Penguins notebook: 'Reliable' Kuhnhackl eager to contribute

| Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, 6:30 p.m.

The newest members of the Penguins roster, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust, could be linemates Saturday night in Montreal.

Kuhnhackl and Rust skated on either side of center Nick Bonino when the Penguins practiced Friday morning in Cranberry.

“I'm just going to try to play my game, get pucks in deep, keep it as simple as possible,” Kuhnhackl said. “I'm going to be nervous. I think that's normal. But I'm just going to play my game.”

If Kuhnhackl is in the lineup, it will be his NHL debut. A 23-year-old fourth-round draft pick, Kuhnhackl has battled injuries and slowly climbed the organizational ladder in four pro seasons. He was a scorer in juniors, but he's more of a physical, bottom-six winger these days.

“His game's not going to wow anybody, but he's very good on the boards. He's a reliable player. He's a very good penalty killer. He's a good shot blocker. He goes to the net in the offensive zone and makes the goalie's job difficult in the offensive zone,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

“There are a lot of subtleties to his game that I think help teams win.”

Adrenaline junkies

Kuhnhackl and Rust were added to the roster at the expense of Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson, who were sent down when their play fizzled after some early success.

Sullivan said he doesn't hold that against Sheary or Wilson.

“When guys first come up, they bring energy, they're playing on adrenaline, they get excited, and then the reality of the league sets in and how hard it is,” Sullivan said.

“For a young player, I think that's a big challenge, to sustain that play day in and day out and game in and game out.”

Harder to stay

There's an axiom in the minor leagues that says it's harder to stay in the NHL than it is to get to the NHL.

Sheary and Wilson are finding that out. Bonino and Brian Dumoulin knew it well from their days on the AHL-NHL shuttle earlier in their careers.

Bonino split time between Anaheim and Syracuse of the AHL in his first two pro seasons from 2009-11.

“You might have some real good games right off the bat, but the name of the game at this level is consistency. Not necessarily scoring or points-wise, but giving a good effort and making sure you're trustworthy and making sure you make the right play at the right times of the game,” Bonino said.

“I think, for young guys, it's tough. It's a fine line. You want to make the right play, but you don't want to screw up. You don't want to make a mistake because your leash is a little shorter. It's definitely tougher to stay.”

Dumoulin was assigned to the Baby Pens six times from 2013-15. He said the holy grail for a young player trying to break in is consistency.

“In the AHL, not every team has highly skilled players. Some are meat-and-potatoes teams,” he said. “Here, you have meat-and-potatoes guys, but you also have guys who can make plays and make you look silly.

“You have to have a consistent game where you're always playing solid. That's something that you really have to focus on down there so you can bring it up here.”

Next in line

The decision to demote Sheary and Wilson shows Sullivan won't be afraid to pull the trigger when the play of call-ups drops off. If Kuhnhackl and Rust falter, rookies Dominik Simon and Oskar Sundqvist, to name two, could be on deck.

“We're excited about the depth that we have there,” Sullivan said. “That team's been very successful in Wilkes-Barre this year, and these guys are the reason why.”

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

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