German prospect turns heads at Pens' camp
German prospect turns heads at Pens' camp
By Annie Maroon, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Tom Kuhnhackl isn't the only player at Penguins prospect camp this week who grew up hoping to someday don a Penguins' sweater. He is, however, the only one who's come from Germany to join the team he spent his childhood watching.
"In my hometown of Landshut, a lot of people are Pittsburgh Penguins fans because of (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Mario) Lemieux, those guys," Kuhnhackl said. "A lot of fans know Pittsburgh."
Growing up in Landshut, near the German border with the Czech Republic, Kuhnhackl said he watched "almost every game" when Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka were with the Penguins. When the Penguins drafted him 110th overall as an 18-year-old in 2010, he took his first step toward the NHL by playing with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League last year.
"It was a huge difference," Kuhnhackl said of playing North American hockey for the first time. "The rink is smaller, it's faster, way more physical. It takes a while to get used to it."
If Kuhnhackl had a hard time adjusting, it doesn't show in his statistics. He finished the year with 39 goals and 29 assists for 68 points in 63 games. In the postseason, when the Spitfires lost in the OHL's Western Conference Finals, he led the team with 23 points in 18 games.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he wasn't surprised by Kuhnhackl's performance.
"He started off a little slow, and then really took off the second two-thirds of the season or so, and then had an outstanding playoff," Bylsma said. "And he is a competitor. His skating can get better, but he is a competitor in and around the (net), and that's something that we have really focused on in our drafting."
The competitive spirit may be hereditary. Kuhnhackl's father, Erich, is widely regarded as the best hockey player in German history. A 6-foot-5 center whose nickname translates as "Wardrobe on Skates," Erich Kuhnhackl won a bronze medal with the German national team in the 1976 Olympics and also won four German Championships.
"I was surprised. A lot of people know my dad also in Canada and in the States," Kuhnhackl said. "It's great to have a dad like him. He was and still is the best player ever in Germany, and he helps me in every situation."
Erich never played in the NHL, but Tom Kuhnhackl said that's been his goal from the start. As he takes in the differences in American and European hockey culture, "in Germany, we have like five or six big rinks," he said, the Penguins are hoping he develops into a versatile NHL winger.
"An 18-year-old does fill out and grow, but Tommy's gotten taller (since last summer) as well," said Tom Fitzgerald, the Penguins' assistant to the general manager. "His dad is a big, big man. He's a big kid who can skate, can really rip the puck, and he's got good hockey skills. He plays both wings, so he's a top prospect for us."
Kuhnhackl likely will return to Windsor this year, looking to improve further on everything from his physicality to his conditioning.
"Every part of my game," said Kuhnhackl, when asked if he's focusing on any one area. "There's no player in the world who's perfect. Maybe Crosby."
Note: The Penguins signed goaltender Scott Munroe to a one-year, two-way contract worth $525,000 at the NHL level. Munroe, who will likely serve as backup to Brad Thiessen in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, played for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik in the KHL last season.
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Re: German prospect turns heads at Pens' camp
Kuhnhackl Thriving in North America
Wednesday, 07.20.2011 / 8:14 AM
Features By Michelle Crechiolo
Tom Kuhnhackl may be the son of a German hockey legend, but the 19-year-old forward is busy carving his own path to success.
Kuhnhackl’s father Erich, a member of the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, was a five-time Olympian for his country and is widely regarded as the greatest German hockey player of all time.
But rather than staying in the country where his father built a storied legacy, the younger Kuhnhackl decided to move to North America and suit up for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) – who chose him fourth overall in the 2009 CHL Import Draft – for the 2010-11 campaign.
It’s an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up in order to fulfill his goal of reaching the National Hockey League.
“In Germany, hockey is not as popular,” he said. “I had the opportunity to go to Canada and play there, so I made the step and now I’m looking forward to the next couple of years.”
And so are the Penguins, as Kuhnhackl, the team’s fourth-round pick (110th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, posted some dazzling statistics in his first season playing in North America.
“Do I get excited about the prospects and the guys we have in our system and what Kuhnhackl can do? I do. I really do,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said.
Kuhnhackl admits the transition to major junior hockey in North America took a few weeks, as he explained that hockey in Germany is “much slower and a lot less physical.”
“It was pretty tough,” Kuhnhackl said. “The rink was smaller and the game was way more physical, so it takes some time to get used to.”
But Kuhnhackl credits the Spitfires coaching staff, especially head coach Bob Jones, with helping him get acclimated. He also credits the family he billeted with for helping soften the cultural shock of assimilating to a brand-new country.
“The coaches helped me a lot,” he said, adding “(My billet family) last year was unbelievable. They did everything for me. It was the best family I could have ended up with.”
Once he felt comfortable in his new surroundings both on and off the ice, the left winger finished the regular season with a team-leading 39 goals and 68 points through 63 games.
He ramped up his game even more in the playoffs, where the Spitfires advanced to the conference finals before falling in five games to eventual league champion Owen Sound.
Kuhnhackl led Windsor in playoff scoring, finishing with a team-leading 11 goals and 23 points through 18 games.
While he certainly posted some outstanding numbers, what impressed Bylsma the most about Kuhnhackl was the compete level the 6-foot-2, 183-pound forward brought to the ice, something the Penguins look for when drafting prospects.
“He’s got a knack with the puck and he’s got a hockey sense with the puck,” Bylsma said. “He’s got some skill around the cage with his shot and he is a competitor. … The compete level and the goal-scoring around the net is something we thought he got and really showed that. It was great to see him show up in the playoffs as well. “
While Kuhnhackl may be taking a different path to hockey stardom than his father did, he still continues to lean on Erich for advice and support as he has throughout his young life.
“When I’m in Canada, we Skype two or three times every week,” Kuhnhackl said. “He watches every game.”
And what does Erich tell his teenage son when those contests end?
“I still have to be better in my strength and conditioning,” Kuhnhackl admitted. “I have to work on that. I can improve in every single area.”
Kuhnhackl recently completed his second prospect development camp in Pittsburgh last week. He impressed the Penguins staff there with his development over the past year, and although the plan is for Kuhnhackl to return to Windsor in the fall, they’re looking forward to seeing him at training camp in September.
“Tom Kuhnhackl is a kid who’s gotten taller, gotten bigger,” said Tom Fitzgerald, Penguins assistant to the general manager. “He’s a very skilled individual. He comes from great genes. His dad is a legend in Germany. We feel we’ve got a really good player there. This is a big summer for him to get stronger and bigger and come to his first NHL training camp, and get off to a great start.”