to get back with the guys and get back in the locker room. Aside from that it's about getting up to speed and game speed and getting your mindset back to a NHL hockey mindset. You play a certain style of hockey in the summer that doesn't necessarily fit with how you play in the winter so it's kind of a flipping of the switch to practices and preseason games to get your mind back to where it needs to be to start the season."
When we spoke to Sundqvist at the informal skates in late August, he was excited about how his summer of training had went. So when he was slowed by an injury that kept him out of the rookie tournament and the first part of training camp, needless to say, he was frustrated.
"It's definitely a little bit frustrating (considering) how I felt before and how I had to take, I think it's been two weeks now, and just try to come back to the same feeling I had before," he said. "It's not going to just come in one day or something. I need to get a couple of days here to practice with the team and get into place again. Definitely a little bit frustrating."
Sundqvist said he feels good now, it's just a matter of getting back into shape.
"It feels better every day I think," he said. "Yesterday I had some trouble with my lungs and some conditioning, so it felt better today and was a step forward. I hope it's continuing that way now."