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Three Impressions from Rookie Tournament Opener

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins



LONDON, Ont. – The Penguins prospects opened the 2014 rookie tournament with a 4-3 win over Ottawa on Saturday afternoon at Budweiser Gardens. The line of Tom Kuhnhackl, Jean-Sebastien Dea and Anton Zlobin combined for three of the Pens’ four goals (Josh Archibald scored the other). As Zlobin put it with a grin, “We dominated today.” Here’s our three biggest takeaways from the game…

1. COMFORTABLE AND CONFIDENT

Dea was the star of the game, as he finished with a goal and two assists – including the game-winner with just 18 seconds left in regulation. He capped off an impressive comeback effort by the Pens, as they were down 3-1 midway through the second period.

Dea is in a much different situation than he was last September, and it shows. A year ago, he was at the tournament as an undrafted free agent looking to earn a contract. And he did just that, inking a three-year entry-level deal with the Pens a week later. That security has allowed him to go out and just focus on doing what he does best – putting the puck in the net.

“I passed through a lot of things last year. It was a little more stressful, I had no contract,” he said. “(To earn one) was my goal (last year), but this year, with the contract, I got more confident. It’s easier for me, I know the guys and everything, I know the staff. It’s more comfortable for me.”

“One of the reasons we really liked him last year was just his hockey sense and his hands. You can see he’s a goal scorer,” added Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes. “That’s something he’s done in junior and I think you saw that today. Being here last year, being in development camp, you can see that he feels comfortable.”

He’s got the hands, hockey sense and skill, but at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, Dea knows he doesn’t have the size. But he’s been working to be stronger, and it showed on his setup of Kuhnhackl’s goal when he kept possession of the puck on the half wall despite being checked, managed to cut to the slot and fire a shot at the net that deflected off his teammate’s body and into the net.

“I knew I had to be bigger, I worked on that a lot,” Dea said. “I can see on the ice I’m more strong and it’s harder to be pushed on the boards and everything. … I had a good summer and I worked hard. I knew what I had to do to play in the AHL this year. I don’t want to go back to juniors, so I worked for it this summer and I think we saw some results on the ice, so I’m happy about the way I played.”

2. WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES

While Dea finished the game off, Zlobin got it started when he scored just 1:20 into the opening period. He wheeled down the left wing, cut hard to the net and tucked a backhand through the goalie’s pads.

“I was so nervous before the game, I didn’t expect it was going to be a first shift like that,” he said. “I was so excited after the goal. I didn’t expect I was going to start like that on the first shift, first shot and first goal.”

Like Dea, Zlobin is in a much different situation this year than he was last year. He didn’t even play in the 2013 rookie tournament as he was recovering from an injury dating back to the previous season that kept him off the ice for a total of eight months, and caused him to have a very slow start to the year. However, that’s no longer an issue at this point.

“He was injured when he came into camp and he had a high percentage of body fat,” Hynes said of the 5-foot-11, 209-pound winger. “He wasn’t in great shape, so that was something he’s really worked hard on over the course of the last year. It’s helped him, as I think you saw in the game, where he can log good minutes of ice time. He played some pretty hard minutes offensively but was able to be able to play that way for 60 minutes.”

Zlobin has always been a skilled player who’s come up with clutch goals in big games both in WBS and juniors. But what Hynes likes about him is that he’s continuing to evolve his offensive game while staying responsible across the entire length of the ice.

“He’s a responsible player and you can play him in all types of situations in the game, which is good for him,” Hynes said. “But he’s become a harder offensive player in the sense he can play through traffic more. He’s not easily checked out of the game. He’s more willing to go and execute in the hard areas of the game.”

3. DEEP UP TOP

Overall, this forward group is much deeper than it’s been in a while. Last year, eight of the 14 forwards the Pens brought to London were free agents here on amateur tryout contracts. This year? Just two.

I asked Hynes for his take on this group of forwards, which appears to have a mix of everything: speed and skill (Josh Archibald, Matia Marcantuoni, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson), goal scoring (Dea, Zlobin), power forwards (Adam Payerl, Oskar Sundqvist) and work ethic (Dominik Uher).

“The difference now with some of these guys, as you saw tonight, is they have very good hockey sense,” Hynes replied. “They’re not just offensive players. When you see them, they understand how to play the game. They understand seams and how to move the puck, and that’s what make them high hockey IQ offensive players. That’s really what they are.”

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