LONDON, Ontario -- Down the middle the Pittsburgh Penguins are about as strong as they come in the National Hockey League. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh boasts a threesome of almost unmatched potency.
The challenge for general manager Ray Shero is finding suitable talent to play with that dynamic trio of middlemen. In 6-foot-4, 221-pound power forward Eric Tangradi, the Penguins hope they've found a fit.
"That's why we have him," said John Hynes, coach of the AHL Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, as well as the rookie Penguins at the Maple Leafs' annual rookie tournament here. "He fits the profile of what we need in Pittsburgh and I think that's why we have so much interest in working with him and helping him get to the NHL, because he's a need that we're going to need to fill."
Acquired from Anaheim with Chris Kunitz in the Ryan Whitney trade in February 2009, Tangradi feels he's primed and ready for the NHL this season.
"All summer long I've trained to play in the National Hockey League," he said. "I've worked off the ice, on the ice, to be in the National Hockey League, and going into camp, of course that’s my goal."
The Penguins have 13 forwards with one-way contracts on their roster following the additions of veterans Mike Comrie and Arron Asham late this summer. Still, the organization is committed to giving him every opportunity to succeed with the big club this season.
"They made it clear last year to a bunch of guys that the way the salary cap works that a young guy may get a job at some point," Tangradi said. "So I think a bunch of us went home with an attitude that we were going to get ready come September to fight for a job, and if you look at all those young guys coming into camp, there's been a huge improvement in all of us."
"They want people to come in and be able to compete for spots and that's an opportunity for Eric to come in and really compete for a spot," Hynes said.
A man among boys with the Belleville Bulls in the Ontario Hockey League for three seasons, Tangradi took some time adjusting to the physicality and strength of opponents at the American Hockey League level last season, but Hynes says he was pleased with the overall transition and impressive maturity Tangradi displayed.
"He took huge strides last year from rookie camp and then the NHL camp," Hynes said. "He played well, and then he got injured and went through a little bit of a struggle early last year and really had to find his game and figure out how he could have success at the higher level against bigger and stronger players.
"He really put some effort into working hard off the ice with his training, built his body up. And he's buying into the fact that he has to be a complete player and he's learning how to use his size and his intensity and his grit to his advantage."
That grit was on display in bunches this week at the Leafs' tournament. In a matinee affair against the Chicago Blackhawks rookie squad Tuesday, Tangradi finished an assist shy of a Gordie Howe hat trick following a third-period fight with Hawks defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin. It was the second bout in as many games for Tangradi, and he concedes that imposing his commanding presence on a more consistent basis has been a challenge at times.
"I think I was always a power forward," he said, "but as far as fitting all those pieces together -- playing it night in and night out -- I think every piece of being a power forward I added into one.
"I think some nights in junior I would be physical, but I wouldn't get to the net in front. Sometimes I would be strong on the wall and wouldn't score in front. Now I think all those pieces are coming together and I have more of a complete game now. "
Intent on sharpening his skating skills this summer, Tangradi arrived in Pittsburgh in early August to hone his skating stride with power-skating instructor Marianne Watkins, and from there he got an early peak at the benefits of an intense few months of offseason training.
"A couple of us came in early for camp and were able to skate with some of the pro guys," he said of informal sessions alongside other Penguins players. "Whenever you go into a camp and you're skating with the Sidney Crosbys, the Kunitzes, those kind of guys, you get a little nervous and you might grip your stick, but to be able to just play a little bit of open hockey and just a comfortable level of game with them a few weeks before camp will definitely be an advantage going into camp."
Already under his belt is the much-anticipated NHL debut, 13:49 against the New York Islanders in the 2009-10 regular-season finale. Tangradi posted three shots on goal in the Penguins' 6-5 overtime victory, and he left the rink feeling optimistic about his future in the League.
"I left there … with my head high, just really thinking I can play here some day," Tangradi said. "I definitely needed to work on some things, but it definitely gave me a taste and I want it more."