Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forwards Dominik Simon and Oskar Sundqvist are rookies by trade in the North American pro game, but both have played professional hockey overseas in the Czech Republic and Sweden, respectively. While it is not the first time these two have competed against men at a high level of play, it is the first time they are experiencing it on the smaller North American ice surface.
The two play completely different styles of hockey. Simon, a 5’11”, 175-pound forward, plays an offensively-minded game with swift skating and a penchant for creating scoring chances on the power play. Sundqvist is much bigger at 6-3 and 210 pounds and plays a defense-first game, with strong play in puck battles and a prominent role on the team’s penalty kill.
Both have been successful through the team’s first 10 games, and the AHL Penguins as a team are also off to a strong start – boasting a league-best 12-1-0-0 record.
Simon enjoyed a breakout season in 2014-15 while playing with Plzen HC in the Czech Republic’s top league, tallying 30 points (18 goals, 12 assists) in 52 games and catching the eye of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. The Penguins selected Simon in the fifth round (137th overall) last summer and quickly signed him to an entry-level contract so he could begin with the AHL club this fall.
“It’s a different style of hockey,” Simon said of playing pro hockey in North America, adding,” but you can get used to it with playing games and practicing. I think it’s better now than it was at the beginning. I feel much more comfortable now.”
Simon’s comfort level is evident with his production on the ice. Through his first 13 AHL games, Simon is a point-per-game presence in the team’s top-six forward group with five goals and eight assists.
“He’s one of those type of players that has the ability to make plays in tight space because he sees the ice as well as he does,” head coach Mike Sullivan said of Simon’s hockey sense. “He has the hands to be able to avoid sticks and avoid pressure situations to create that opportunity.”
While he’s off to a strong start with the AHL Penguins, there is still plenty of adjustment for Simon – both playing a different style of game in North America, and playing that game on a smaller ice surface. The transition is going smoothly so far, but he still has a bit to learn before his name can enter the conversation for a promotion to the NHL.
“Dominik is a typical offensive guy in the sense that they want to make offensive plays all the time,” Sullivan said. “What we are trying to help him with is recognizing when there are circumstances where he’s better off making a simple play versus trying to manufacture something that might not be there and is high risk.”
Sullivan also added that he’d like to see Simon’s play away from the puck and in the defensive zone improve, mentioning his decision-making and ability to read the play. All of these adjustments will come in due time, and the AHL Penguins’ coaching staff is certainly pleased with Simon’s progress.
“I think people had high expectations of him – that’s why they signed him,” Sullivan explained. “Sometimes you find a diamond in the rough. For me, he’s certainly a guy that has a real chance. What he possesses from a skill-set standpoint is very difficult to teach. I think he has a bright future.”
Sundqvist had the opportunity to join the AHL Penguins late last spring while the team was in the midst of their 2015 Calder Cup Playoff run. Sundqvist himself was coming off an extended playoff run in the Sweden Hockey League (SHL) before joining the Penguins’ AHL affiliate banged up. He was able to get into one game, and the experience of learning a little about the system, the style of play and his new teammates definitely eased his transition into this season.
“It was a good experience for this season,” Sundqvist recalled of last spring’s visit to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area. “I came in here late, got to know all of the players, how they’re working over here and what’s going on in the AHL. That’s a good experience to have so you don’t have any surprises, so it was good to come here at the end of last year.”
Sundqvist has also embraced his role with the WBS Penguins, one quite different than his teammate Simon. The Swedish-born forward has been placed on the team’s third line centering veterans Dominik Uher and Tom Kostopoulos, playing a shutdown role against opposing team’s top lines.
“He’s really embraced the challenge that we’ve given him,” Sullivan said of Sundqvist. “I can see him on a game-by-game basis improving so many aspects of his game. We can see him getting better each and every weekend that he plays so we are excited about his development so far.”
Also playing a prominent role on the team’s penalty kill alongside line mate Uher, Sundqvist enjoys being on the ice while his team is shorthanded.
“It’s fun to shut down their power play,” Sundqvist said. “Every time you have a big PK shift you get a little boost for the whole team, so it’s an important job to do.”
Much like Simon, Sundqvist still has to work on his game if he hopes to translate his game to the next level.
“My conditioning and my skating,” Sundqvist pointed out as two things he’s aiming to improve. “I’m trying to work on getting stronger and better conditioning and that’s what I think the biggest part for me is, so I can stay out longer on the ice and not get tired as quick as I did at the beginning of the season.”
All in all, Sundqvist is transitioning well to life in North America both on and off the ice. On the ice, he has four goals and three assists in 13 games, which includes a shorthanded tally and a power play goal. Off the ice, with the help of his girlfriend who made the move from Sweden with him, he is adjusting to the culture change the United States has to offer.
“It was a little bit scary in the beginning. It was a long move for me from the safety back home in Sweden,” Sundqvist said of the transition away from home. “I’ve been really surprised. It’s been amazing so far.”
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