Penguins Kuhnhackl drawing attention with flair, physicality
Sometimes it's plain to see when a young, promising athlete just gets it.
Tom Kuhnhackl already had a lot going for him -- great bloodlines, good size, some razzle-dazzle in his stickwork and unbridled enthusiasm for hockey.
Yet when the German winger got to Windsor last fall to begin junior hockey, a few months after the Penguins drafted him in the fourth round, he reverted to the all-skill, no-spill European version of the game.
That doesn't wash in Canada.
"I was not playing physical at all," said Kuhnhackl, 19, who just finished his second Penguins development camp. "And then the coaches were talking to me. 'Hey, you're a huge guy. Just finish your hit and play physical.' So I just did that, and now I feel comfortable with that."
A funny thing happened. Once Kuhnhackl began using his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame more effectively and adjusted to the smaller North American ice surface, his offense soared. He became a strong prospect, albeit one who is still growing physically and learning.
"I just tried to finish every hit. When you finish your check, you can maybe create a turnover and make some offense," Kuhnhackl said.
After a slow start, Kuhnhackl finished with 39 goals and 68 points in 63 games. He had 11 goals and 23 points in 18 playoff games.
"He's a big man who can skate," Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. "He can really rip the puck. He's got good hockey sense. He plays both wings.
"He's a top prospect for us."
Saturday, Kuhnhackl had no points but flashed a couple of moves and dangerous shots during a scrimmage at Consol Energy Center that marked the end of the camp.
He is eligible to participate with the Penguins in a preseason rookie tournament in Oshawa, Ontario, in September and is expected to be invited to the Penguins' training camp after that.
In addition to the coaching and training at Penguins functions and with Windsor, Kuhnhackl has a tremendous resource in his father, Erich, who is something of the Wayne Gretzky of German hockey -- an Olympic bronze medalist, a 10-time world championships participant, a four-time German pro league champion and a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame.
"Especially when I was young, after games we would talk about when I had a good shift or a bad shift, what I can improve. We talked a lot," Kuhnhackl said.
"When I was in Canada, we Skyped two or three times every week. And he watches every game."
Kuhnhackl also grew up idolizing the Penguins because of stars such as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby. Yet he might be most reminiscent of another current star, Evgeni Malkin, because of his similar build (although he could end up thicker than Malkin), his skating style and his ability to make the puck dance on his stick.
"He's Russian; all the Russian players, they have unbelievable hands," Kuhnhackl said, adding that he plans to continue to develop that skill.
"Why not? In different situations, maybe a move can help you in a one-on-one battle."
He showed some of those moves during development camp, maneuvering the puck around and between his skates. It might be the equivalent of a playground style in basketball -- Kuhnhackl said he hones those moves with "tricks" during summer street hockey games with buddies in Germany -- but it's fine with the Penguins.
"That's what makes him the player he is," Fitzgerald said. "We never try to take that type of skill out of a player. You just try to instill the details of a game, puck management, not turning the puck over."
Kuhnhackl loved his first winter playing in hockey-crazed Canada after being an anomaly in soccer-gaga Germany. He enjoyed billeting with a Windsor family and would be happy to return.
Of course, he would be thrilled to wind up in Wilkes-Barre, home of the Penguins' top affiliate, or even in Pittsburgh, but he deftly stickhandled around the question of beginning his pro career out of training camp if all goes well.
"I'm just trying to be focused on this year and have a good year wherever I play," Kuhnhackl said.
First Published July 17, 2011 12:00 am