Last year, the Penguins convened for training camp as reigning Stanley Cup champions, boasting a largely intact roster with few spots up for grabs. That team went on to look complacent at times during the regular season, then tried to take its game to another level during the playoffs that never quite materialized.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that GM Ray Shero spent his offseason ensuring that there would be no place for complacency or security in this year’s camp. With the signings of veterans Mike Comrie and Arron Asham, the Penguins have 13 forwards on one-way contracts – not to mention a few from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton who have every intention of using camp to make a strong case for themselves.
Comrie – a proven scorer who’s netted 30 goals twice, 20 five times – came as a real bargain, signing for the league-minimum $500,000 for the chance to join a team he saw as a great fit for his skill set and versatility. The 30-year-old forward could end up filling a variety of roster spots for the Penguins, and made it clear he’s willing to work in any role the coaching staff decides he fits best, but there’s a good chance he’ll get a look as a winger for Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. In camp, he worked on a line with Malkin and top prospect Eric Tangradi that showed chemistry.
“When I came here, I definitely wanted to push to be a guy this team can count on, and if that means playing on the wing with some skilled players, or fitting in a different role, that’s what you need to do to be a winning team,” Comrie said. “I’m excited; since signing here, I understood what’s at stake. I think when you approach the season with a team like this, you have one goal in mind, and that’s to compete for a Cup.”
Several forwards in this competitive training camp suddenly find themselves with an opportunity they couldn’t have foreseen a week ago – the chance to fill Jordan Staal’s spot, which will now be open for five to six weeks into the regular season, perhaps longer, as he continues to recuperate from multiple offseason surgeries to fix a lacerated tendon suffered in the playoffs and subsequent infection.
“The plan for Jordan is getting his foot healthy, getting him back to skate in a full training mode for a two to three week period of time, and then getting him back,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “As far as his position on the ice, as part of training camp, we’ll have that play out with the people who are competing for the spot he’s vacated, the position he’s vacated.”
That open spot could be at Staal’s usual position of center, with 25-year-old Mark Letestu emerging as an especially strong candidate for that slot during the opening weekend of camp.
“[Letestu] played there last year a little bit,” said Matt Cooke, Staal’s linemate for the past two years along with Tyler Kennedy. “Staalsy played up with Geno [Malkin] for a little while and Mark came in and played really well with TK and I. You’re not going to replace Jordan because of his size, the amount of minutes he eats up and what he brings to the penalty kill, but we’ll be able to at least fill that hole for a while.”
The open position could also be on the wing, if Malkin remains at center for the time being; Bylsma indicated that he’s thought of shifting Malkin to play on Crosby’s wing, or on Staal’s when he returns to the lineup. That’s an opportunity of which Tangradi, a projected power forward, hopes to take full advantage.
“Coming into this camp, I had a lot of pressure on myself to do well,” Tangradi said. “Even if there’s nothing available, I’m going to play to try to force a spot for myself. I have the same attitude; I’m going to leave it all on the ice. And, if things don’t work out, I can leave with my head held high.”
Tangradi likes the potential of his training camp line with Malkin and Comrie. “We’ve been doing pretty well together, keeping it simple and getting a lot of scoring chances,” he said. “So far, it’s been great, but there’s a lot of camp left, and I’m looking forward to the next couple days.”
So are a lot of the forwards in Penguins training camp, as they jockey for one of 12 available slots on the opening night roster in a competition that’s likely to make the Penguins a better hockey club.
“Players want to be able to rise to the occasion, and everybody’s going to play hard and compete and push each other,” Comrie said. “I think that’s what’s going to make our team successful.”