Pens forward Sergei Plotnikov is adjusting to life in a new world. The offseason signee arrived in Pittsburgh, halfway around the world from his home in Komsomolsk, Russia, on August 16th and has been trying to find his way.
The biggest barrier is language. Plotnikov does not speak English, though he is trying to learn the native tongue.
“Most of the time I spend at the rink and around the area,” Plotnikov said from his locker stall at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex via translator George Birman. “I’m trying to learn as quickly as possible. Right now I’m trying to find a place to live and adjust myself.”
Plotnikov feels most at home on a sheet of ice. The 25-year-old forward played six professional seasons of hockey in the Kontinental Hockey League for Khabarovsk Amur (2009-12) and Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (2012-15). He’s decided the time was right to bring his talents to the National Hockey League.
“Because first of all I’m getting older,” Plotnikov said. “If I wait any longer it will be harder to adjust in the future. That’s why I decided to go this year.”
And his decided destination was Pittsburgh.
“They’re a great team, great organization,” he said. “I like the style Pittsburgh plays. I like the players on the team, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Sidney) Crosby. They have a lot of great players. And every year they’re trying to win a Stanley Cup. That attracted me to Pittsburgh.”
Plotnikov (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) will also have to adjust to a new game and style of the play. The NHL has a smaller ice surface, is tighter checking and there is less of an up-and-down style.
“I have to learn everything,” Plotnikov said. “I have to adjust my entire style. You have to think quicker. You have to make decisions quicker. Everything is different. That’s why I’m here early, to have that feel and make adjustments.
“For me it’s important to meet everybody, get to know the guys, to adjust myself to a new ice size and get closer and ready for preseason.”
Pens head coach Mike Johnston said Tuesday that Crosby and new star winger Phil Kessel will start training camp on the same line. That leaves an opening to their left, and one player that could fill it is an old face.
“You have to go out and play whatever way helps the team. It’s something I’ve always done,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “Wherever that puts you, you have to go out and prove that you deserve to play there. You have to earn your way every single year. That’s the mindset going into training camp. Go earn your spot to where you go and do it to the best of your ability.”
Kunitz is no stranger to Crosby. The two has played together ever since Kunitz was acquired from Anaheim at the trade deadline in 2009. Whenever Crosby has been healthy and in the lineup, Kunitz has flanked his side (the only exception being when Crosby missed a majority of the 2011-12 season and Kunitz played with Malkin).
Just two years ago Kunitz enjoyed a career year with 35 goals and 68 points. He’s a seven-time 20-goal scorer and plays a physical brand of hockey that leads to puck possession and open ice for his linemates.
“If I can get to my game, getting pucks, giving it to guys with speed, getting to the net and hanging around those areas, those are things I’ve tried to work into my game,” Kunitz said.
Kunitz knows that nothing will be handed to him in training camp. This is the deepest group of forwards the Pens have had in some time, and it will lead to a competitive battle for roster spots.
“Guys will have to prove themselves all over the ice,” he said. “You have to get up every single day and be prepared to play. There will be a lot of interchanging. I don’t think there will be a lot of set pieces in training camp. They’ll be rolling guys, trying different things. You have to make sure you’re ready to play everyday.”
The Pens’ biggest strength, as it has been in years past, is going to be down the middle. One reason for that is the acquisition of center Nick Bonino from Vancouver. He hit the ice Thursday afternoon with his new teammates for the first time.
“Got on the ice today for a long, hard skate, and a good lift before,” he said. “It’s good to meet the guys. Everyone’s been very welcoming. It’s good so far.
“Right now it’s just getting into game shape. Guys are getting the rust out and that’s why it’s good to get in early.”
Bonino, who joined his new teammates for some golf on Wednesday, can play both center and wing. But he anticipates starting off the season in the middle.
“From talking to the coaches it seems like center, but it’s not for me to decide,” Bonino said. “I’ll play where they want me to play. We’ve got so many good players I don’t think it’s a bad spot to play with anyone on this team.”
The Pens continue to skate informally at the new UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Thursday’s session was organized by former Pen Jay Caufield. Notable attendees were Crosby, Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Bonino, Plotnikov and Rob Scuderi.
Non-Pens attendees were Brandon Saad, Eric Tangradi, Vince Trocheck and Stephen Johns.
Photo credit: Dave Geier