(Pittsburgh, PA) — Tom Kuhnhackl has some subtle skills that coach Mike Sullivan believes can help his team.
Kuhnhackl, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound winger, skated on a line with fellow call-up Bryan Rust and center Nick Bonino Friday at practice, indicating his NHL debut most likely will come tonight against the Canadiens in Montreal.
“His game’s not going to wow anybody,” Sullivan said. “But he’s very good on the boards. He’s a reliable player. He’s a good penalty-killer. He’s a great shot-blocker. He goes to the net in the offensive zone, and makes the goalie’s job difficult in the offensive zone.
“So there are a lot of subtleties to his game that I think help teams win. I think those types of skill sets will transfer to this level for him.”
Kuhnhackl and Rust were call up Thursday when Sullivan sent Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Like his predecessor Mike Johnston, Sullivan is searching for another forward or two who can consistently help his lineup.
“Part of the process is coming up, trying to find a way to have an impact on the game, given the role that you’ve been cast in. And being able to sustain that level of play,” Sullivan said. “That’s the hardest part. When guys first come up, they bring energy, they’re playing on adrenaline, they get excited. And then the reality of the league sets in, how hard it is.
“For a young player, that’s a big challenge, to sustain that play day in and day out and game in and game out.”
Kuhnhackl said he will try to stick with what has worked for him in the past. A prolific scorer in junior hockey, he has segued into a more physical, bottom-six kind of player as a pro.
He has had a handful of injuries, including one undisclosed ailment earlier this season that kept him from getting a first call-up to the NHL until now.
“I’m not too worried about that right now. [I’ll] just try to play my game, get pucks in deep, try to keep it as simple as possible,” Kuhnhackl said. “Obviously, I’m going to be a little nervous. I think that’s normal. I’m just going to play my game.”
Bonino and his line could use a jump-start. While quite reliable defensively and as a penalty-killer, Bonino hasn’t scored a goal since Nov. 7. He has three goals and six assists this season.
“I’ve put up a lot of points; lately the puck just won’t go in the net,” Bonino said. “This year, sometimes it’s baffling. I feel like I’m playing my best hockey that I’ve played. I feel like I’m playing better than I did last year, and the puck just won’t go in. So you keep doing what you’re doing.”
He has some familiarity with Rust and hopes the chemistry returns.
“Rusty I’ve played with a little bit. I know he’s going to work hard. And [Kuhnhackl], from what I’ve heard, he’s a pretty good impact player down there, plays the right way. That’s always good.”
Rust played five games with the Penguins in October and said he will strive to fit his hard-working profile.
“My game doesn’t really change between there and here. I try and play an honest 200-foot game,” Rust said. “My scoring chances come from some making plays, but most of it’s hard work and a little bit of playmaking ability.”
He said he estimated he played between six and 10 games for Sullivan in the minors, enough for an understanding between the two to develop and take off some pressure.
“He knows what kind of player you are and what you can bring,” Rust said. “He’s got confidence in me to be able to play my game.”