Penguins training camp preview

By Adrian Barclay

With a new GM in place in Ray Shero and the high-priced free agent spending days behind them, the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare for a training camp with plenty of youth battling it out for positions on the roster.

The most prolific of those is of course Evgeni Malkin, the young Russian phenom who has made plenty of headlines with his disappearance from his Russian team and subsequent arrival in America to sign with Penguins last week. Malkin will walk into the second line center job, and most of the focus of camp will be on who will earn the spots on his and Sidney Crosby’s wings.

Making the cut

Over the summer, the Penguins really had just one prospect being talked about, and deservedly so. Malkin is a budding star on the rise, and his offseason of turmoil and intrigue only added to his aura and created increased excitement about the upcoming season. The 20-year-old Russian will have to overcome a few culture adjustments but will have the advantage of having Sergei Gonchar, his teammate in Russia during the lockout, on the team to help him adjust.

The 2006-07 season looks to be the one when Noah Welch will make his presence felt in the big time. A five-game cameo with the Penguins last season gave him the taste and he is now set to be part of the regular rotation with the big club. Welch was outstanding as a rookie with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, and is more than ready to make the jump. The only thing that may hold him back is the contract status of the Penguins other defensemen, with seven blueliners already with one-way contracts.

Erik Christensen is another prospect who faces challenge this season, with Malkin’s arrival knocking him out of the second line center calculations. Christensen’s skills means he must be part of the top six to be of best value, and will now be hoping he can lock down a wing spot next to either Malkin or Sidney Crosby. He has spent some time on the wing in the past, and his adjustment to this will determine his immediate NHL future.

Last season’s surprise packet Colby Armstrong will reprise his role on Crosby’s right wing, after a stunning latter half of 2005-06 in that role. Armstrong proved the perfect partner to Crosby, scoring 40 points in 47 games and bringing a good balance to Crosby’s playmaking skills. Previously earmarked as a checking line player, Armstrong will seek to prove that last season was not a fluke and that he can contribute as a top-six forward.

Maxime Talbot is another prospect who will be looking to continue where he left off in the NHL last season, after impressing as the fourth line center in the first half of 2005-06. Talbot’s work ethic and locker room presence are assets that seem to fit well with Shero’s idea for the new-look Penguins, but will need to impress in camp with the recent acquisition of Dominic Moore from the Rangers, putting his spot in doubt.

Recently-drafted Jordan Staal may get some consideration for a roster spot in his first training camp, although another year in the OHL will probably be more beneficial. Staal certainly has the size (6’4, 215 lbs) but looks like he could use a little more development time. Like Christensen, Staal will need to convert to a wing spot with Crosby and Malkin holding the top center jobs.

Comings and goings

The Penguins signed two other prospects over the summer, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds center Tyler Kennedy and St. Cloud State winger Joe Jensen.

Kennedy is a small but skilled playmaking center who is destined for the Baby Pens this season. A hard worker and good faceoff man, Kennedy should fit in nicely in the ‘A’ after a usual settling in period. Jensen also fits the player mold that Shero seems to like, basing his game on hard work and leadership on the ice. Jensen is coming off his best offensive season, scoring 14 goals and 18 assists in 38 games as a senior on the impressive Huskies team that went further than expected last season.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect regarding signings was the non-signing of Cornell winger Matt Moulson. Considered at least a small chance of some NHL experience this season, the Cornell scoring leader eventually signed with Los Angeles after failing to come to terms with the Penguins.

Shero also decided not to renew the contracts of Ben Eaves, Cam Paddock, Andy Chiodo and Andy Schneider, and not to sign Peterborough Petes center Jordan Morrison.

Preseason schedule

September 19 – @ Ottawa Senators – 6:30pm
September 20 – @ Philadelphia Flyers – 6:30pm
September 22 – vs. Washington Capitals – 7:30pm
September 23 – @ Buffalo Sabres – 7:30pm
September 24 – @ Philadelphia Flyers – 6:00pm
September 29 – vs. Buffalo Sabres – 7:30pm
September 30 – @ Buffalo Sabres – 7:00pm

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