CRANBERRY — The kids are back in school. Most Pittsburgh Penguins players have stuffed their belongings into suitcases and arrived in their hockey home, many with families in tow. For the past week, the players have held unofficial captain’s skates at the UMPC Lemieux Complex and a few intrasquad scrimmages, too.
Because the “practices” are “unofficial,” read nothing into the lines or which player wore which color jersey. However, Evgeni Malkin skated with Bryan Rust on the right and summer Penguins trade acquisition Reilly Smith on the left.
That seems like it might have some legs.
I must confess, I didn’t notice Smith as much when I covered the Vegas Golden Knights Cup run last April through June. He scored points, but Smith wasn’t the guy dominating games. However, I immediately noticed Smith’s quickness in the scrimmage Tuesday. He slipped behind defenders a couple of times with a little shoulder dip and a burst of speed.
He may not have elite top-end speed, but he is quick and maybe a bit slippery. Watching work the ice, he reminded me of Jake Guentzel, but quicker and a bit larger, but not much.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Reilly Smith when the Penguins acquired him. His career has undergone a few iterations, not all positive. The Florida Panthers essentially handed him and Jonathan Marchessault to Vegas in the Expansion Draft and thought themselves better off.
Also, he looks far too much like Sidney Crosby when wearing a helmet. Smith also has a wispy and scraggly bit of facial hair and a wider skating stride. At first glance, I thought Crosby lost a few pounds, but it was Smith.
My initial up-close impressions of Smith have been positive. I think he’s going to be a very nice fit at LW without the injury baggage of Jason Zucker.
And if you’re curious, Matt Nieto is really fast.
Nieto signed a two-year, $1.8 million deal on July 1. His $900,000 average annual value means he can be stashed in the AHL without a cap penalty. His lack of offensive past offensive statistics means he will have to earn his place in training camp, but he seems to be on his toes trying to make an impression with his teammates.
Nieto scored less than 10 seconds into the Penguins scrimmage Tuesday.
Nieto looks nothing like his headshot photos or pictures from last season. He’s sporting a bushy hipster mustache that will make him very popular in Millvale.
I’m already rethinking my prediction that his spot was in trouble with the acquisition of Rem Pitlick. I think one of Drew O’Connor, Pitlick, or Nieto must go to the AHL to get cap-compliant, and while Pitlick is the obvious choice, he showed some offensive pop with Montreal.
Watching Nieto jet around the ice, he clearly fits the Penguins’ revitalized speed initiative.
The goalies weren’t trying too hard on Tuesday. But Hellberg is massive. Absolutely a massive goalie. He’s 6-foot-6 and makes the 6-foot-3 Jarry look comparatively puny.
Jarry has returned to the mostly black pads, but more importantly, he does not look limited in range of motion or physically hampered. Of course, it is an unofficial workout, not a playoff game, but he moved well.
Hellberg towers over the crossbar. Given presumptive backup goalie Alex Nedeljkovic’s recent career arc, it’s not out of the question that Pittsburgh Penguins fans will get a look at Hellberg this season, regardless of Jarry’s health.
For whatever it might be worth, Penguins forward and a lightning rod of fan criticism Jeff Carter is playing center in the scrimmages. He’s also taking a lot of ice time.
The veteran guys aren’t going all out, so any analysis or scouting report would be silly if not journalistic malfeasance. Yet I can’t help but notice Carter’s (lack of) first step. It will be something I’m watching closely when training camp begins.