Of the players invited by the Pens to participate in the 2016 rookie tournament, here's the five (well, six actually) I'm most looking forward to watching both this weekend. The Pens start tournament play Friday by facing the Canadiens at 3:35 p.m. They play the Senators on Saturday at 3:35 p.m. and conclude their weekend on Sunday at 4:35 p.m. against the Maple Leafs.
A couple notes:
- Forward Oskar Sundqvist was supposed to attend, but was held out for precautionary reasons.
- We will not be streaming the games on our website this year, but I will be with the team the entire weekend providing recaps and updates on our website, mobile app and social media accounts.
It's easy to get excited about a prospect like Guentzel, as his transition to the pros reminds me of Conor Sheary's. Like Sheary, Guentzel joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for their Calder Cup playoff run right out of college and immediately began tearing it up, finishing with a team leading 14 points (5G-9A) in 10 games. Also like Sheary, Guentzel isn't big at 5-foot-10 and 167 pounds, but he's smart, skilled, competes like crazy and plays with pace - a fantastic fit for the Pens' system. Management stressed that Guentzel's biggest focus heading into his first full season with the organization needed to be on having a strong summer; and that he couldn't be complacent with what he did in the spring since he's not a secret anymore. I'm looking forward to seeing how he took that direction to heart.
On his summer: "I thought it was a good summer. Just worked on little things I had to get better at and I think hopefully it translates into this year. Obviously it was a fast summer, but I'm looking forward to the season."
On what he wants to show management and the coaching staff this weekend: "Just play a fast game and show I can play at this level. Obviously you don't want to make the end of last season a fluke. Got to back it up with this weekend and hopefully it will turn out to be a long season."
At development camp, associate general manager Jason Botterill pointed out Guentzel and Teddy Blueger as two players the Pens were excited about. Blueger is a marathon prospect like Bryan Rust, as the 2012 second-round pick also spent all four years at his college, Minnesota State-Mankato. Botterill said Blueger, who turned pro in the spring, was very helpful in WBS' playoff run and stood out with his professionalism (though he didn't have the numbers Guentzel did). He was strong on the defensive side of the puck, but I'd like to see him maybe chip in a little bit on the offensive side as well this tournament.
On his summer: "I think I had a really good time training. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded with some good people, really knowledgeable people and it was a lot of fun. I skated with a lot of pro guys with a lot of NHL experience, so it was good to be able to learn from that."
On what he wants to show management and the coaching staff this weekend: "Just my best game, what I do best, which is my all-around, two-way game. Be responsible defensively and at the same time, I want to be able to make some plays offensively and contribute that way as well. So I think I've just got to focus on working hard and playing an honest game and I think it will come."
This kid is such an exciting prospect because of his skill and talent. Director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton told me last season that since scoring goals is so difficult in this league, they're always looking for offensive players and that's what stands out about Simon's game - which is why they chose him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft despite his size. While he's small, he's fast and skilled and has the tools to become a productive player in an NHL that's focused on those components. Simon already showed he can be a productive player in the AHL, as he scored 25 goals and 48 points in 68 games with WBS in his first pro season after coming over from the top Czech league. He experienced a lot in a short time last year - even being called up for one NHL game - so we'll see how much he learned from that and how much that helps him moving forward.
On his summer: "It was really intense. The summer, the holiday was shorter this year but it was still nice, that is what we are going for every season. That's how we like it (laughs). I actually like that it was short, but nice. I enjoyed it still. I was here really soon in Pittsburgh, I came here the 8th of August. It was great practicing here. You learn from the last year already, so everything was better."
On what he wants to show management and the coaching staff this weekend: "We've got to show we are a strong team and strong individuals. So I think everybody has to focus for himself and do his best, that's what we are here for."
THOMAS DI PAULI
We've never seen Thomas Di Pauli in any capacity for the Pens, as he signed as a free agent with the organization in August. So this tournament will be the first time we get a chance to watch him in action. That in itself would be enough to be on this list, but another reason he's intriguing is because of the player he compares his game to - Bryan Rust. The two of them, who played two years together at Notre Dame, are both fast, gritty forwards who put up similar amounts of points. We all saw what Rust did this past season, becoming a huge contributor to the Pens' Stanley Cup championship. Obviously no one expects Di Pauli to replicate that, but it will still be fun to see how he fares in the Pens' system, because he seems to be a terrific fit.
ETHAN PROW/LUKAS BENGTSSON
Like DiPauli, these guys also signed with the Pens organization as free agents - though they did see time with Wilkes-Barre in the spring. And from what I hear, they were impressive. Like I've written before, they're both skilled puck-moving defensemen who play with composure - something Mark Recchi said a team can never have enough of. Not to mention they're righthanded, something the Pens are lacking. However, Recchi added there were certain things the Pens wanted them to work on this summer. For Prow, it was his strength and adding half a step to his skating; for Bengtsson, who's already got the speed aspect down, it was to get used to the smaller North American rinks. I'm looking forward to seeing them apply that in game action.
On his summer: "I've been practicing with my personal trainer. We had five guys, so I worked pretty hard the whole summer. I feel ready. We practiced every day except the weekends. It was a nice group and my trainer knows what he's doing, so I feel like I'm coming in ready and practiced really hard. We skate on the bigger rinks, we don't have the smaller ones back in Sweden (laughs). It was more skating for the conditioning, get that good so you're ready when you come here."
On what he wants to show management and the coaching staff this weekend: "I want to show what they've seen in Sweden. Keep going. It has to be something I did there that they like, so I want to take that game with me and show my speed and follow up on the offensive plays and play good D, too. Go out there and have fun and just play hockey."
On his summer: "It's been going good. A couple of us came out early in August, it was kind of nice, you come in with a small group and you get a little more attention to some of the things you might need to improve that little extra bit. It was all good. You kind of get to soak in the environment a little more and just kind of ease yourself into it. So it was all good."
On what he wants to show management and the coaching staff this weekend: "I think you've just got to show them that you're taking those steps in the right direction. Kind of showing what your summer was about and working on those areas they suggested you need to work on. That's one of the areas you want to showcase out here and then you've got to play your own game because you're obviously here for a reason and everybody here is a great player and you've got to show that."