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Zohorna looking to make bigger impact in NHL this season

The young forward is getting an opportunity to be in the spot Evgeni Malkin usually plays

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Evgeni Malkin is sporting some pretty gnarly looking scars as a result of surgery, but his mood looks upbeat with this caption posted to his Instagram account, “I will back soon “

In this case “soon” is a relative term, being as Malkin has already been declared out for the first two months of the season. That opens a door for needing a replacement. As it so happens, it just might be a very big door for a certain 6’6” Czech to walk through.

“We’ve been really impressed with Z’s game since we’ve had him, since he’s been a Penguin,” coach Mike Sullivan said today. “He played some good minutes for us last year. I think he showed glimpses of his potential in some of the games that we played him in, and I think his pace has improved. So we’re trying to help him with his conditioning, so he has an ability to repeat that pace.”

The two key words in Sullivan’s thoughts to highlight are “conditioning” and “pace”. Zohorna’s challenge will be to be consistent, maintain a high level of play with a stamina if he’s used in a bigger role and given more opportunity for minutes. For a player who is so large, being in top condition and primed to be able to keep up at an NHL level for an extended amount of time is probably all the more important.

Based on recent comments, it looks like the lessons learned and experience gained last year when Zohorna played eight NHL games and 12 more in the American Hockey League will be invaluable.

“It was such hard games,” Zohorna said. “Such a difference between the Czech league and NHL. I tried to work so hard in the summer and I hope I will be ready to play some more games than last year, so we’ll see.”

Zohorna has made a great first impression with Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen. Yep, the same two wingers that finished the season on Evgeni Malkin’s line, and presumably would be back there if Malkin was healthy. Zohorna scored goals in team scrimmages in two straight days over the weekend.

Big Z’s been great,” Zucker said. “I thought he’s been moving well, making some good plays. It’s been fun to work with him and chat with him. He’s a guy that wants to absorb some information and try to learn from Kappy and I right now. It’s been really good.”

Given limited options, the Pens don’t have very many options with both Malkin and Sidney Crosby out. And while early returns on Zohorna’s first few days of training camp have been positive and encouraging, Sullivan will have a few more players to consider.

Evan Rodrigues is a player you would think the Pens should be able to get something out of when they need a little extra offensive boost. Rodrigues has some skill in his hands and is capable of lining up at any of the three forward positions.

If nothing else, Rodrigues’ presence ensures the Pens have options to make in-game adjustments if Sullivan is worried Zohorna may be overmatched on that night or failing to keep up with the pace needed to play, and play at a high level with big time wingers like Zucker and Kapanen.

For now, early on in camp as the Pens get to their schedule of six exhibition games that will start tomorrow night in Pittsburgh against Columbus, No. 67 will be tough to miss when he’s playing. Zohorna was not among the announced roster for tomorrow’s game, but Rodrigues and Kapanen were. Just how Sullivan decides to slide the pieces around to replace Malkin will be a key question for the Pens, especially until Crosby can return.