Penguins' Kuhnhackl confident after signing 2-year contract

Bill West
| Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 12:57 p.m.

Tom Kuhnhackl lacks the reputation and renowned nickname of his father, Erich, a 6-foot-5, 214-pound center who Germans referred to as a “Wardrobe on Skates” and revered as the country's greatest scorer of the past century.

But the Penguins' 24-year-old winger holds a bright future with the team after receiving a two-year contract extension on Monday that gives him a one-way deal for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, meaning he's a player that'll be paid ideally to stay in the NHL.

As one of just 30 German-born players to ever appear in the league — he's the third youngest among the 10 active players this season, according to — Kuhnhackl might help steer the country's hockey culture in a way not even his father managed.

“If you look at Germany, there are a lot of other sports before hockey, but for me, hockey always was No. 1,” Kuhnhackl said. “I think if you look at the German leagues, every team has a lot of imports instead of developing the German hockey. Maybe if we could change that, maybe we'd see a couple more Germans in Canada and the states.”

In addition to grabbing attention on the ice, the somewhat shy Kuhnhackl agreed to some German-centric publicity away from it. A Washington, D.C.- based German media operation followed Kuhnhackl around recently for a short documentary-style video.

“It was a pretty cool feeling,” he said. “I've never experienced anything like that.”

For a short period early in his pro career, Kuhnhackl, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, wondered whether hockey fit into his future. Injuries limited him to just 13 games spread between Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2012-13 and just 64 a season later.

“Obviously it was a big step back,” Kuhnhackl said, “but I think it made me also stronger and mentally strong. Stayed positive and worked my way back in.

“Obviously it's a relief and it's an unbelievable feeling to get that two-year contract extension, but now all our focus should be on winning the game and getting our playoff position.”

Breaking the bond

After approving of what he witnessed when he put Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust on different lines midway through Sunday's 5-3 win over the New York Rangers, coach Mike Sullivan decided to split up the duo again as the Penguins prepared for the New York Islanders at Tuesday's morning skate and listed them as separate in the pre-game lineup.

Separating Kuhnhackl and Rust, two of the team's top checking forwards, is no minor move — 254 minutes and 18 seconds of Kuhnhackl's 296 minutes and 15 seconds of five-on-five experience in the NHL came with Rust on the other flank.

“We think it gives us a little bit more balance from a size standpoint on the back two lines,” Sullivan said. “When we did it in the Rangers game, we liked what we saw, so we thought we'd stay with it.”

Rust skated on a line with Matt Cullen at center and Dominik Simon on the left wing at practice. Kuhnhackl worked alongside center Eric Fehr and right winger Conor Sheary.

Just minutes into the game, though, Rust and Kuhnhackl ended up back together with Cullen at center. They became separated again when Rust got checked into the boards late in the first period, limped back to the bench and headed down the runway. ust returned to the bench at the start of the second period.

Aches and assessments

After describing winger Scott Wilson as “day to day” with an unspecified injury over the weekend, Sullivan changed his tone Tuesday.

“He still has a fair amount of swelling,” he said of Wilson, who did not practice. “So he's going to be re-evaluated again tonight by our medical staff and our doctors. We'll probably have more definitive information tomorrow.”

Defenseman Ben Lovejoy participated in all parts of the morning skate and might soon return to the lineup. An upper-body injury has kept him out of game action since he absorbed an open-ice hit against Tampa Bay on Feb. 20.

“Lovejoy is, for all intents and purposes, ready to play,” Sullivan said. “We'd like to get him in a practice or two so that he gets more contact, more intensity to his practice before we make a decision on whether we put him in the lineup.”

And the health of winger Beau Bennett, who has logged just 14 minutes since Sullivan's arrival as coach on Dec. 14 because of an upper-body injury, is in limbo.

“Beau is still a work in progress,” Sullivan said. “He's had practices where he's played with us. I don't think that our medical staff or Beau have felt comfortable yet that he's ready to take the next step. But he's certainly trying to get there.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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