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Trades, call-ups turn Penguins into one of league's fastest teams

| Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, 8:42 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Carl Hagelin plays against the Flyers on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.

Bryan Rust glanced around the Penguins dressing room after practice Monday at Consol Energy Center and considered which of his teammates might win a one-lap race around the rink.

“I think (Kris) Letang wins,” the 23-year-old winger said after a beat.

Not winger Carl Hagelin, recently acquired via trade by the Penguins specifically for his speed?

“Ah, sorry — totally forgot Hagelin was in there, too,” Rust said with a head shake. “I think Hagelin might have the edge.

“Hopefully one day (there's a race). I'd actually like to see that. ... I'd like to say I'm close (to the team's fastest), but I don't think I'm as close as I'd like. Over the next year or two, I'd like to get a little closer.”

Forgive Rust for losing track of the team's growing selection of speedsters. During the past two months, the Penguins have made moves to establish speed as their defining characteristic.

The ascension of Rust and defenseman Derrick Pouliot from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the addition of Hagelin and defenseman Trevor Daley, combined with the arrival of Mike Sullivan as coach in mid-December, has given the Penguins the ability to play at a tempo few clubs can match.

Consequently, the share of shot attempts credited to the Penguins has risen to 55.5 percent in 20 games under Sullivan from 48.4 percent in 28 games under Mike Johnston.

“Speed works in all zones,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “You have to go to retrieve pucks when pucks are turned over. Puck possession is so important, so if you've got guys that have the speed to get there first, then you've got more puck possession time.

“It certainly gives our team a different appearance and makes us tougher to play against.”

At his introductory news conference Dec. 13, Sullivan pinpointed speed in response to a question about how the NHL had changed since his last head coaching stint in the league, 2003-04 and 2005-06 with Boston.

“Each and every year we play, it seems to get faster and faster,” he said. “There's an emphasis on speed in all its forms, whether it be foot speed, team speed, line speed. Speed to me is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

But the Penguins' pursuit of fleet-footed skaters began before Sullivan joined the organization, Rutherford said. Interest in speed peaked after the Penguins slogged their way through the second half of back-to-backs on the schedule, including the infamous 4-0 loss at New Jersey on Nov. 14 that inspired a team meeting with the general manager.

“Especially when we played back-to-back games, but also at other points, it looked like we had a slow team,” Rutherford said. “So that's when we really turned up the volume in trying to figure out who could be available and who we could get.”

Daley replaced Rob Scuderi in a trade between the Penguins and Chicago on Dec. 14.

Rust rejoined the Penguins Jan. 7.

Hagelin arrived in a swap that sent winger David Perron and defenseman Adam Clendening to Anaheim on Jan. 16.

Pouliot landed on the Penguins roster Jan. 18 and began to get ice time over Ian Cole a few days later.

Of the four, Daley found his inclusion in the speedster classification most amusing.

“I might look fast, but I don't know if I'm that fast,” he said. “Fast to me is whoever gets the puck out of the zone the quickest.”

Speed became Hagelin's strength around age 16 or 17, he said, as he tried to keep up with his older brother in dry-land workouts.

“I always had pretty quick feet,” he said. “Once I put some muscle on my body, it was easier to turn those quick feet into more speed. ... My top speed is probably pretty good, but I think how quick I get to my speed, that's the difference.”

Rust realized his potential in the build-up to his junior season at Notre Dame, where he became devoted to the idea of catching up with teammate T.J. Tynan, now a center for the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters.

“That whole preseason, me and him were going head-to-head,” Rust said. “He was one of the fastest, if not the fastest guy on the team. He was kind of my bench mark.”

None of the recent additions will replace what Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang provide in terms of scoring.

But all among the Penguins agree they enhance the stars' skills.

“I think when you look at the makeup of our team, our core guys want to play a speed game,” Sullivan said. “They don't want to play a slow-down, territory-type game. They want to play a fast game. That's their strength.

“When we look at our core guys, we're obviously trying to build an identity around their strengths.”

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

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