Penguins prospects face uphill battle in making roster
Entering his fifth season as Penguins general manager, Ray Shero has constantly strived to build a roster that is "tough to play against."
This training camp — first on-ice sessions take place Saturday at Consol Energy Center — should be the start of a season during which the Penguins are tough to practice against.
Enough of them know what it takes to play at the highest level. Not counting center Jordan Staal (out at least a week because of a still-bum right foot), Shero has assembled 12 forwards on one-way contracts - the least experienced of whom, right wing Tyler Kennedy, was a regular on two Stanley Cup Final teams.
Winning a regular job in camp will be tough enough for Kennedy. A hot prospect such as winger Eric Tangradi faces longer odds - even though the lack of impact wingers remains enough of an issue for coach Dan Bylsma to consider transitioning center Evgeni Malkin, a two-time century mark scorer, away from his natural position.
"We want to see younger players at camp, see if they're ready or not," Shero said. "If they are that's a bonus. If they aren't, at least we're not stuck trying to fill a role."
The arrival of Tangradi, 21, has been anticipated by fans since he was acquired from Anaheim along with left wing Chris Kunitz for defenseman Ryan Whitney in February 2009. He projects as a top-six player, a classic crease-crashing winger in the mold of former franchise great Kevin Stevens.
However, there is a standard for what it takes to impress Shero enough over three weeks to earn regular shifts over seven regular-season months: Staal, who at 18 four years ago, powered his way into regular duty.
Not much was expected of that Penguins squad. These Penguins are viewed by odds makers and experts as a Stanley Cup favorite with a Cup-tested nucleus strengthened by an offseason overhaul on defense.
The buzz word used by Shero and coach Dan Bylsma over the summer was "competition." Even Tangradi took that to mean some of the seemingly ready-for-a-shot prospects — throw wingers Dustin Jeffrey and Nick Johnson into that mix — would battle for a regular NHL job.
The prospects would be wise to take a page from the Staal playbook from 2006.
"He didn't give us a choice," Shero said. "He proved every day of that camp that he belonged in the NHL."
BIG BATTLE: SIXTH DEFENSEMAN
Ben Lovejoy's sound two-way game, and clear puck-moving advantage, makes him the favorite over Deryk Engelland to win this two-man battle. However, Engelland has fans among management because of his improved one-on-one defending and knack for physical play - something the Penguins will lack on defense other than Brooks Orpik.
Lovejoy and Engelland might be in competition with an invisible man. Veteran Martin Skoula made the roster last season as a seventh defenseman despite not being invited to camp. Don't discount the Penguins, who have about $1.2 million in space under the salary cap, signing as their No. 6 defenseman a league-minimum veteran who is looking for work come the first week of October - especially if neither Lovejoy nor Engelland firmly grasp this opportunity.
PRESSURE ON: TYLER KENNEDY
A lot seems to be working against right wing Tyler Kennedy, one of 13 forwards on NHL contracts the Penguins will have when center Jordan Staal returns from a right-foot injury. Usually 12 forwards dress, and Kennedy needs this camp to address some concerns:
• Having never played 70 games in one season — is he durable enough• Free-agent winger Arron Asham has played in that many games each of the past four seasons.
• Having gone long stretches without goals the last three seasons - 18, 16, 13 (twice), 10 and nine games - is he consistent enough• Kennedy scored 13 goals in 64 games last season. Free-agent winger Mike Comrie equaled that total in 43 contests with Edmonton.
• The big question facing Kennedy is where does he fit• He'll be among several similar-seeming wingers competing for bottom-six spots. Some, such as enforcer Eric Godard, have clearly defined roles. Others, such as Craig Adams, are trusted veterans who need not score to merit dressing.
Asham and Comrie are more proven over more seasons. Versatile forward Max Talbot is healthy again. Forward Mike Rupp is coming off a career-best 13 goals. Also, coach Dan Bylsma is a professed fan of center Mark Letestu, whose sharp instincts and right-handed faceoff prowess could help him win a roster spot.
This camp is potentially defining for Kennedy.
CLOSER LOOK: KEVEN VEILLEUX
There is virtually no chance he makes the NHL roster, but center Keven Veilleux could use this camp to propel him into good graces within the organization.
Aside from a great skating stride he possesses all the natural gifts scouts find enticing: soft hands, a right-handed shot, and size - he's 6-foot 5, 218 pounds. Still, he hasn't wowed anybody since being a second-round selection in 2007.
Now 21, Veilleux will almost certainly have a chance to win a top-six role for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in what would be his first full AHL season. At this camp, he needs to show team officials he wants to dominate so they don't start questioning whether he is more suspect than prospect.
DEVELOPING SITUATION: POWER-PLAY SETUP
Gone from the power play unit, which struggled to a bottom-third finish last season, are the point man/quarterback (defenseman Sergei Gonchar), net-front presence (right wing Bill Guerin) and designer (assistant coach Mike Yeo). Coach Dan Bylsma has pledged to take on the responsibility of running the power play, and the only guarantee is that centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be part of his mix. The question is how?
Actually, there are many questions regarding the new-look power play:
• Will the power play still run through the left point, and who will replace Gonchar on it - incumbent defenseman Alex Goligoski or free-agent acquisition Paul Martin?
• What is the best role for Malkin, sharpshooter or setup man?
• Does right-handed shot defenseman Kris Letang fit into the scheme, and if he does, where?
• Will Crosby be a regular on the half wall or work more down low to capitalize on his knack for getting to loose pucks in goal-scoring areas?
• Who will emerge as a crease crasher from a competition group that could include wingers Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke and, perhaps, Arron Asham?
Critics won't have Yeo, now coach of AHL Houston, to kick around anymore. They'll be watching every little move made by Bylsma during practices.