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German prospect turns heads at Pens' camp

| Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tom Kuhnhackl isn't the only player at Penguins prospect camp this week who grew up hoping to someday don a Penguins' sweater. He is, however, the only one who's come from Germany to join the team he spent his childhood watching.

"In my hometown of Landshut, a lot of people are Pittsburgh Penguins fans because of (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Mario) Lemieux, those guys," Kuhnhackl said. "A lot of fans know Pittsburgh."

Growing up in Landshut, near the German border with the Czech Republic, Kuhnhackl said he watched "almost every game" when Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka were with the Penguins. When the Penguins drafted him 110th overall as an 18-year-old in 2010, he took his first step toward the NHL by playing with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League last year.

"It was a huge difference," Kuhnhackl said of playing North American hockey for the first time. "The rink is smaller, it's faster, way more physical. It takes a while to get used to it."

If Kuhnhackl had a hard time adjusting, it doesn't show in his statistics. He finished the year with 39 goals and 29 assists for 68 points in 63 games. In the postseason, when the Spitfires lost in the OHL's Western Conference Finals, he led the team with 23 points in 18 games.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he wasn't surprised by Kuhnhackl's performance.

"He started off a little slow, and then really took off the second two-thirds of the season or so, and then had an outstanding playoff," Bylsma said. "And he is a competitor. His skating can get better, but he is a competitor in and around the (net), and that's something that we have really focused on in our drafting."

The competitive spirit may be hereditary. Kuhnhackl's father, Erich, is widely regarded as the best hockey player in German history. A 6-foot-5 center whose nickname translates as "Wardrobe on Skates," Erich Kuhnhackl won a bronze medal with the German national team in the 1976 Olympics and also won four German Championships.

"I was surprised. A lot of people know my dad also in Canada and in the States," Kuhnhackl said. "It's great to have a dad like him. He was and still is the best player ever in Germany, and he helps me in every situation."

Erich never played in the NHL, but Tom Kuhnhackl said that's been his goal from the start. As he takes in the differences in American and European hockey culture, "in Germany, we have like five or six big rinks," he said, the Penguins are hoping he develops into a versatile NHL winger.

"An 18-year-old does fill out and grow, but Tommy's gotten taller (since last summer) as well," said Tom Fitzgerald, the Penguins' assistant to the general manager. "His dad is a big, big man. He's a big kid who can skate, can really rip the puck, and he's got good hockey skills. He plays both wings, so he's a top prospect for us."

Kuhnhackl likely will return to Windsor this year, looking to improve further on everything from his physicality to his conditioning.

"Every part of my game," said Kuhnhackl, when asked if he's focusing on any one area. "There's no player in the world who's perfect. Maybe Crosby."

Note: The Penguins signed goaltender Scott Munroe to a one-year, two-way contract worth $525,000 at the NHL level. Munroe, who will likely serve as backup to Brad Thiessen in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, played for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik in the KHL last season.

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