The New Guys
There are a handful of new faces on the Penguins as they get set to open defense of their Stanley Cup title.
Mike Rupp had his sights set on the Penguins, but he wasn’t sure that the Penguins had their sights set on him. "I was kind of bummed to think that it may not happen, but my agent told me that the Penguins called him right away when free agency opened," he says. "I was pretty flattered by that."
Rupp is one of just a handful of new faces on the Penguins as they get set to open defense of their Stanley Cup title. Another is 31-year-old defenseman Jay McKee, who’s entering his 14th NHL season and was signed after being let go by St. Louis. He says he had no other goal than to sign with the Penguins. "I was certainly hoping", McKee says. "You can want to go to certain teams, but unless they want your services and believe in you as a player and have a need for you in their line-up, you could be out of luck." So, as he concludes, "It was really a no-brainer for me when Mr. Shero showed he was interested."
And that would be Penguins’ G-M Ray Shero, who’s become adept at finding interchangeable parts to fit in around his core of young stars. When such good players as defenseman Rob Scuderi leave in free agency, others like McKee are brought in to take their place.
"Every summer you’re going to lose parts of your team," McKee says, "but I think they did their best to fill in those spots with similar players, and I think that’s why I resulted in being here."
Like Scuderi, McKee is a veteran, defense-first defenseman. He’s a good penalty-killer with a physical edge – the kind of player who goes unnoticed in most cities, but who becomes a cult hero in Pittsburgh. "It’s a blue-collar town", he notes. "It’s the type of town that likes hard workers, people who scrap and fight for everything they get, and that’s certainly what they’re going to get in myself."
Rupp is a big, physical forward who’d spent most of his six-year career with New Jersey. He grew up in Cleveland and lives in Erie, so he has a pretty fair idea of what makes Pittsburgh fans tick. "The town loves the hard-nosed, in-your-face, knock-’em-down style of football, and hockey is pretty similar to their liking," Rupp says. "My job is to make it hard to play against my team and to work hard and finish my checks.
That’s a style that’s sure to be embraced in his new city. Of course, those same fans have come accustomed to seeing winning hockey, too. The Penguins have done a pretty fair job of succeeding without the new guys, and so fitting into the team is the first order of business. "I’m coming into a situation where a team has just won a Stanley Cup," Rupp says. "I’m just going to come in, be myself and see where I settle in."
As McKee puts it, "I don’t want to come in and change the chemistry." He knows that some leadership comes with the territory when you’ve played almost as many games as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal combined. As he clarifies, "I want to try to come in and fill the role that was left voided, and try to do that to the best of my ability."
The gifted group of young Penguins wasn’t exactly getting pushed around in the first place, but McKee and Rupp were brought in to fill definite roles and will add a little more toughness to the team. Their situations are a little more clear-cut than that of another player expected to become a regular this year – defenseman Alex Goligoski.
Goligoski is a talented young offensive defenseman, and unlike McKee and Rupp, will need no introductions to his Penguins teammates. Goligoski skated in 45 regular season games and two playoff games for the Pens last season, filling in both times for an injured Sergei Gonchar.
Gologoski has the ability to be an excellent player, and though he knows he still has to earn a spot in training camp, he acknowledges that knowing his teammates will help him play his best hockey. "That can be a big thing. As far as comfort level going into camp, it should be easier this time around."
There’s no telling how long Rupp or McKee will be in Pittsburgh, but Goligoski could well become part of the nucleus that Shero builds around in future years. It’s a notion that excites the young blue-liner. "Definitely," he affirms. "There are a lot of good young players, and so you know that Pittsburgh’s going to be a good team for a really long time, so it’s exciting to be a part of the organization."
And that’s a feeling that Goligoski, Rupp and McKee all have in common.
Rob King’s versatility places him in the studio or at the game for FSN Pittsburgh. He brought his enthusiasm for sports to the ‘Burgh in 2000 after having spent the previous five years in Syracuse, where he was the sports director at CBS affiliate WTVH and hosted a radio show on WHEN-AM. Before that, Rob spent 21/2 years as a reporter at KPLR-TV in St. Louis and also hosted a radio show on KFNS-AM. He’s a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he was an all-conference quarterback.