On Thursday, the eve of the Penguins’ 2015 training camp, general manager Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Johnston met with the media to discuss the state of the team.
Here are a couple of the key points from that availability.
Newly acquired star winger Phil Kessel will make his Pens’ debut (in preseason anyway) when Pittsburgh hosts Carolina next Tuesday.
The biggest question mark surrounding the Pens every season is their health. The Pens have regularly been at the top of the NHL’s man-games lost due to injury list every year. The health status of three key players – defensemen Kris Letang (concussion) and Olli Maatta (shoulder) and forward Pascal Dupuis (blood clot) – were positive.
“They’re cleared to start normal workouts (Friday),” said Rutherford, meaning all three will be available in any capacity for the start of camp.
All 53 players invited to camp underwent medical and fitness testing in the morning. Only one player didn’t pass those tests – Eric Fehr. That was expected as he had offseason elbow surgery, although he is progressing in his recovery.
“He started handling the puck, passing the puck. In about 2 weeks he can start shooting the puck,” Rutherford said. “Probably a month into the season, if he keeps tracking the way that he is, he’ll be ready to play.”
Heading into camp no area of the team is more unsettled than on defense. Over the offseason the Pens have added a number of quality blueliners to compete with players already in the organization for a precious few roster spots.
Rutherford acknowledged that the Pens would like to open the season with eight defensemen on the roster. The question is, will one of those eight be veteran Sergei Gonchar?
“Gonchar is a guy that everyone will be watching. We’ll see how much he has left,” Rutherford said. “Can he keep the tempo? He’s a smart player. I think he can contribute to our team. Now we just have to watch these games.”
Gonchar, who is in camp on a professional tryout, is a 15-year veteran with over 1,300 games of NHL experience and 800 points. The 41-year-old blueliner was a key member of the Pens’ 2009 Stanley Cup championship and his hoping to add a second stop in Pittsburgh in his career.
“Sergei Gonchar is a player that people know well here,” Johnston said. “He’s had a phenomenal track record at the NHL level. His puck decisions are really good, his poise with the puck. Like everybody else in training camp, because of the games, they’ll get a good opportunity to show what they can do. People will separate themselves. We’ve got a group of defensemen. We want to see who separates themselves from each other. Gonchar is a player we like because of how he plays. He can fit into our system. I want to see how he handles the camp and handles the games.”
Although the Pens greatly improved their talent at the forward position this offseason, there are some openings for roles with the team. And Bobby Farnham would love to fill one of them.
“Farnham, by the way he played last year, in my mind has a chance to be here on opening night,” Johnston said. “I want to see how he fits into our group in training camp.”
Farnham, 26, made his NHL debut last season. He posted 24 penalty minutes in 11 games while adding an energy and intensity to the game that was unique.
“I like his energy. I like his physical play,” Johnston said. “He can do things in our forward group that other guys can’t do. He brings things to the table that other guys don’t. He’s played well in Wilkes. He does have to, like other players, add a little bit to his game. That’s what we’re looking for in training camp that may separate him.”
The Pens coaching staff have made several adjustments heading into the current campaign. That includes changes to in-game strategy, practice, travel, fitness and team meetings … To start camp the team will let one young player skate alongside two veterans to help them learn the tempo and pace with which the team plays … Three games in the preseason will feature a 3-on-3 overtime regardless of the score, which will be helpful to teams as they prepare for the NHL’s new format.