Penguins forward Vitale is making his mark
When the Penguins decided to bring back Arron Asham and Craig Adams — to say nothing of signing Richard Park late this summer — Joe Vitale easily could have concluded that a lineup spot with the Penguins wasn't available.
Instead, Vitale had the training camp of his life and has made coach Dan Bylsma's roster.
"I just wanted to grab someone's attention, grab someone's eye," Vitale said.
The 26-year-old from St. Louis did more than that.
Even though Vitale is aided by the reality that centers Sidney Crosby and Dustin Jeffrey will start the season on the injured reserve list, he was viewed as a player on the rise by many within the organization before training camp.
Vitale backed up those scouting reports by performing well during his five preseason appearances. And the number of appearances he made this preseason suggests the coaching staff was eager to evaluate Vitale in game situations.
He hasn't solidified himself as a full time NHL player yet, and the coaching staff hasn't pronounced Vitale a lock to play in Vancouver, but his stock is clearly rising
"I was so fortunate to play in five of the six preseason games," said Vitale, noting that few players on the roster were afforded that privilege.
"If I got two (games), I figured it would be a great camp."
Vitale was consistently one of the most physical Penguins during training camp scrimmages and exhibition games, delivering numerous forceful blows without ever taking himself out of position. A grinder with ample speed to handle Bylsma's up-tempo system, Vitale has been given the opportunity to become a third- or fourth-line fixture.
"He has been a factor with his speed in every game," Bylsma said.
Vitale, who played four seasons at Northeastern University and parts of three campaigns in the AHL, appeared in nine NHL games last season with the Penguins, acquitting himself nicely during a stretch when the team was ravaged by injuries. He scored his first NHL goal in Colorado before being sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a week later.
He caught Bylsma's eye last season and displayed a more impressive body of work during training camp. A strong penalty killer, Vitale might ascend to former Penguin Max Talbot's position of being a valuable role player with goal-scoring touch and defensive awareness.
"For a guy who (was) trying to make an impact on the team with a fourth-line type of role," Bylsma said, "penalty-kill wise, face-off wise and speed-wise, he has been a factor in that limited role."
With a chance to impress the coaching staff during the final week of the preseason, Vitale was at his best. When the Penguins looked sluggish in the first period against the Kings in Kansas City, Vitale delivered two thunderous hits on a shift that altered the game. Two nights later in Chicago, he was again a physical force and scored a second-period goal.
Against the Red Wings, he drew a penalty and was one of the Penguins' best players.
For a guy dealing with the pressure of making the NHL roster, Vitale's play was poised and efficient.
"I try not to worry about the pressure and that kind of stuff," he said. "But yeah, I knew the situation."
When the Penguins travel to western Canada to begin the season, Vitale will be a part of their situation.
"Being a part of this camp has been a great learning experience for me, and the coaches have given me every opportunity," he said. "It's been a treat."
Line 'em up
Here's a look at possible line combinations when the Penguins open the regular season Thursday in Vancouver.
Steve Sullivan-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal
Chris Kunitz-Jordan Staal-Tyler Kennedy
Matt Cooke-Mark Letestu-Pascal Dupuis
Joe Vitale-Craig Adams-Arron Asham
Kris Letang-Ben Lovejoy
Paul Martin-Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen-Deryk Engelland
* There is a chance that defenseman Brooks Orpik won't be ready to play this weekend