The Pittsburgh Penguins faced an interesting paradox this week, as they welcomed their top prospects to Consol Energy Center for their annual development camp.
On one hand, they are in the midst of a transition of power in hockey operations, with the Jim Rutherford/Mike Johnston axis looking to put its own stamp on the organization.
On the other hand, assistant general managers Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin sought to maintain some continuity for the youngsters they’ve been working with for the past few years – if only to reassure them that they’re still valuable to the new guys in charge.
Rest assured that all of the 37 players invited to camp felt at least a little special, as they got a brief taste of NHL life during a week of fitness tests, on-ice drills and off-ice activities around Pittsburgh. But for as enjoyable as the first few days of camp might’ve been, the players treasured the opportunity to don opposite-colored jerseys and face off in a high-paced scrimmage Saturday afternoon.
“That’s what hockey’s all about for us, the competitive aspect,” said goalie Matt Murray, who backstopped Team White in the second half of its 6-4 victory over Team Black. “We haven’t had too much of that in the last couple months, so it’s really nice to get back out there. It felt really good.”
Murray, a 20-year-old third-round draft pick from two years ago, was participating in his third development camp. Although he hadn’t faced shots in a game since the end of his superb season for Sault Ste. Marie of the major-junior Ontario Hockey League, the 6-foot-4 tender allowed just one goal in 30 minutes of action. Murray also denied five of six attempts in a post-game shootout.
“Overall I was happy,” he said. “I think I did pretty well for coming in cold like that. I just tried to go out there and compete.”
Murray won an intriguing goalie battle against 2013 second-round pick Tristan Jarry, as the Penguins’ top two netminding prospects went head-to-head in the second 30-minute period and subsequent shootout. In Jarry’s defense, he didn’t get much help as Team White rebounded from a sluggish first period to outscore Team Black 4-1 in the second.
One of the few bright spots for Team Black was the electrifying play of this year’s first-round selection Kaspari Kapanen. He was the only player to beat Murray in the shootout, capping a game of dazzling stickhandling moves and shifty skating that had the crowd ooh-ing and ahh-ing.
Speed was the name of the game overall, as the young hopefuls unleashed a week’s worth of competitive energy in front of a few thousand curious Penguins fans. Fleet-footed 2012 fourth-rounder Matia Marcantuoni set the tone seven minutes in when he burned defenseman Brian Dumoulin in the neutral zone before setting up Adam Payerl on the doorstep, putting Team White up 1-0.
2010 third-rounder Bryan Rust also showed off his wheels, earning a first-period assist and otherwise proving tough to contain for the Team Black defenders.
“I thought it was pretty high-tempo,” said Rust, who made his pro debut this spring for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after four years at the University of Notre Dame. “The pace held up pretty well even though it’s mid-July and we only had three lines. The fans in Pittsburgh are awesome and it’s always unbelievable (to play in front of them). It gives you an adrenaline rush and makes you play a little harder.”
Like Murray, Rust was taking part in his third development camp, as was fellow winger Payerl. The 6-3 Payerl played in the Penguins’ final two regular-season games this year and continued his rise through the organizational ranks with an eye-opening scrimmage. The 23-year-old compiled an assist and a goal-creating screen in the second period that helped Team White pull away.
“I’m a third-year pro here and I’ve learned a lot of things over the past couple years,” said Payerl, a free-agent signee in 2012. “I’m working on making plays down low and protecting the puck. Consistency is the biggest thing. When you’re one of the more experienced guys here, it’s on your shoulders to be a leader and show the young guys the way.”
Left winger Troy Josephs (Round 7, 2013) was enjoying his second orientation week in Pittsburgh, and the Clarkson University sophomore played bigger than his 5-11 frame with two goals in the second period and the deciding shootout tally. Similarly, Team White center Jake Guentzel (Round 3, 2013) flashed a playmaking ability while paired with University of Nebraska-Omaha teammate Josh Archibald (Round 6, 2011).
Blueliner Derrick Pouliot sat out the afternoon, depriving the crowd of a chance to see the offensively-oriented 2012 first-rounder in action. However, 2011 second-rounder Scott Harrington was quietly efficient and fellow defenseman Harrison Ruopp drew a cheers with physical play in the corners and in front.
In the end, though, the scrimmage served as just one aspect of a week designed to make prospects more comfortable with their organizational peers.
“It’s a chance to meet and know the guys you’re competing against for jobs,” Murray said. “Every time you go on the ice, it’s a friendly competition. There might be some confrontations out there, but after that it’s back to being brothers in the Penguins organization and best friends off the ice.”
Rust said players do their best to show their talents despite being in the midst of a summertime recharge.
“It’s the third week of July, so you know you’re not going to be at your best,” he said. “It’s more about a benchmark of where you are in your summer (conditioning). It’s a stepping stone toward where you want to be for training camp.”
Nevertheless, after a week of specialized drills, the prospects enjoyed the freedom of open play in game-like conditions, especially during an atypical time of year.
“Everyone was a little bit rusty, but it was a good skate,” Payerl said. “All the guys were looking forward to the game here. It’s not often you get to play in the middle of the summer.”
NOTES: Team Black featured two western Pennsylvania natives, goalie Jake Hildebrand (Butler) and center Sam Lafferty (Hollidaysburg). Hildebrand, an undrafted Michigan State junior, played strongly in the first period, while 2014 fourth-rounder Lafferty scored a second-period goal to get a rise out of the fans…The two 30-minute periods were played with a running clock, except for the final five minutes of each. Penalties were enforced as penalty shots, with Lafferty, 2012 draftee Oskar Sundqvist and free agent Conor Sheary cashing in…Guentzel scored in the shootout with a highlight-reel backhand past Jarry…Nick Lappin (free agent), Blaine Byron (Round 6, 2013) and defenseman Nick D’Agostino (Round 7, 2008) also scored goals.