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Penguins start training camp without Patric Hornqvist, clear third-line center

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, 10:27 a.m.

The Penguins opened training camp Friday morning without their top net-front goal scorer or a clear third-line center, but their No. 1 defenseman looked as good as new.

Patric Hornqvist is nursing a hand injury, general manager Jim Rutherford said he is remaining patient in his efforts to trade for a third-line center, and Kris Letang practiced with the team for the first time since having neck surgery in April.

Of the three first-day issues, the one that could have the greatest impact on the team's fortunes this season is probably Letang's health.

He reported no problems after participating fully in practice and the conditioning skate that followed.

“Today is a big step,” he said. “It was fun to be out there, to see if my legs were there. Everything seems to be working. Just need to have my timing back.”

The return to the ice had an emotional element for Letang, who vividly remembered being laid up in bed, unable to move after the surgery.

“Last year I played with that neck problem all year long,” Letang said. “Previously, the concussion had been an issue. I had some bad luck – the stroke and everything. This is all behind me.”

Coach Mike Sullivan said Letang did more than just keep up with the rest of his teammates in his first practice back. He stood out in a crowd.

“His skating ability is tremendous,” Sullivan said. “When we were doing the conditioning skates at the end, he's a half a zone ahead of everybody when he wants to be.”

Hornqvist, meanwhile, who scored the game-winning goal in the Cup-clinching victory at Nashville last season with a broken hand, had surgery to repair that injury in the offseason. Rutherford said Hornqvist is expected back on the ice before the end of training camp.

Hornqvist's absence might end up being a dress rehearsal for next season. The 30-year-old Swede is in the last year of his contract.

“I usually don't re-sign guys during the season and in their last year,” Rutherford said. “We recognize how important that he is to our team. He plays a very important role in leadership, brings a different type of game, which blends into ours. We'll see how the season goes along but he's a very important player to our team. And still a relatively young guy in his career.”

Rutherford, meanwhile, has been studying his options for filling the third-line center spot vacated by Nick Bonino for much of the offseason. He said he remains patient in his search.

“There's guys out there that we've talked about,” Rutherford said. “I probably could have made a deal by now, but we've kind of got our focus on three guys right now. We think one or two of those guys will become available here, maybe even before the season starts, but maybe not.”

In the meantime, Rutherford said he has confidence in Carter Rowney in an expanded role. He said he feels good about the team's prospects handling the responsibility on a limited basis. And while he reiterated the organization sees him as a top-six winger, Rutherford said Jake Guentzel would be able to slide over temporarily if injuries strike.

“I'm maybe not as anxious as you guys are to fill that role,” Rutherford said.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

The Penguins' Kris Letang during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla
The Penguins' Kris Letang during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
The Penguins' Kris Letang during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla
The Penguins' Kris Letang during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist scores the game winner in the third period during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist scores the game winner in the third period during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena.
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