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Pride in the Pipeline

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
In the Pens’ last game on Sunday against the Rangers, head coach Mike Sullivan opted to put Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust on the ice in the final minute with Pittsburgh holding onto a one-goal lead. And those two didn’t just help protect the lead – they added to it.

Rust used his speed to negate an icing call and win the puck over to Kuhnhackl, who got his second assist of the night when he found Sidney Crosby for an empty-netter that sealed the 5-3 victory and got the Pens two huge points in the division.

Crosby is obviously one of the high draft picks the Pens built their core with over a decade ago. This season, the Pens have complemented those players with young guys like Kuhnhackl and Rust, who were drafted in later rounds by the organization in recent years and are now important members of the team.

“What the salary cap has done is it’s pushed more young players into the league because teams need to balance their payrolls to be able to accommodate the high-end players and live within the cap,” said director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton.

As a result, those two, along with Scott Wilson (who missed the contest due to injury), signed two-year contract extensions on Monday – all of them being one-way deals.

It’s an incredible reward for the trio, who were all drafted by Pittsburgh in the third round or later and have spent years developing in the system, working for an opportunity to contribute at the NHL level. They’ve done just that this season, as they’ve become key to Pittsburgh’s second-half turnaround.

“These kids – ‘Rusty,’ ‘Willy’ and Tommy Kuhnhackl – they’re the poster child for our guys in Wilkes-Barre,” Sexton said. “They did it before you and now they’re there. Do you want to get there? You better do the same thing. It’s powerful.

“These three kids succeeding (in the NHL) in a short period of time coming out of Wilkes-Barre, where a lot of guys down there know them, recognize that’s how they got there. And they know ‘by God, if I’m going to get there, I’ve got to do the same thing.’”

The three of them inking those deals today is also incredibly rewarding for Sexton and his staff, especially considering they were all marathon prospects.

When it comes to picking in the later rounds, the Penguins’ approach is that every player selected there needs to have at least one dimension that can get them to the league. But there are other areas they need to improve in, and usually, that takes time.  

“Every player develops at his own rate, no matter how much development work is put in,” Sexton said. “As great as (Mark Recchi) and Billy Guerin are, they can’t help a kid grow two inches taller. They can help him get stronger, but that’s a process. Our coaches can help him refine his skills, but it’s like driving a golf ball straight. You don’t just pick up the club, take three swings and all of a sudden you’re hitting it 250 straight down the fairlane. It takes time.”

That was the situation with Wilson, taken in the seventh round back in 2011.

“In Scott Wilson’s case, when we drafted him, he was maybe 5-9 or 5-10 and maybe 170,” Sexton said. “But he reminds me a lot of Chris Kunitz. He’s got that impact strength. He hits players much bigger than him and implodes them at times. He creates time and space for his center and for himself because of his style of play.

"But Willy needed time to get stronger, he needed time to further refine his skills and that’s why he was a late-round pick.”

For Rust, drafted in the third round in 2010, it was those wheels. For Kuhnhackl, drafted in the fourth round that same year, it was his potential to be an all-around player.

“The attraction to Rust really was his speed,” Sexton said. “At the U.S. National Development Program he was an offensive player, but we knew he was going to Notre Dame where Jeff Jackson preaches defense-first.

"And you look at Tommy Kuhnhackl, he’s so different. He was a 40-plus goal scorer in the OHL, but he recognized the only way to the NHL was to become more reliable defensively. So he changed his game.”

Those two weren’t Pittsburgh’s only young guys to play big roles in that big win over the Rangers.

In his first game since being recalled from WBS on Saturday, Conor Sheary scored twice. Dominik Simon, who joined him on the ride to New York, earned his first career point – an assist on the game-winner – in his NHL debut.

Pittsburgh’s fifth-round pick last summer became just the sixth player from the 2015 draft to see time in the NHL this year. The others? Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin, Mikko Rantanen, and … Pittsburgh’s second-round pick Daniel Sprong. They are the only two players chosen outside of the top-10 picks to play.

“Those kids should be really proud of themselves,” Sexton said. “I know the whole amateur scouting group, the whole organization is proud of them. They’re all different players, they’re different personalities, they’re different people but they all bring certain strengths to the party, so to speak. Tommy doesn’t have the blazing speed that Sheary has, but Sheary doesn’t have the size that Kuhnhackl has. They both have great hands, but their hands aren’t as good as Simon’s.

“They’re all capable of generating offense but what they’ve really learned – especially Tom Kuhnhackl over the last 3-4 years, Conor the last year and a half and in a short period of time, Dominik Simon – is that offense comes from playing the right way on the defensive side of the puck. That’s something we’ve always believed in as an organization. … You’ve got to play the right way on the defensive side of the puck and those kids do. They’re not perfect yet, but they’re making great progress and that’s allowing them to let their offensive skills shine through.”

Offensive skills are what stuck out to Sexton and his staff about both Sprong and Simon.

The now 18-year-old Sprong made the Penguins’ opening-night roster and played a total of 18 games with the big club.

Since returning to his junior team back in December, Sprong has 44 points (15G-29A) in 31 games with Charlottetown. He was recently named the QMJHL’s ‘Second Star’ of the week after posting six assists in two games.

Meanwhile, Simon posted 18 goals in 54 games in his first pro season in North America before getting called up.

“Scoring goals is very difficult to do in our league these days,” Sexton said. “Teams are better prepared, goaltenders are bigger and better than they’ve ever been and the coaches are so well-prepared. So we always look for offensive players and when you see Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon, that’s what rings out about their game.

“They’re different types of offensive players but they both have the capability to score and set up goals and generate offense from difficult areas down low in the offensive zone, which is where a lot of the offense comes from these days. That was really the primary thing that caused us to see them and like them as players.”

They saw NHL time quicker than most guys, partly because they just happened to be further along in their development.

“Sprong really, in my opinion, was a first-round talent that we were able to get in the second round,” Sexton explained. “That’s one of the reasons he played in the league this year. His skills were further along at the same age than say, Scott Wilson. But there’s this great evening-up factor from 23 to 30. I think the gap between those guys will close.

"Because Scott Wilson has the knack and the ability to score. He’s got an NHL release. And when he shoots the puck,he shoots to put it through the net the same way that Daniel Sprong does. Those two guys, they’re offensive players. One was just more ready at age 17 than the other.”

It helped that Simon, who was passed over in the 2014 draft, was already 20 years old and holding his own alongside men both in the Czech Republic’s top league and at the World Championship, which is where head European scout Patrik Allvin discovered him.

After seeing him play on a line with Jaromir Jagr at the tournament, Allvin was convinced he was somebody they needed to take a closer look at.

“Patrik came back and said ‘there’s this kid there named Dominik Simon. He’s small, he’s a little bit older, he’s been through the draft but this is a kid that has some skill,’” Sexton said. “When the time came, we got to this spot on our list and we said this is probably the right time for Simon. We stepped up and took him and he certainly hasn’t let anybody down.

“He’s going to be a very good player for us for a long time to come, I hope. He’s got all the skills. It’s a new NHL now with the focus on speed and skill and less on battle and brawn. So his timing is good. He’s just one of those classic late bloomers, really. A smaller player who needed more time.”

What people may not understand about the process of drafting players, especially in the later rounds, is all the due diligence that goes into evaluating them both on and off the ice.

Not only do the regional scouts travel extensively to file reports about their ability; they also meet with the players numerous times and speak with many of the people in their lives, including teammates, coaches, billets and teachers.

It’s a long process, and one that Allvin had to squeeze into a short period of time when it came to Simon.

“He identified (Simon) and I remember he called me,” Sexton said. “He said ‘Randy, there’s this kid, I know it’s late, it’s May, but what do I do?’ So we said 'look, you’ve got to do all the due diligence on his background. You need to know this kid’s character; we need to know everything about him. What’s his work ethic, his attitude.'

"So he did all of that in a fairly short period of time. He came back and was still ready to (draft him), so he made the recommendation and we talked about it as a group.”

That communication is the main thing Sexton takes pride in when it comes to how his staff operates.

“The type of culture we’ve tried to create in our amateur group is one that’s highly collaborative and that’s what we do,” he said. “We collaborate with each other, we challenge each other, we support each other, but at the end of the day we think we make good decisions because it is a collaborative process.”

- “You look at Scott Wilson: Jay Heinbuck saw him play, Dave Allison saw him play, Ronnie Pyette saw him play, we all saw him play. A lot of us saw him play at the World Junior Challenge. Then the Ontario guys followed up because he played Junior A League.

- “With Bryan Rust, Brian Fitzgerald lives right in Detroit. He saw ‘Rusty’ play a lot at the U.S. National Development Program. If you go back through our reports, Brian Fitzgerald has multiple reports on him.

- “If you look at Matt Murray, he’s an Ontario guy who Jay and myself watched along with Mike Bales. ‘Balesy’ saw him play a lot.

- “(Derrick) Pouliot was our Western guys, Wayne Meier and Ronnie Pyette.

“Guys have geographic areas, but we all collaborate and the regional guys deserve a lot of credit because they’re the ones who identify these players initially and then the crossover guys see them play. We work together as a group over the rest of the season to decide if they’re a future Penguin and if they are, what is the best round to draft them in.”

That’s what also happened with Oskar Sundqvist, who was drafted in 2012 – which also produced, of course, current roster players Maatta, Pouliot and Murray – on the recommendation of Allvin and European scout Tommy Westlund.

The big forward spent the next 3-plus years working on his potential before making his NHL debut on Feb. 5 at Tampa Bay and ended up appearing in 10 regular-season games with Pittsburgh.

“They were really the guys who championed Oskar Sundqvist because he was and is a late bloomer and he played up in the far north of Sweden and it wasn’t easy to see him,” Sexton said. “They saw him late, they liked him, they did all their due diligence and really made a very strong case to us to draft him and they were comfortable that the third round was the right round.”

Josh Archibald, Kuhnhackl, Maatta, Murray, Pouliot, Sheary, Simon, Sundqvist, Rust, Wilson: All young players who, with the exception of Sheary, were drafted by the Penguins organization and have seen NHL time this year. What they don’t have in common is where they came from.

For example, Maatta is from Finland and Kuhnhackl is from Germany but both played in the OHL. Sundqvist is from Sweden. Simon is from the Czech Republic. Murray is from Ontario. Pouliot played in the Western Hockey League. Archibald played NCAA college hockey in Nebraska, Rust in Michigan and Sheary and Wilson in Massachusetts.

“We have players from every area,” Sexton said. “If you look at other organizations, they might be Western-centric or Ontario-centric or Quebec-centric or European-centric. If you look at our young players, they’re from every geographic area of the world.

“That’s not by design, but what that really tells me is regardless of where our people are, they’re doing a tremendous job identifying future Penguins and then doing all the work and the communication and the collaboration to make sure that they articulate what that player is and can be so that we as a group can make knowledgeable decisions that are accurate.”

And now, those decisions are paying off.
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