For the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ Tom Kuhnhackl, having participated in the Leafs’ rookie tournament for a third consecutive year doesn’t prevent some confusion, especially when the team’s second game featured a new wrinkle on an old rule.
“It was really different. We started off four on four, then went to three on three,” he said. “I’m not used to it, but we have a lot of guys who can take advantage of it — they’re really fast and they can really use their speed three on three.”
Kuhnhackl, of course, was referring to the new AHL sudden-death overtime rule that sees a seven-minute period broken up at the first whistle following three minutes of play. Teams start four-on-four, then switch ends and play three-on-three for the remainder of the overtime.
There was a fair bit of confusion amongst the players at about the four-minute mark of the overtime game between the Penguins’ and Chicago Blackhawks’ prospects. Kuhnhackl didn’t seem overly enamored with the rule.
“I was confused, too. I don’t think you have to switch ends there. I mean, four minutes on one side and three minutes on the other,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter. We should just keep it on one side and let it go.”
On the positive side, Kuhnhackl did score in the three-man penalty shot shootout to end the game.
“In the OHL, I was usually one of the first three shooters. I felt pretty confident. I’ve had a pretty good percentage and I got to keep that going,” adding that his overall assessment of his tournament play has been less than superlative. “It’s been alright. I haven’t done a lot offensively yet, but there’s one more game to improve and impress the coaches.”
Kuhnhackl’s also scored more than a few goals in the Budweiser Garden, not only in his two previous years in the rookie tournament, but also as a member of the Windsor Spitfires.
“I’ve played here a lot during my OHL career and this is my third rookie tournament in London, so I love playing here,” he said. “It’s a great building and a great atmosphere.”
Kuhnhackl bounced between the AHL and the ECHL last year, his second professional season. The year previous, he dislocated his shoulder and missed much of his rookie campaign. After a full year healthy, the 6’2″ right winger is hoping to add consistency to his resume.
“Obviously I hope to play in the AHL and help the team as much as I can. But the year before it was all about consistency,” he said. “I started off the year well, but kind of fell into a hole and I couldn’t really get out. Maybe it was because I didn’t really play a whole lot the year before because of the injury, but I’ve just got to play consistent and get back on my game.”
He said he wasn’t held back by the injury and actually felt his time in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers helped his recovery.
“As soon as I was cleared for contact, I felt ready to play and I wanted to play. Obviously it was tough to come back after an injury like that and surgery like that,” he said. “When I played in the ECHL last year, they only had three lines, so you got a lot of ice time. It didn’t matter if it was penalty killing or power play — you saw a lot of ice time and that helped me a lot in getting my confidence back.”
With a roster of drafted players, invitees, and tryouts, it can be tough to develop any team consistency, but in his third year in the rookie tournament, Kuhnhackl said he feels it’s all about simplifying the game.
“This tournament is all about showing the organizations, the coaches, the management what you can do and how you can help the team,” he said. “A lot of those guys have played in different leagues and different organizations. We had a couple of practices, but we didn’t do a whole lot in terms of schematic stuff. You just try to go out, play your game, and play as hard as you can.”
Personally, beyond consistency, Kuhnhackl wants to work on using his size better on the ice.
“Especially in the offensive zone, getting down low and protecting pucks, winning those 50/50 battles, creating scoring chances,” he explained. “In the d-zone, blocking shots and also winning those battles.”
The 2010 fourth-round pick is signed through this year, but he wants to make sure he gives the Penguins a reason to re-sign him and keep him around.
“Obviously, I would love to stay in camp as long as I can; maybe get a few pre-season games in with Pittsburgh,” he said. “I just want to play as good as I can and show the organization what I can do and what I bring to the table.
“Hopefully they see it and hopefully I get a shot.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard