PITTSBURGH – When Matt Cooke skated onto the Mellon Arena ice last Tuesday for the first day of practice, he admitted it was a little weird.
After spending most of the last eight years in the Western Conference with the Vancouver Canucks (and 17 games with the Washington Capitals last season), Cooke was unfamiliar with his new Pittsburgh teammates.
“The first day was kind of a ‘jump in the fire’ type scrimmage,” he said.
Still, it didn’t take long for the well-known agitator to find a niche and, more importantly, two linemates he was comfortable with.
Cooke spent all week skating on a line with Max Talbot and Ruslan Fedotenko. The line figures to be one of the more interesting combinations for Pittsburgh this season, combining goal-scoring ability with checking and grit.
Cooke, 30, has averaged more than 10 goals a season with Vancouver and a high of 42 points in 2002-2003. Along the way he gained a reputation as a player who can hit and get under his opponents’ skin, although his penalty minute total of 91 last season indicates he doesn’t take bad penalties.
It’s a style comparable to that played by his new center, Talbot. Last season Talbot registered 12 goals and 26 points along with 53 penalty minutes with Pittsburgh.
“Max and I think the game the same way,” Cooke said after Friday’s practice.
In addition to Cooke, Talbot will have another newcomer on his other wing in Fedotenko. Like his linemates, Fedotenko won’t shy away from the physical game and he brings a nose for the net.
Last season Fedotenko scored 16 games for a weak New York Islanders team. During his seven-year NHL career, the Ukraine native has 123 goals compared to 116 assists.
Cooke and Talbot know Fedotenko can put the puck in the net, and they intend to give him plenty of chances.
“Ruslan’s the guy where you give him the puck and most the time it’s going on net,” Cooke said. “That’s a goal Max and I have, to give Ruslan the puck as much as possible.”
If the Cooke-Talbot-Fedotenko trio can add a few goals to go along with the physical play, it will serve as a nice complement to Pittsburgh’s top two offensively-gifted lines.
But to be successful, the trio needs to develop a chemistry despite only have a limited time to play together before the season starts.
Talbot said the first day of camp was more of a chance to get to know his linemates, but after that things steadily improved.
“Me and Cooke are more of grinder type guys,” Talbot said. “Ruslan can score some goals and still go into the corners. I really think we can have a good chemistry out there. I’ve seen it already.”
In addition to physical play and the occasional goal, there’s another element that Cooke said his line will bring to the team – defense.
And he isn’t referring to only playing on his own end of the blue line.
Cooke said it’s important to control the puck in the offensive zone which contains the other team’s offense and tires them out.
“Sometimes you play your best defense in the offensive zone because you’re containing their top line and tiring them,” he said. “We all respect the defensive side of the game, and I think we’ll have a lot of success with that this season.”
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins open training camp today at the Ice Box in Pittston. At least 30 players will be on the training camp roster today, and the first practice will be held at 10 a.m.
Players spent Monday participating in team meetings and undergoing physicals. With the exception of today’s practice, the remainder of the team’s practices will be held at the Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza.
The Penguins first preseason game takes place on Friday in Binghamton against the Senators, with a return game on Saturday in Wilkes-Barre. The Pens’ regular season gets under way on Oct. 8 at home against the Hershey Bears.
The Penguins brass doesn’t have much time to evaluate new talent this preseason due to an Oct. 2 exhibition game in Finland. They will then travel to Sweden for back-to-back regular season games against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 4 and 5.
Assistant coach Mike Yeo said considering the team will only play four preseason games for heading to Europe, they don’t have time to give young players an extra long look.
“If we had eight exhibition games, maybe you give you’re a little experience to reward them for working hard,” Yeo said. “But with four exhibition games, what it really comes down to is making sure our team is prepared for the start of the season.
“Right from the start (general manager) Ray (Shero), told the guys we don’t like to do it this way, but it’s going to be about making some hard choices and making sure the team can pick up where it left off last year.”
(2007-2008 club in parenthesis)
Luca Caputi – LW (Niagra, OHL)
Aaron Clarke - F (Wheeling, ECHL)
Jean-Michel Daoust – RW (Penguins, AHL; Rockford, AHL; Cincinnati, ECHL)
Bryan Ewing – F (Boston U., NCAA)
Tommy Goebel – F (Ohio State, NCAA; Rochester, AHL)
Matt Grennier – C (Wilfrid Laurier U., CIS; Toronto, AHL)
Joey Haddad – LW (Cape Breton, QMJHL)
Kevin Harvey – LW (New Mexico, CHL)
Dustin Jeffrey – C (Sault Ste. Marie, OHL)
Nick Johnson – RW (Penguins, AHL; Dartmouth, NCAA)
Mark Letestu – C (Penguins, AHL; Wheeling, ECHL)
Andrew Lord – C (RPI, NCAA)
Nino Musitelli – F (Miami U., NCAA)
Jonathan Ornelas – F (RPI, NCAA)
Rob Sirianni – F (Utah, ECHL)
Mitch Woods – RW (Fort Wayne, IHL)
Reid Cashman – (Columbia, ECHL; Toronto, AHL)
Jon D’Aversa – (Penguins, AHL; Wheeling, ECHL)
Brad Farynuk – (Stockton, ECHL; Springfield, AHL)
Doug Krantz – (Cornell, NCAA)
Cliff Loya – (Asiago, Italy)
Jordan Morrison – (Dalhousie U., CIS; Texas, ECHL)
Robert Page – (Yale, NCAA)
Elgin Reid – (Windsor, OHL; Elmira, ECHL)
Mike Salekin – (Reading, ECHL)
Jeremy Scherlinck – (Idaho, ECHL; Iowa, AHL)
Nathan Schwartzbauer – (Youngstown, CHL)
Brock Cheahan – (Notre Dame, NCAA)
Adam Berkhoel – (Grand Rapids, AHL)
Curtis Darling – (Wheeling, ECHL; Charlotte, ECHL; Syracuse, AHL; Manchester, AHL)