By Mike O'Brien
Such is the nature of the American Hockey League. Just about every team experiences a good amount of turnover from season to season. Though Pittsburgh has signed quality players such as Andrew Ebbett and Nick Drazenovic, four Penguins entering their second year of professional hockey will be looked upon to have a strong and consistent presence at the forward position.
Much of the talk at Penguins Development Camp has been focused around center Adam Payerl. The former Belleville Bull (OHL) lifted many an eyebrow early this week with his physical stature. Coming into camp, Payerl stood at 6' 3", 222 lbs. and carrying only eight percent body fat. While he may be a specimen off the ice, he has been easily the strongest during on-ice practice sessions. He has dominated camp thus far and it did not take long for coaches and management to project Payerl finding his way to the NHL in the not-too-distant future. It's a far cry for a player who spent the majority of the first half of his rookie season in the ECHL. The numbers game of the NHL lockout eventually sent Payerl to the Wheeling Nailers in early November, before injuries in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton brought him back to the AHL midway through January. Like so many during their first season pro, Payerl found his stride late in the year and was often one of the best playersfor the Penguins through the final weeks of the regular season and playoffs. After posting three goals and seven assists in 44 games last year, Payerl looks to use his size and strength to help those numbers rise.
"I think it is a matter of trying to play into my power forward game," Payerl said. "I think at times early in my career I was a big guy, but was always trying to play a skill game. John Hynes, Alain Nassreddine and Bill Guerin in [Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] are confident in my game and try to get me to use my size as much as I can."
To say it has been a whirlwind 365 days for Jayson Megna probably is an understatement. Having just finished up his freshman season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Megna entered Development Camp last summer hoping to make an impression before heading back to school in the Fall. Instead, he signed a professional contract with Pittsburgh and spent would have been his sophomore year with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Already 22-years old at the time, Megna's speed and skill and were apparent through the preseason, but an lower-body injury suffered during traning camp kept him out of the line-up until just before Thanksgiving. The burst of speed and acceleration seemed to drop a notch as Megna gutted out the rest of the season, recording 12 points (5g-7a) in 56 contests. After some time to rest this off-season and feeling healthy, Megna says his next task is to hone the side of game that occurs before the puck is dropped.
"I've been working on the mental side of the game," he said. "It's a huge part of things and I've been working on being more consistent with that. Getting in the right mindset, preparing for games."
Looking at how Domink Uher finished his junior career with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League as compared to the numbers he posted in his first season with the Penguins, it would be easy to call his rookie year a disapointment. Uher led the Chiefs in 2011-12 with 33 goals and ranked second on the team with 68 points (33g-35a). With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he posted seven points (4g-3a) in 53 games last year. The highlight of his season came on April 13 and 14 as he scored three of those goals to help the Penguins to a two-game sweep of the St. John's IceCaps. Knowing, however, the role Uher was asked to play in his rookie season, it would also be just as easy to label it a success. Skating on the checking line, few on the team were better at bringing energy on the forecheck than the 20-year old from the Czech Republic. It is the type of game in which one sacrifices points in order to play a physical game, force turnovers and keep the puck pinned down in the opposing team's zone.
"I didn't come to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to be a goal scorer," Uher stated. "My role here is different. If I score more goals, it would be good for me, but I want to focus on playing my role and being consistent with that night in and night out."
Tom Kuhnhackl seemed to be just starting to put it together before a shoulder injury derailed his rookie season. He scored the game-winner in an eight-round shootout on Nov. 7 that netted a 1-0 win for the Penguins over the Binghamton Senators. He followed up that up a three-point night (2g-1a) in a 5-4 shootout victory against the Albany Devils on Nov. 25. In the Penguins' first game of December, a collision with a St. John's defenseman sent Kuhnhackl awkardly to the ice. The injury would result in surgery and rehabilitation that kept him out for the remainder of the 2012-13 season. After making a quick trip back home to Germany this summer, Kuhnhackl has since returned to Pennsylvania and is eager to get back on the ice for some action. Though still technically a rookie with only 11 AHL games played, Kuhnhackl is ready to be a part of this promising young forward core for the Penguins.
"It's just nice to be back out on the ice," Kuhnhackl stated. "I've had a couple of battles this week so far [at camp], but it's not like being in a game. I'm looking forward to being out there and helping the team."
Every player has their ups and downs over the course of a first professional season, but now no longer rookies, this core of four will look to be a big part of the Penguins future.
Day 4 of Penguins Development Camp saw the forwards and defenseman broken into two separate practice sessions. The fowards focused on stickhandling and went through a number of battle drills. As mentioned many times already, Adam Payerl continued to be a man amongst boys. Tom Kuhnhackl repeatedly drove the net hard to cash in on some rebound chances. Teddy Blueger and Oskar Sundqvist, both draft picks last summer, flashed their laser wrist shots more than a couple times during the practice.
Goaltender Tristan Jarry took a puck off the shoulder during the first practice and left the ice, but word from Tom Fitzgerald is that the young netminder is ok.
The goaltender group as a whole got a break during "Defensive University", resulting in a group of D-men, coaches and many a puck retrieval drill. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton assistant coach, Alain Nasreddine, commented how important such a practice is for the young defenseman. Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton run a very unique scheme and, for some of the players, it means learning a completely new way to play defense.
Audio from post-practice media session is below. For photos from Day 4, click here.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton color commentator Mike O'Brien wraps up his coverage of the Pittsburgh Penguins 2013 Development Camp with the full scrimmage on Saturday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center. Make sure you follow him on Twitter and Facebook for live updates.
Penguins Development Camp Audio - Alain Nasreddine
Penguins Development Camp Audio - Tom Fitzgerald
Penguins Development Camp Audio - Eric Hartzell
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