Johnson, McKee and Rupp fitting in with Penguins
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma works with defenseman Jay McKee on the first day of training camp at the Mellon Arena last week.
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TORONTO -- There is an unwritten book, known to those who play in the NHL, on the chemistry of various teams and the climate of the league's locker rooms.
The chapter on the Penguins is appealing, according to three newcomers who had an idea they could fit in well yet faced the prospect of assimilating with a club that is extremely tight-knit in the wake of winning the Stanley Cup in June.
"The hockey world is a small world, and hearing about guys and teams, I heard that this was a loose team, that guys have fun," forward Mike Rupp said yesterday.
Rupp signed as a free agent during the summer after playing with New Jersey, Phoenix and Columbus. He is one of three veterans, along with defenseman Jay McKee and backup goaltender Brent Johnson, who signed with the Penguins during the offseason and are locks to be on the opening-night roster.
All three were in the lineup last night as the Penguins lost in a shootout, 3-2, to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a preseason game at Air Canada Centre. Rupp had two assists, McKee had five blocked shots and Johnson stopped 14 of 15 shots over two periods. Coach Dan Bylsma said afterward that Johnson had "tweaked" his right knee and was benched as a precaution.
Johnson, who is with his fourth NHL club, said before the game that he has found his new situation everything he thought it would be.
"It's a very good dressing room. That's all you hear," he said. "It's been great so far, very comfortable. The guys have been very graceful in letting me join them.
"It is tough coming in after the majority of the players just won the Stanley Cup. It's not that you feel like an outsider, but you feel like you wish you would have been there yourself. Now you want to help them do it again."
For McKee, this is just his third team after playing nearly 750 NHL games, first with Buffalo and then the past three seasons with St. Louis.
"When I first went to St. Louis, it was quite a transition," he said. "It was something new, and you were getting to know the guys and feeling a little uncomfortable.
"Now, this is the second time I've moved teams, and coming here has been pretty easy."
It helped that McKee had some ties to the Penguins: He played junior hockey with assistant coach Mike Yeo, knows assistant general manager Jason Botterill and is close enough to winger Bill Guerin that Guerin called him right away.
Rupp also got a call when he signed -- one from Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
"I thought that was really classy," Rupp said. "It was unexpected. It was a nice welcome."
Crosby didn't think twice about it, especially after he got similar calls going into his rookie season from Penguins Hall of Famer and co-owner Mario Lemieux, who was still playing then, and veteran Mark Recchi.
"It's important for any team to make new guys feel welcome, but I think that's just a natural thing with the type of people we have in here," Crosby said. "And when you're bringing in guys who are solid people, it's really an easy fit."
Although the Penguins had surprisingly little turnover after their championship season, rolling out the red carpet for a few incoming veterans isn't just good will; it's good business. That's because, as defenseman Sergei Gonchar explained, players who get along in the locker room are more likely to perform better.
"I think we play so well as a team because we are so close to each other," he said. "When you have a new guy coming in, we want to make sure that he feels comfortable because we know how important it is to be on the same page not only on the ice but off the ice."
One element of comfort common in hockey locker rooms is humor. When Guerin joined the Penguins at the trade deadline in March, he shattered their funny bones when he immediately gave Crosby some grief. The two linemates now are close, with jokes a constant in their friendship.
"It's fun right off the hop. Guys have a good sense of humor," Rupp said. "It seems like there's a good work ethic going on here, but it's not without fun."
The holdover Penguins are unified by their Stanley Cup win, but that's not a closed society because the trophy is constantly back up for grabs.
"There is a bond," Rupp said. "These guys went through war together, and they were successful. ... That's why I'm here. I want to be a part of that, too."
NOTES -- Defenseman Ben Lovejoy left the game with a shoulder injury. ... Bylsma described winger Pascal Dupuis' early departure from Monday's game in Montreal as "precautionary," and Dupuis practiced yesterday. ... Ryan Bayda and Chris Conner scored for the Penguins, Viktor Stahlberg and Nazem Kadri for Toronto before Kadri and Lee Stempniak scored in the shootout. ... Johnson got his newly designed mask but chose not to wear it. ... FSN Pittsburgh will televise at least 70 Penguins games, all in high definition, beginning with the season opener Oct. 2 against the New York Rangers. ... The Penguins' 2009-10 marketing theme is "Defy Ordinary" and the campaign includes an online contest (www.pittsburghpenguins.com) for two season tickets.
First Published September 23, 2009 12:00 am