Welcome back to another season of quick observations and random thoughts..
#1: Phil Kessel looked great in his first preseason game, scoring 2 goals. It's only preseason, so no big deal, but the more important aspect seems to be WHY he looked good. Both his goals were a result of driving to the net and picking up passes that he could chip in. Not incredibly difficult, but a good sign to see. An even better sign might have been the other winger with Kessel and Sidney Crosby , Chris Kunitz. Kunitz slumped to produce at the end of last season, but he looked very lively in his first preseason game, notching 2 assists, including a great primary assist on the first Kessel goal.
#2: Interesting note from Elliotte Friedman's 30 Thoughts (the inspiration for this column, and at least 3 times as good):
23. This item is a violation of a personal rule — that you shouldn’t pay attention to anything that happens in the opening week of exhibition play. Phil Kessel scored on two even-strength tip-ins during his first game with the Penguins. How many tip-ins did he have at even strength in 2014-15? Answer: one.
That said, Kessel also took a one-timer shot last night (that we heard he doesn't do), he drove to the net. Result of playing a weak Carolina exhibition team? Or signs of things to come? Friedman's right that it isn't worth putting much stock into the preseason, but it certainly will be interesting to watch Kessel continue as a Penguin with a skilled supporting cast that he really hasn't had before.
(Friedman also has a great note about Marc-Andre Fleury pulling a prank on Ryan Whitney that's worth reading as well)
#3: Sergei Gonchar showed the good and the bad of his game at 41 years old. He scored a nice power play goal on a point shot, but was on the ice for all three goals the Pens surrendered. I don't think the Pens are deep enough to keep him around at this point in Gonchar's game, especially since that will mean waiving (and giving less opportunity) to Adam Clendening who as a right-handed shot wearing #2 is very reminiscent of another bounce-back candidate in Matt Niskanen.
#4: Some glowing words by coach Mike Johnston about Daniel Sprong , who had a goal and an assist Tuesday night. "Spronger has a good stick," Johnston said, "he’s strong on the puck. And his awareness. He sees people well on the ice. I’m excited. He’s going to be a top winger. To get wingers in an organization where we have great centers is very positive. That’s a good pick by our scouts, especially with where we drafted him. All camp he’s gotten better. He’ll probably get a long look through the rest of training camp."
It doesn't seem like there's room for Sprong on the Pens roster this season, and at 18 years old he's not ready for an 82 game NHL campaign. But his skill is undeniable and if he keeps it up he might force his way into the plans for at least a 9 game start with the big club. Long way to go, but it's worth keeping an eye on. If Sprong stays this electric it would be difficult to deny him a chance, even if there's no need at all for him right now.
#5: Sergei Plotnikov didn't look bad on the 2nd line with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist - our Eric Boswer even compared Plotnikov to a Ruslan Fedotenko type - and while that's not unwarranted, I would still temper expectations when it comes to season-long performance. Plotnikov is not a smooth skater and his adjustment to a new rink size, faster game (to say nothing of a new language and culture) will make for a huge challenge. Not to say he can't be a success, but just temper expectations. I'd think he'd be a solid player on the bottom six but I don't expect him to produce a lot of points. If he even gets 10g+15a, I could see easily how that would be a successful rookie campaign considering just how much adjusting Plotnikov will have to do as a player and just as a person.
#6: Speaking of tempering, really trying not to let Pascal Dupuis break my heart. Perhaps more accurately, I don't want my heart to break FOR Dupuis should he suffer his 3rd blood clot in as many seasons. Still, it's hard not to get excited watching him race around the ice looking less like a 36 year old and more like a fresh player who hasn't been slowed with a lot of games lately. The Pens really need Dupuis for his left-wing/right-wing versatility, to play PK, to add some speed, forecheck hard, provide his personality and locker-room presence. Dupuis is a rare player that can play any line, any role and would add a lot to it, and he looks great out there at camp. Hopefully his medical issues are under control.
#7: Kessel's going to have new life playing with the Pens in a new environment, but one thing somewhat overlooked is what about Sidney Crosby? Crosby (though still the highest point per game player in the league last season) has seemed like he's been slogging through the past couple of seasons. Moments of brilliance but in some ways, as we've heard before "the joy has been lost" in the Pens locker-room, and I would say that starts with the captain too. Crosby went 1g+2a Tuesday night, and thought it's just preseason and the beginning of the season, seemed to be rejuvenated and playing fresh with a new, skilled linemate like Kessel. Pittsburgh is going to be good for Kessel, but I'm willing to bet that Kessel is going to be just as good for Crosby.
#8: The Pens goalies have done very well through the first two exhibition games. Presumptive backup Jeff Zatkoff set the standard, stopping all 23 shots he saw in the first periods against Columbus (including 15 shots in the first period). Tristan Jarry followed it up with 7 saves on 7 shots, plus 3 more stops in 3 shootout attempts. Then on Tuesday, Fleury stopped 22 of 25, with a couple of sloppy turnovers/defensive plays not doing him any favors. Finally, prize prospect Matt Murray mopped up a fairly quiet period with 6 saves on 6 shots in the 3rd.
Can't ask for much more of that by the masked men early.
#9: Did you notice Edmonton recently gave 22-year old defenseman Oscar Klefbom a seven year, $29 million ($4.14 million cap hit per) contract extension? Klefbom only has 77 games under his belt. Olli Maatta has 98. Other top young defemsemen - like Minnesota's 22 year old Jonas Brodin (4.16m cap hit for 7 years) and New Jersey's Adam Larsson, also 22 and also with a $4.16 million cap hit for 7 years, are right in that exact same area.
In other words, if Maatta can prove to stay healthy, expect him to be in that same range. It's a healthy increase from his current cap hit of just $894k, but if the Pens can get Maatta for the next 7 years, that will be a great thing as well. Getting term on such a young player to basically take him through his 20's at a reasonable rate would be best case scenario for the Pens.
#10: Really interesting piece from Jonathan Bombulie about Wilkes-Barre captain Tom Kostopolous, who may be in his final professional season.
When young players are sent to Wilkes-Barre, they're disappointed. They want to play in the NHL, but they need to make some improvements to their games first.
Kostopoulos can commiserate with those players about the pain of getting demoted, then he can show them what it takes to get back to the NHL through the example of his own blue-collar play. He knows what he's talking about because he's been there himself, many times before, though perhaps never again.