Second-year Baby Pens winger endures growing pains

| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 8:02 p.m.

For some prospects playing in Wilkes-Barre, the road to the NHL goes through the weight room. Once they improve their strength and stamina, they're ready for the big time.

For other prospects, the road goes through the practice rink. Once they refine their technique and learn the finer points of the team's system, they're on their way.

And then there's second-year Baby Pens winger Paul Thompson.

At times, he looks like a potential NHL power forward, just a half-step behind Beau Bennett or Eric Tangradi on the prospect depth chart.

Other times, he can barely crack the AHL lineup.

To rid his game of inconsistency and find his own path to the NHL, Thompson doesn't need to look in the weight room or the practice rink. He needs to look in the mirror.

“Drive,” coach John Hynes said. “When he doesn't have drive in his game, when he doesn't have second effort in his game, when there are no confrontations, he's not as effective.”

Thompson isn't a diva or a malcontent. It's not that he doesn't care about his professional development. It's just that he hasn't yet found a way to bring a consistent level of drive on a daily basis.

“Right now I'm just trying to get back to playing the same way, with the same mentality, to put myself in position to have better opportunities,” Thompson said.

There's no doubt Thompson was headed in the right direction in the first few weeks of the season. He scored six goals in his first nine games, including a natural hat trick Nov. 4 at Bridgeport.

A decent skater with a sturdy 6-foot, 200-pound frame and a good right-handed shot that helped him score 28 goals in 39 games as a senior at the University of New Hampshire, Thompson looked like a real-deal prospect. He wasn't just leading the team with 39 shots on goal. He was leading the league.

“He has all the tools,” Hynes said.

Then the bottom fell out.

Heading into this weekend, Thompson had just one goal on 22 shots in his last 14 games and had been a healthy scratch three times in the last month.

As Thompson slumped, the Baby Pens started losing. After winning 13 of 15 games from late October through early December, they dropped six a row (0-4-1-1). It's the longest losing streak in Hynes' three seasons as coach.

Tangradi, like Thompson, has fallen into a scoring drought. He has one goal in his last 12 games. The veteran free agents the Penguins added in the offseason to help carry the offensive load — players such as Trevor Smith, Benn Ferriero and Phil Dupuis — have been OK but not great.

A return to early-season form from Thompson, therefore, is exactly what the Baby Pens need.

“I gotta get back to playing around the net more, shooting the puck more,” he said. “That's something I'm trying to focus on.”

Jonathan Bombulie has covered the Baby Pens for the Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre since the team's inception in 1999. He can be reached via email at jbombulie@aol.com.

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