Kuhnhackl tries to get career back on track

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The first practice of the annual summer development camp was over. Consol Energy Center workers were ready to bring the Zamboni onto the ice before the second group of prospects came out.

They had to wait a few minutes.

Just in front of the Zamboni entrance, Penguins development coach Bill Guerin was working one-on-one with winger Tom Kuhnhackl. The two pushed and clashed in a puck battle along the boards.

Guerin, known for his cutting wit as a player, was all business.

"He didn't say anything," Kuhnhackl said Tuesday after the practice, then smiled.

"He was just trying to get the puck -- but he didn't get it today."

Kuhnhackl, 21, is making a push to get his promising career back on track.

He made a splash when he was drafted in the fourth round in 2010 because of his unbridled enthusiasm, his longtime affinity for the Penguins and the fact that his father, Erich, is considered the greatest hockey player in Germany's history.

Things started out well in his North American career. His first season of junior hockey, he had 39 goals, 68 points in 63 games for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League.

His star faded some over the past couple of years. In 2011-12, he got traded in-season from Windsor to Niagara, drew a 20-game suspension for a hit on New York Rangers prospect Ryan Murphy and, on the same play, injured a knee.

Last season, Kuhnhackl turned pro and joined the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That season got gutted when he got hurt in November and had season-ending surgery on his left shoulder.

The 45-minute practice Tuesday was the closest thing he has done to playing hockey since. His numbers in 2010-11 were better than the past two seasons combined: 11 goals, 34 points in 47 games.

"I want to show them that I'm back to almost normal, that I can play hockey, that I can score, that I can protect the puck in the corner and create scoring chances," said Kuhnhackl, a strong puck-handler.

He vowed that he will sit out the camp-ending scrimmage Saturday if he doesn't feel his shoulder is sound, "but the way it looks right now I feel pretty comfortable and pretty good, so I'm probably going to play."

The best test came from Guerin, who made sure to test Kuhnhackl's shoulder.

Asked how his game has developed spending his winters in North America and after turning pro a year ago, Kuhnhackl laughed.

"I couldn't tell you. I haven't played [much] the last couple of years," he said.

The 6-foot-2, 172-pounder not only wants to play a full season, but also hopes for a chance to get called up and make his NHL debut.

"I want to play for the Penguins. Maybe this year," he said. "Who knows what's going to happen? Obviously, the last couple of years weren't good for me."

Tom Fitzgerald, an assistant to the general manager, and Wilkes-Barree coach John Hynes are key figures in running the development camp.

Both identified Kuhnhackl as someone who might get that chance as a midseason call-up if the Penguins have injuries or other reasons to summon a forward. The organization is much heavier with defensive prospects than at forward.

"He's a talent," Fitzgerald said. "A big body. Strength was always an issue. And then he got derailed with the injuries. He never has gotten any traction in the summer because of those injuries and surgeries. He's healthy right now.

"He still has half a summer to continue to get stronger. [He is someone] that could, with some games under his belt, come up and contribute. But it's a big step and a learning process.

"Hopefully, knock on wood, the injury is behind him and he can move forward."

This is the first season that playing in the NHL is a realistic goal for Kuhnhackl, who missed the 2012 development camp.

"This is why this camp is big for me," he said. "I want to show them after the surgery that I can come back."

If that call comes to report to the Penguins, Kuhnhackl will face an extra challenge.

"I would probably be so nervous that I probably couldn't even speak," he said. "It would be huge for me. It would be really exciting to play with guys like [Sidney] Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin in the same lineup."

Looking ahead

• What: Development camp scrimmage among the Penguins' prospects.

• When: 3 p.m. Saturday.

• Where: Consol Energy Center.

• Of note: The scrimmage is open to the public. Admission and parking are free.

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For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published July 17, 2013 4:00 AM


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