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Penguins

Former Notre Dame center Di Pauli boosts Penguins' depth

| Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, 7:09 p.m.
Thomas Di Pauli
Getty Images
Thomas Di Pauli
Center Thomas Di Pauli had 78 points in 148 games at Notre Dame.
Getty Images
Center Thomas Di Pauli had 78 points in 148 games at Notre Dame.

Thomas Di Pauli suspects he might beat former Notre Dame teammate Bryan Rust in a race around the rink.

Even if his skating speed fails him against one of the Penguins' fastest wingers, Di Pauli believes it will give him a good shot to push someone else out of a roster spot.

Di Pauli, 22, signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Penguins as a free agent Thursday after declining to make a deal with Washington, which drafted him in the fourth round in 2012 and retained his rights until midnight Monday.

The 5-foot-11, 197-pound former Notre Dame forward represents yet another prospect with encouraging upside in the Penguins' pool of young talent, which includes Rust, Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson and Tom Kuhnhackl at the NHL level and Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, Oskar Sundqvist and Jake Guentzel in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

“It's what you work towards,” general manager Jim Rutherford said of the depth. “You can never have too many good players. You can never have too many good prospects. … We have a very, very good staff that can sort this out and develop these players.”

Di Pauli, who tallied 78 points in 145 games at Notre Dame, considers himself cut from the same cloth as Rust. Forechecking is his forte, and puck possession also is a point of pride, he said.

Rutherford said Di Pauli projects as a third- or fourth-line forward, but there's no reason to cap expectations. This past season, Rust proved himself capable of so much more than a bottom-six checking role.

“I thought maybe there'd be a team out there that fit my style of play a little bit better (than Washington), like the Penguins do,” Di Pauli said.

“But a deciding factor definitely was watching Bryan Rust having as much success as he did. I compare myself to him.

“I'm a similar type of player with a lot of speed, a lot of grit, hard working. Kind of the same size and body weight, too.

“Watching him and a lot of the other young guys was pretty encouraging. And obviously the coaching staff there does a great job developing young players.”

So how will Di Pauli, who was born in Italy and moved to America when he was 12, set himself apart from the Penguins' other rookies? He hopes coaches will see great possibilities in his speed.

“Obviously, Pittsburgh is an incredible team, or else they wouldn't have won the Cup,” he said. “But I kind of like that challenge, too, to go to a team like that and compete for a spot that might've already been almost promised to someone. I try to compete for that and take it away. There's a little bit of a fun challenge in that. And I think I can compete with any of those guys that have been there for two or three years already.”

Even beyond Sprong, Sundqvist, Simon and Guentzel, a respectable collection of AHL prospects exists. Penguins draft picks Josh Archibald, Teddy Blueger and Jean-Sebastien Dea are 23 years old or younger.

The onus to encourage newer prospects such as Di Pauli and Sprong while reassuring draft picks with longer ties to the organization falls on the AHL coaches and development staff, Rutherford said.

“You have to deal with each individual with good communication and let them know where they're at, let them know what they need to work on,” Rutherford said. “As long as you can do that and as long as the players understand — and if they're not getting the communication, they understand they can come to someone in the organization — as long as you do that, everybody has to be comfortable with where they're at.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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