For the past several years, the Penguins have focused on their depth down the middle – a reasonable approach, as few NHL clubs boast such an elite collection of centers as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal – and employed a winger-by-committee system.
With the free agent signings of blueliners Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, Pittsburgh is left with just over $2 million in salary cap space. That pretty much ensures they’ll be taking the same approach on the wings this year, filling those spots with a combination of bargain free agent additions, trades later in the season and internal candidates. Some of those candidates might currently be playing center – Staal and Malkin have been mentioned as possibilities to shift to the wing – but a few guys who have been playing with the Baby Penguins of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton hope that Pittsburgh’s need for wingers will provide their opportunity to become full-time NHLers.
Most promising among those internal candidates is Eric Tangradi, the 21-year-old winger who became a Penguin in February 2009, along with forward Chris Kunitz, when Pittsburgh dealt defenseman Ryan Whitney to the Anaheim Ducks. Kunitz meshed with his new teammates immediately, playing alternately alongside Crosby and Malkin as the Penguins surged to an 18-3-4 finish and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Tangradi had to wait a little longer, struggling through periods of injury and inconsistency with the Baby Pens before finally making his NHL debut in the final game of the 2009-10 season.
The 6’4, 221-pound Tangradi is projected as a power forward in the NHL and, at the Penguins’ just-concluded development camp, he said he’s ready to do the work necessary to earn a spot this year.
“Right now, [my goal] is to make the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Tangradi said. “I think I’ve worked so hard this summer, and I’ve done everything in my power to hopefully be there. I’m going to try my absolute best and put it all on the line in September.”
Todd Reirden, head coach of the Baby Pens, said Tangradi’s hard work is paying off.
“I think he’s in the best shape I’ve seen him in so far right now,” Reirden said. “Certainly his year last year was one that had some ups and downs to it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. That’s adversity, that’s something we want to have the guys go through, and that’s [part of] the maturation process.
“He had the injuries, he had some times when I had to lessen his role a little bit when he wasn’t on top of his game and, by the end of the year, he was one of our best players and earned the opportunity to come up and play in the National Hockey League,” Reirden said. “I think that just touched on the direction that he’s headed, and certainly he’s going to continue to train the rest of the summer and come in and really make a statement, both at rookie camp and then in main camp.”
Tangradi already made a positive impression at development camp, scoring a few goals in intrasquad scrimmages and scoring high on skills testing.
“I’ve worked so hard, it’s nice to get some results, even in summer camp,” he said. Still, he knows there’s more to work on.
“Speed and quickness,” Tangradi added. “I think that’s going to open up a lot of space with how physical I am, so I think if I can work on my quickness and really round out my game as a whole, I’ll be ready to go.”
He’ll work on that not so much on the ice, but at the gym where he trains four days a week in New Jersey, about 35 minutes from his home across the state in Philadelphia.
“Just a lot of quick feet,” Tangradi said. “I think it’s just being really explosive, starting on a line and going as quick as you can in your first 10 steps.”
Another Baby Pen who figures to make a case for a job with the big club is 22-year-old Dustin Jeffrey, who played 14 NHL games in 2008-09 and one last year. The 6’1, 205-pound forward is a natural center, but Reirden moved him to wing last year to give him more opportunity in the organization. And Jeffrey flourished in his new role, scoring 71 points in 77 games.
“He had an outstanding season, top 13 in scoring and the second-youngest guy on that AHL scoring list,” Reirden said. “A lot of credit to Dustin for changing his role a little bit; I moved him over to the wing to make him more versatile for when he does get called up, particularly with the depth at center they have in this organization. And he’s definitely put himself into a great spot with the lack of salary cap money that can be spent on forwards.”
That the Penguins will be looking to fill the void at wing internally hasn’t been lost on Jeffrey, who said he’s driven to take the next step after his successful year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“So far at forward, there’s a couple spots open for young guys. I think that’s an opportunity that might not have been there the last couple years, and it’s going to be there for us,” Jeffrey said. “After the success I had last year in the American [Hockey] League, it’s something that I really want to grasp. I did have a successful year in the American League, but that’s what it was – it was 77 games in the American League and only one game up, and that’s not how I want to play a full year this year.”
Of course, Jeffrey and Tangradi won’t be the only players with something to say about who earns the opportunity to be on the Penguins’ opening night roster.
“With there being openings in that spot, it always helps you to push to new levels in terms of your work ethic, but we’ve got a lot of competition for those spots, between Mark Letestu and Nick Johnson, and we picked up Brett Sterling and Ryan Craig and some guys that really [create] a situation where we don’t need to force our young players,” Reirden said. “But, if they are ready, they will be given the opportunity.”
“Not any of us think that we have a secure job at all, and I think that’s going to make for a really exciting camp,” Tangradi said. “It’s also motivated all of us, so you’re going to see a lot of young guys putting it on the line in September.”
The Penguins open the regular season, and the brand-new Consol Energy Center, on October 7 against their fiercest rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. That’s an intriguing possibility for Philly native Tangradi if he makes the cut.
“The family is not [giving me a hard time]; the friends are the problem we have right now,” Tangradi said. “They always joke that their dream game is to come see me play in Philly and I have a couple goals but we lose, 3-2. I don’t think that’ll get out of their heads for a while.”