Penguins prospects dream of big shot

| Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One of these years, the Penguins are bound to look inward for some wingers to play next to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The four spots next to those guys have been manned largely by veterans, many of the quick-fix, free-agent variety. That likely will be the case again next season.

But, one of these years ...

"It's my dream to play with guys like that — Crosby or Malkin," said 20-year-old forward Keven Veilleux, who was among 26 the players to begin Penguins prospects camp Tuesday.

A second-round pick from 2007, Veilleux speaks limited English. His eyes spoke for him at the mention of Crosby and Malkin; they lit up like a scoreboard.

Veilleux wasn't alone, as the question went around the locker room at Mellon Arena: Ever think about playing next to "Geno" or Sid?

"That's what I'm hoping for, down the road," said 20-year-old forward Casey Pierro-Zabotel, a third-round pick from 2007.

"That's motivation in itself," said 20-year-old Eric Tangradi, the strapping left winger acquired with Chris Kunitz from Anaheim.

"That's my goal," said another 20-year-old left winger, Luca Caputi, a fourth-round pick from '07. "(The Penguins) have to develop within because of the salary cap. They've drafted well, and they have a lot of money invested in the core, so they have to have draft picks and prospects step in."

Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins' director of amateur scouting, was asked to identify the leading candidates, among those present yesterday, to someday play alongside Crosby and Malkin.

"Oh, geez, you can't put me on the spot like that," Heinbuck said, laughing. "These guys are gonna read that!"

He relented, somewhat.

"We have a lot of guys," he said. "It's funny, because it's an interesting mix. You have guys like Tangradi, with skill and power to his game, and Caputi, who has a lot of grit and determination and a good amount of skill. Then you have Veilleux, who is naturally a centerman. Does he shift over and play wing because he's so big and skilled?"

Pierro-Zabotel, who led the Western Hockey League in scoring, also is a natural center but is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and could be converted. Heinbuck cautioned that any such conversions could be years away.

Meanwhile, Tangradi and Caputi might get their shot sooner, though Tangradi still is recovering from a gruesome injury sustained in an Ontario Hockey League playoff game. A tendon was severed in his left wrist when he collided with a goaltender.

Tangradi is scheduled for additional surgery next week to loosen scar tissue in his thumb. He expects clearance to practice full-tilt shortly after that.

"They said a small procedure would loosen the scar tissue and give me full range of motion with my shot," Tangradi said. "I probably won't have feeling back in my thumb for a while, (because of) nerve damage, but like I've said, who needs to feel their thumb, right?"

Tangradi had 38 goals and 88 points in 55 games with the OHL's Belleville Bulls.

Caputi, who had 18 goals and 45 points in 66 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, said he has added 10 pounds of muscle. He learned during his brief NHL audition last season that he wasn't strong enough.

"When I was 192 pounds going to the corner with (then-Montreal Canadiens defenseman) Mike Komisarek, it was like, 'This guy's going to throw me through the boards,' " Caputi said.

Nobody has to tell Heinbuck that many of the team's prospects have a similar dream.

"There are some guys looking at themselves and saying, 'If I perform well and work hard, hey, that's my ticket, if I could ever get up to play with (Crosby or Malkin),' " Heinbuck said. "And Jordan Staal would be a nice guy to play next to, too."

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