Five things we learned from Week 1 of Penguins camp
On July 1, Greg McKegg was one anonymous member of a faceless group of free agents the Penguins signed to provide organizational depth.
After one week of training camp, McKegg has been the team's top performing center not named Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and has emerged as a favorite to claim one of the team's forward vacancies.
He also has a very memorable nickname.
“I've been really impressed with Kegger,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think he's really made a positive impression on our coaching staff.”
When McKegg arrived at camp, he was aware of the team's situation at center. Jobs were there for the taking unless or until general manager Jim Rutherford pulled the trigger on a much-discussed trade at the position.
“You can definitely use it for motivation, but you try not to look too much at it and put your best foot forward every time you're out there,” McKegg said. “I think that's the only thing you can think about.”
McKegg looks to have joined Carter Rowney as the leading candidates to man the center spots on the third and fourth lines, ahead of veteran tryout Jay McClement, prospect Teddy Blueger and rookie Adam Johnson.
McKegg, 25, was a prolific scorer in junior hockey with the Erie Otters before settling into a more defensive role in 65 career NHL games with Toronto, Florida and Tampa Bay. His two-way sensibility and strong skating have impressed Sullivan.
“We've used him in so many situations, and he seems to have a real versatile game,” Sullivan said. “When you're talking about a third- or fourth-line center on the type of team that we have, that's invaluable.”
Here's a look at four other things we've learned in the first week of training camp:
If a highly touted rookie sneaks his way onto the opening-night roster, it's more likely to be Johnson than Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese.
Sprong has shown his world-class skill, but he still needs to learn how to create scoring chances in an NHL environment rather than a junior setting. Aston-Reese has been hard-nosed but somewhat inconsistent.
Johnson, an undrafted center out of Minnesota-Duluth, turned heads with his high-end skating ability and a two-goal showing in Wednesday's exhibition game, fitting in seamlessly on a line with Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary.
“You kind of hear stuff about (making the NHL roster out of camp), but right now I'm just trying to play my game,” Johnson said. “It was a big jump the last couple weekends, the rookie tournament and then camp. I think I'm making improvements, and I hope to keep moving forward.”
Plenty of penalties
An NHL officiating crackdown on slashing has caused a parade to the penalty box in exhibition games around the league. There were four slashing minors called in the Penguins' first exhibition game and seven called in the second.
“If we are going to stick-check, we've got to be on the bottom half of the stick, the bottom half of the shaft,” Sullivan said. “Anytime you're … up toward the hands, I think you run the risk.”
Goalie succession plan
While it was jarring for camp to open without Marc-Andre Fleury in his customary place in the locker room, it's become clear that Matt Murray is enthusiastic about taking on the added responsibility of being the undisputed No. 1 goaltender.
“If you're confident in your goalie and you can stay calm, then your team can hopefully stay calm, especially when things may not be going our way,” Murray said.
Sullivan is still in the experimentation stage when putting together his line combinations and defense pairs. In fact, through two exhibition games, the only combo the Penguins used that looks like it might have staying power is the defensive tandem of Olli Maatta and Matt Hunwick.
Maatta endorsed the pairing.
“He's a good player,” Maatta said. “He's a solid skater, and he sees the game well. He's smart.”