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Penguins notebook: Sullivan aware of Kessel's long shifts

| Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, 7:15 p.m.

SUNRISE, FLA. — As the Penguins entered Monday's game against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center, a somewhat surprising name sat among the Penguins' leaders in average on-ice shift length for the season.

At the top of the list, predictably, was defenseman Kris Letang, whose importance to the team's blue-line play and transition game was evidenced by the fact his per-game ice time (26 minutes, 11 seconds) exceeds the next closest teammate's by more than six minutes.

Next came Phil Kessel, an offense-first winger whose 49.0-second average tied with center Evgeni Malkin's and trailed Letang's 52.0.

Every other skater averaged 45 seconds or fewer.

Kessel set the team's single-game high for average shift length this season during last week's 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers, when he accumulated 19:52 in just 19 shifts, a 1:02 average.

Letang holds three of the next four highest single-game shift averages.

Did the relatively high average belonging to Kessel, whose mark exceeded Sidney Crosby's by four seconds, sound any alarms with the coaching staff? Not really.

“We talk to all of our guys about shift length and the importance of changing at the right times,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think it's important that we change on the team's terms and not always on the player's terms. And it's always well-intentioned. We have players that sometimes their shifts get extended because they might have some offensive zone time or they might feel as though they might have a chance late in a shift.

“It's important that we recognize the circumstances on when we need to change so that we don't leave ourselves vulnerable and we still have an opportunity to sustain any sort of pressure that we may have. Phil is no different than any of the other guys in that regard, as far as the detail of shift changes and the importance of that to help us win.”

Aging with grace

He no longer looks like the 18-year-old the Penguins selected with the No. 5 pick in the 1990 NHL Draft, but Jaromir Jagr believes he is not far removed from that age on an attitude level.

So when media members asked Jagr, who turned 44 on Monday, how old he considered himself, the Florida Panthers' star winger jokingly answered, “I'm 24 today.”

“It doesn't matter how many birthdays you have in your life,” he said. “It's all a matter of how you feel. I feel the same as I felt at 34. To me, it doesn't matter.”

His memory might fail him more than it used to, though.

“When I was younger, I always scored on my birthday,” Jagr said. “Actually, I scored almost every game. But when you're older — I don't even remember the last time I scored on my birthday.”

Jagr played in a game on his birthday for the seventh time in 22 seasons Monday, and in his previous six, he finished with a point three times, according to hockey-reference.com.

His best birthday performance came in 1999 with the Penguins, when he tallied a goal and three assists against Washington.

He also had a goal in 1994 against Winnipeg. And while with the Rangers in 2007, Jagr earned an assist against Carolina.

Finishing up fathers trip

The fathers of Penguins players, who began to hang out with the team at Thursday's practice at UMPC Lemieux Sports Complex, headed back to their respective homes after Monday's game in Florida.

In between the start and finish came a couple days of horseshoes and bocce games at the beach.

“This is the longest dads' trip I've been a part of,” Crosby said. “They're always great, and they always seem like they go by so quick, so (it's nice) to have a couple extra days, especially in Florida. … I think it's amazing to see just the subtle things that everybody does like their dads.”

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

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