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Penguins

Penguins notebook: Kris Letang becomes alternate captain

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, 3:09 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.

When winger Chris Kunitz signed with Tampa Bay in July, the Penguins had a vacancy at alternate captain.

On Saturday, Kris Letang filled it.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced the 30-year-old defenseman will join Evgeni Malkin as the team's lieutenants to captain Sidney Crosby this season.

“I think Kris has been a leader on this team in my tenure here even though he hasn't had a letter on his sweater,” Sullivan said. “I think this is probably more a formality than anything. He's certainly a guy I know his teammates have so much respect for his commitment level, how hard he works and his care factor for this team and helping it win. He's very deserving of it.”

It's the first change in the team's captaincy structure since Brooks Orpik left for Washington via free agency in 2014. Kunitz was an alternate captain since 2012. Malkin has held the role on a permanent basis since 2009. Crosby was named captain in 2007.

Back on the ice

Letang will get a chance to show off the new letter on his sweater when he makes his preseason debut against St. Louis in the Kraft Hockeyville game Sunday night in Cranberry.

It will be his first game action since he had neck surgery in April.

“Pretty excited,” Letang said. “Can't wait to see how it goes.”

Letang bristled at the idea that he will also be debuting a new style of play designed to take less of a toll on his body. He said he and Sullivan discussed only minor changes to his game in specific situations.

“When people try to dissect all of that, they make the assumption that they understand, but they don't,” Letang said. “Mike and I have a clear understanding of what he wants me to do. I'm tired of hearing people around it. I had a talk with Mike in June. It's just a way of avoiding those unnecessary hits. It's not going to be reducing ice time or anything like that. It's just a different approach that I have on certain plays.”

Star-studded lineup

Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel also are scheduled to make their preseason debuts Sunday night as the Penguins dress a lineup that fairly closely will resemble the one they're expected to use on opening night against St. Louis on Oct. 4.

Sullivan said he expects his high-profile players to appear in two or three exhibition games apiece before then.

“Once you're in camp, sometimes it's almost better to get in games than be in practice,” Crosby said. “Some of the practices get pretty intense. You'd rather be competing against guys on other teams than your own team.”

As part of Hockeyville festivities, Penguins players not appearing in Sunday's game will practice in the morning at the Rostraver Ice Garden, the rink that actually won Kraft's contest. The game was shifted to Cranberry for safety reasons.

Greeting old friends

Sunday's game will be winger Ryan Reaves' first chance to play against his old team. The Blues dealt him to the Penguins at the NHL draft in June. He said he doesn't expect it to be especially emotional.

“I'm past it. I'm over all that,” Reaves said. “I'm here, I'm happy to be here and I'm looking forward to the season starting.”

Reaves said Blues players should not expect a free pass from physical punishment because they were teammates and friends for years.

“I'm not letting up for them,” Reaves said. “I guess they can learn that in the preseason.”

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

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