The Pens changed their practice groups today, and we got a look at their potential top power-play unit.
Kris Letang worked the center point with Phil Kessel on the left half boards, Evgeni Malkin on the right half boards, Sidney Crosby in the slot and Patric Hornqvist in front of the net.
The five of them began the session by breaking out with no pressure, setting up in the zone and then quickly passing the puck around to each other without any defenders to get a feel for each other. After a while, the coaches then sent out two penalty killers to go up against them for a few reps before progressing into full 5-on-4 action.
“I thought we moved it around pretty well,” Kessel said. “Obviously our first day out there together and you just look at getting better.”
Arguably the most intriguing aspect of this look was Crosby in the slot, as he tends to be on the half boards – and Johnston explained his reasoning behind sandwiching him between Kessel and Malkin.
“The guy in the middle, he has to be one of your smartest players,” Johnston said. “He has to have a good shot, he has to have a good stick, but he has to know when to support the half boards guy, the point guy, converge on the net.
“So putting Sid in the middle there, we found he really reads off people. He knows when to move down low to support. He knows when to give a stick in the slot, be ready to shoot. He’s very good at helping the half boards guy when they’re in trouble, kick the puck inside. So the guy in the middle on the power play has to be really smart, have a good stick and be able to move around.”
Kessel has one of the best releases in the NHL, but he’s also never had players like Crosby and Letang to dish to on the power play. So while it may take time for Kessel to feel comfortable determining when to shoot the puck himself or distribute it to one of his teammates, he’s confident they’ll figure it out.
“I think it’s just that you’ve got to get used to it,” said Kessel, who would talk with Letang whenever the action moved down to the other end of the ice. “I think we’re all going to feed off each other and learn off each other and we’re going to do whatever we can to make it work and try to be the best power play in the league.”
The other units looked like this…
- Gonchar at the point, Maatta on the left half boards, Sheary on the right half boards, Dupuis in the slot and Plotnikov in front of the net.
- Pouliot at the point, Bennett on the left half boards, Bonino on the right half boards, Perron in the slot and Kunitz in front of the net.
Head coach Mike Johnston had a few interesting points during his session with the media. Here are a few of the highlights.
*Both left wing positions on the top-6 are open with a lot of competition. Sergei Plotnikov, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Beau Bennett and David Perron are all candidates for those positions.
But coach Johnston pointed out three players – Perron, Bennett and Dupuis – that have stood out over the summer and through the first three days of training camp.
“David Perron and Beau Bennett have had very good camps so far,” Johnston said. “Those guys have impressed me with how they’ve taken to their conditioning and built themselves up over the summer.
“A guy like Pascal Dupuis, everyone marvels at him out there coming back with the energy and speed, not only at his age, but his fitness is great. There’s going to be competition. There’s competition for ice time and roles.”
What’s known for sure is that Crosby will be with Kessel and Malkin will center Hornqvist. Kunitz got the look today with Crosby-Kessel and Plotnikov worked with Malkin-Hornqvist. But who starts the season in those spots will be decided by preseason action.
“That piece that goes on the left side you’ll see in games it will change,” Johnston said. “You’ll see a lot of Crosby and Kessel, a lot of Hornqvist and Malkin. That winger will switch. We’ll take a look at Plotnikov, Dupuis, Kunitz, Bennett, Perron. Those are the guys that could be on those wings.”
*Johnston touched on his top defensive pairing of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. And while most people see those two players for their gifted offensive talents, it’s their play at the other end of the ice that stands out to Johnston.
“For me, they escape the zone quick and clean. They’re fast on their retrievals, they get pucks quick, they’re deceptive on the breakouts,” Johnston said. “Then they can active into the breakout to give our forwards options. They help us get out of our zone fast and clean. With those guys on the ice a lot of times it’s a high percentage we’re going to get over the line.”
Letang and Maatta worked together last season at times before Maatta’s season ended prematurely with a shoulder injury. The coaching staff is giving the duo a lot of playing time together in camp and the preseason so they can build chemistry.
“We’d like to get them together as much as we can through the preseason to get them comfortable with each other,” Johnston said.
*Speaking of getting a glimpse of possible combinations. The Pens used the following forward combinations at practice...