Inexperienced Kennedy pushing for spot with Penguins

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KITCHENER, Ontario -- Tyler Kennedy had, by almost any measure, a highly successful rookie season in the American Hockey League.

Any measure except games-played, that is.

He was named Rookie of the Year for the Penguins' minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre despite missing half of the Baby Penguins' 80 games because of a sports hernia, as he put up 12 goals and 25 assists in 40 games.

In the process, he impressed management enough with his speed, quickness and overall skill level to claim a spot on the short list of Penguins prospects expected to challenge for a job in the NHL in 2007-08.

"I really believe he has NHL talent," Wilkes-Barre coach Todd Richards said yesterday.

Kennedy wore a Penguins sweater for the first time last evening and scored the only goal in the shootout that produced their 6-5 victory against Toronto in their opener of a four-team rookie tournament at the Memorial Auditorium.

The Maple Leafs had a 5-1 lead as the middle of the third period approached, but the Penguins got goals from Dustin Jeffrey (two), Kristopher Letang and Alex Grant to force overtime. Jeffrey's second came with 31 seconds left in regulation.

Kennedy, a 5 foot 11, 183-pound center, played primarily between Dustin Jeffrey and Luca Caputi. He also killed penalties, manned the left point during a five-on-three power play and set up Mark Letestu for the Penguins' first goal.

Kennedy said "it's hard to say," if cracking the Penguins' lineup this season is a realistic objective, and was adamant that he hasn't spent much time considering the possibility.

"I don't really think about that, because it's all I'd be thinking about. I just try to go out there and play my game, and just try to stay healthy as long as I can," he said. "Just play the best hockey I can."

He obviously played some pretty good hockey in 2006-07, but staying healthy proved to be a lot tougher.

After appearing in every game through Jan. 20, Kennedy sat out 12 in a row because of an abdominal problem that was not immediately diagnosed. He returned for one game, but after further rehabilitation did not lead to significant improvement in his condition, he underwent the surgery that ended his season.

While it's too early to reach any conclusions, Kennedy's operation does not appear to be having an effect on his performance.

"Right now, he says he feels fine," Richards said. "Obviously, it's something we'll monitor through this training camp, and once we get to Pittsburgh."

Richards cites a lack of experience as the largest hurdle separating Kennedy from the NHL, and sitting out half of his only pro season to date obviously didn't help.

"That's valuable time for a young player," Richards said. "Especially playoff experience, because the [level of] play is cranked up. That's probably the one thing that's holding him back -- just the experience, playing in all situations, playing a full season and getting that under his belt."

Kennedy did manage to squeeze a lot of productivity into his abbreviated season, however. He became more assertive offensively as he settled in with the Baby Penguins and tied a franchise record by putting up five points (two goals, three assists) against Hershey Jan. 6.

"He has the ability to beat guys out of the corner, one-on-one, and we didn't have too many guys last year who were able to do that," Richards said. "I think Tyler is pushing [to play in] the NHL, just because of his speed, his tenacity. He's strong on the puck, and he can finish."

Kennedy proved that last night, when he finished the Penguins' improbable comeback.



NOTE -- The Penguins' training-camp schedule includes six workouts that are open to the public. Fans can attend sessions at Southpointe Sept. 14, 15 and 16 and at Mellon Arena Sept. 19, 20 and 27.



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