Penguins newly acquired defenseman ready for action

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The Penguins weren't looking to alter the balance of power in the Eastern Conference when they acquired Joel Kwiatkowski from Florida last month.

They didn't trade for him because they wanted to revamp the No. 1 power-play unit, overhaul their top two defense pairings or add an element that had been conspicuously absent on their blue line.

He was brought here to add depth, not to be a difference-maker.

Fact is, Kwiatkowski's arrival might affect headline-writers more than just about anyone else -- imagine trying to squeeze all those letters into a tiny space -- unless you count the public-address guys who routinely announce him as one of the Penguins' healthy scratches.

The Penguins have played seven games since trading for Kwiatkowski, and he has spent six of those in street clothes. The lone exception was their 4-3 shootout loss to New Jersey Thursday, when Kwiatkowski got an 11-minute, 59-second audition with his new club.

He took a fairly regular shift alongside Rob Scuderi and was on the ice for the Devils' third goal. The coaching staff didn't offer a public assessment of his performance after that game, but he did not dress for the one that followed, a 3-2 overtime victory against the New York Rangers Saturday.

Kwiatkowski had been scratched for his final few games in Florida, too, so it's far from certain that his work against New Jersey constituted a reasonable opportunity to show what he's capable of. Especially when he had a new partner and was playing in a new system.

Fair or otherwise, however, Kwiatkowski recognizes that moving in and out of the lineup -- including when it means spending more time out than in -- is part of the job description for guys who reside near the bottom of the depth chart.

"It's tough, but it's part of the game," he said. "I've been around for a while, and you have to adjust. That's part of being a professional."

So is putting the time during games to good use, even for a guy who isn't playing. That's why Kwiatkowski, like most scratches, doesn't spend home games in the press box, but in and around the locker room.

"After warm-ups, you just go into the weight room," he said. "You do a workout, at least up until the end of the first [period]. You just kind of watch the game and learn and go from there."

Watching games can offer insights on the Penguins' system and the responsibilities of his position, but is a poor substitute for actually being involved. Knowing what to do is not the same as being able to do it in game situations, and the challenge of performing efficiently is compounded when a player gets most of his on-ice work in practices.

"You can practice all you want, but it's such a fast game out there," Kwiatkowski said. "Besides that, it's the new faces.

"You're trying to read off each other, and you don't really know each other that well. ... It's a tough adjustment, but you have to put that aside and just play your game."

Kwiatkowski said he began to get comfortable with Scuderi "toward the end of the game," and suggested it happened more quickly than usual because both stick to a basic style.

"We started reading off each other a bit more [as the Devils game progressed]," he said. "We play a pretty simple game, so it's a bit easier to adjust."

Whether the coaching staff will pair Scuderi and Kwiatkowski in the future isn't clear, just as there's no way of knowing when Kwiatkowski will get back in uniform.

It could happen when the Penguins play Buffalo at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow at Mellon Arena if another defenseman is injured, or has displeased the coaching staff, or it could be weeks from now.

Whenever it happens, Kwiatkowski knows what he'll be looking to contribute.

"I want to bring some speed and quick puck movement," he said. "When you have such good, fast, young forwards, as a defenseman, it's easy for us. If you can get the puck in their hands, that's more benefit for our team, and for us."

Until he's called upon to do that, Kwiatkowski plans to put in extra time in the weight room and on the stationary bike, so that he'll be able to concentrate on executing his duties when he does get back on the ice.

"If you have two things to worry about -- the mental and physical parts -- it's tough," he said. "If you can just worry about the mental part of it and you're in good shape, usually things work out."

Dave Molinari can be reached at .


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