It was probably more a matter of being in the properly colored jersey between power play and penalty kill personnel, but there was some confusion Wednesday if you weren’t paying close attention as the Pittsburgh Penguins did their first extensive special teams work with their top group of players.
For instance, as the special teams drills began at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Center, Patric Hornqvist was wearing a Brandon Tanev jersey. Juuso Riikola was wearing a Marcus Pettersson jersey. Pettersson was wearing a plain black jersey.
Even without those confusing mismatches, it took concentration to keep track of the power-play units.
Some alignments used two defensemen – Kris Letang and Justin Schultz – on the top unit and others used just one, either Letang or Schultz. Jake Guentzel was a forward on the top unit but also spent some time with the No. 2 group. Hornqvist didn’t get onto the top unit but mostly manned the front of the net on the second unit, which at times also included Jared McCann. Letang a couple times was relegated to the second unit.
Notably, Alex Galchenyuk spent most of his time on the top unit, apparently for now the heir to the spot vacated by the traded Phil Kessel, a sniper who was a regular on the top unit.
“He’s a creative player,” Letang said of Galchenyuk. “He’s got a good shot. He knows where to find ice and when to shoot, when not to shoot.”
Of course, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were the constants, the high-level holdover regulars who have been key parts of the top unit for years.
“We have two guys who, obviously, touch the puck a lot,” Letang said. “They’re really creative. They’re good players. They open so many things for everybody out there. It’s just up to the other guys to try to fit in and try to create things.”
The drills were facilitated by the way the team was broken into practice groups. There are still three groups – roster cuts could be coming soon – but Wednesday one of the groups was primarily the players assured of making or expected to make the opening-night roster.
“We have a ton of guys who can create,” said Jared McCann, who practiced with the second unit. “They’re just trying to figure out what goes best together, stuff like that. It’s going to take a couple practices to get used to it.
“The first unit, obviously, does their thing. We’ve just got to focus on what we can do to help as a second unit, take some off their (hands).”
The drills Wednesday were in-zone; that is, the team didn’t work on things like zone entry. The emphasis seemed to be on puck movement and setting up shots. It’s early, after all.
“You want to get up to speed and just try to get out of your summer hockey habits, like the non-hitting stuff, so the first few days (of camp) are more intense. They get you right back in,” Letang said. “And now we can settle into practice with mainly the guys that we’re going to play with this season, and we have a chance to work on different aspects of it.”
With a rotation of several of the players, there were a lot of different looks on the power play.
“What we’re looking at on that first unit, it’s obviously a lot of veterans, skilled guys,” said Nick Bjugstad, who saw time at practice on the second unit. “It’s still early, and we’re still trying to figure each other out, just get comfortable. I guess for right now it’s getting to know how everyone plays, just kind of feeding off of each other.
“Guys are going to be working hard, fighting for those spots. Everyone would like to be on the power play, but in reality that’s not how it works. I think it helps with the competition.”
The Penguins ranked fifth in the NHL last season with a 24.6% success rate on the power play. That’s not surprising. However, they gave up 15 shorthanded goals, most in the NHL, after allowing three the previous season. Thus, some of the looks with two defensemen.
Some of the faces on the power play could continue to change, even into the season.
“It’s certainly different, because we’ve had that group together for a long time,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “With some of the players that we’ve added to our team, and some of our returning players, we have an opportunity to allow our power play to evolve a little bit.
“We can use different personnel that’s going to offer different looks. We still believe we have the firepower on that unit for it to be very effective. We’re going to explore lots of different options.”