Penguins ease transition for Stempniak, Goc on and off the ice

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — First, there’s the call. All players who are changing teams get that.

"You’ve been traded to …" or, "You’ve been claimed by …"

When the destination is the Penguins, there’s something else that follows like clockwork. Amid the packing and scrambling, maybe kissing the wife and kids goodbye, comes a text from team captain Sidney Crosby.

"Yeah, welcoming you to the team," winger Taylor Pyatt said with a smile last week, recalling Jan. 2 when he was claimed by the Penguins off of waivers from the New York Rangers. "That definitely helps when you first get here."

The Penguins added two players at the NHL trade deadline last week, forwards Lee Stempniak from Calgary and Marcel Goc from Florida. They were able to make their way to California for back-to-back games at San Jose and Anaheim. Goc had an assist against the Sharks.

While changing teams brings a whirlwind of adjustments — a couple of hours before Friday's game against the Ducks, Goc was in the hallway outside the visiting dressing room at Honda Center going over several issues with the team equipment staff — the Penguins do what they can to make the transition as smooth as possible so new players have a chance to be productive right away.

Winger Jussi Jokinen, who was acquired from Carolina at last year’s trade deadline, was impressed with the welcome mat he got, and he thinks Stempniak and Goc will be, too.

"Coming in, the whole organization is first class," Jokinen said. "I don’t think you’ll find a better organization in the NHL. That will help. They will take good care of them, all the things off the ice, their families, stuff like that. It makes you feel really good.

"It’s a great group of guys in the locker room. It’s easy to come in and fit in."

What might not be so easy is learning the Penguins system on the fly.

The team has been rocked by injuries this season. When a replacement comes from the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate, the transition can be relatively smooth because Wilkes-Barre

Scranton uses the same system, terminology, etc. That’s by design.

Players joining the Penguins from other organizations don’t have that advantage.

"To learn the system is tough," Pyatt said. "It takes a while to be comfortable with everything.

"The coaches went over everything, but they didn’t really want to overload me with too much right away to the point where you’re thinking too much. It’s a little bit of a process, but the biggest thing is just getting here, playing hard, fitting in with the guys. Those other technical things come with a little bit of time."

Stempniak has played some on the top line alongside Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz. Crosby, who often can be seen going over strategy with teammates on the bench, is conscious of not overwhelming Stempniak.

"Honestly, when someone’s in that situation, you say, ‘Just play,’" Crosby said. "I’m sure there are so many things that have gone on the past [several] days, and it’s been pretty hectic. He’s probably got a thousand things on his mind as far as what he has to do to adjust. It’s a lot easier for me to adjust to maybe things he’s going to do."

Even with red-carpet treatment and patience, not all newcomers fit as well as hoped with the Penguins. Of their four acquisitions near last year’s trade deadline, only Jokinen remains. Defenseman Douglas Murray, winger Brendan Morrow and future Hall of Fame winger Jarome Iginla became unrestricted free agents and moved on. Iginla, in particular, never seemed to get comfortable on the ice or find a spot that allowed him to play at the level that made him an elite player.

Jokinen found the learning curve on the ice challenging.

"That’s probably the hardest part," he said. "There are so many details with this team. I think it’s the most details of any team in the NHL. The first few games, you might think too much – where should I go on this faceoff, or what is this faceoff, stuff like that.

"March is a tough month, 16 games. We don’t get lots of practice time, so it will be a lot of study of the faceoff plays and details in our game. That’s probably the most challenging part [for Stempniak and Goc] coming in."

Crosby was one of the first of Goc’s new teammates to shake his hand and spend a couple of minutes chatting when Goc arrived at SAP Center Thursday just after the Penguins’ game-day skate.

Crosby said helping new players adjust on and off the ice is in the team’s best interest, whether it’s tips about the system or reminders about faceoff plays or just inviting new players out to dinner.

"I think the strength of your [locker] room in itself is what allows that transition, and all those things are what make a good hockey dressing room," Crosby said. "You’re there to answer any questions. Anything you can do to get to know the guy better, for him to understand what he needs to do. That’s partly [the responsibility of the] coaches. That’s partly the room. I think all those things combined is the strength of a hockey team."

Of course, a welcoming text from hockey’s biggest star isn’t a bad opening.

"I think that’s a great thing for him to do that," Jokinen said of Crosby’s texts. "He doesn’t have to do that, but he wants to do that. He’s the best player in the world, and you still get a text from him. It makes you feel welcome and feel that you’re part of the group already."


Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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