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Pens' hopefuls try to make an impression at camp

by Sergei J. Feldman /
There's a substantial gap between being praised for a noteworthy performance and being penciled in on an NHL roster.

When players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal represent the Pittsburgh Penguins' offensive nucleus and Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski lead the back end, there are 18 places for position players on an NHL team – and a number of hopefuls competing for a chance to be in the mix on opening night.

With Staal sidelined for at least another month due to a foot injury, curtailing plans to move Malkin from center to right wing, there are more opportunities for unheralded players to make an impression.

Forward Mark Letestu has emerged as the leading -- or at least among the more intriguing -- candidates to assume the third-line center role, quite possibly between veterans Matt Cooke and newcomer Arron Asham. A brief stint with the Penguins during last year's playoffs has helped his confidence at camp.

"I think if you get four games in the playoffs, that's the highest level that you can play and I think I performed well," Letestu said, referring to last spring.

"That gave me the confidence coming in to training camp here that I can play with these guys. It's just a matter of me earning my way onto this roster."

Coach Dan Bylsma concurred.

"[Letestu] played games as our third-line center last year when he played in the National Hockey League," he said. "He was put in a playoff game because we were trying to win and he was a guy we thought could help us do that. So to see him on a line with Cooke and Asham is an indication of what we think a possibility for him to have success would be in."

The trio has developed a comfortable chemistry in the early going.

"The chemistry's been pretty good," Letestu said.

"I've played with [Cooke] a few times and, obviously, Asham's new. But they're good players and have been in this league for a long time. I think it's easy for me to just slide in there. As long as I just keep playing and not take a back seat to them, things will go well."

That's been the case through three practice and scrimmage sessions. Letestu has done nothing but score goals, win faceoffs and contribute on both ends of the ice.

Those accomplishments are merely a byproduct of what Letestu believes is his greatest asset. 

"Hockey smarts," he said when asked about his best attribute. "I know the systems pretty well. Being in the right spots a lot of the times helps with any kind of deficiencies in my skating. It helps me to look quick and helps me to get around the ice a little faster."

"In this day and age, with so many guys out of work and not having jobs and so many guys on tryouts, you're going to have competition no matter what. But if you're going to let competition discourage you, then you might as well not come to camp."
-- Brett Sterling

The third-line center vacancy is the most glaring, but there are enough other positions to battle for and equally as many players in line to compete.

Brett Sterling is one such player.

The 5-foot-7 forward has been an AHL sensation, posting 55 goals in 77 games a few years ago. He tallied 34 and 38 goals in his "off years." His hope now is to take the next step forward. So far, so good.

"I think that's why they brought me here. I've had a good track record in the AHL," Sterling said after scoring two goals in scrimmage. "Hopefully, I can translate that game here in the NHL."

That hope, in and of itself, is difficult. The competition in camp only offers more of a challenge.

"Fighting for a spot with this many guys on a team is a tough situation," he said. "You want to go out there and impress. Hopefully, I was able to do a little bit of that today, but there's still a lot more camp to go."

But why risk not cracking a lineup by jumping ship with a team filled with talent?

"Obviously, you know that anytime you come into an NHL camp, there's going to be a competition," Sterling said. "In this day and age, with so many guys out of work and not having jobs and so many guys on tryouts, you're going to have competition no matter what. But if you're going to let competition discourage you, then you might as well not come to camp."

Despite a limited NHL resume, Sterling has had experience competing alongside elite talent, but the Penguins offer a different wrinkle.

"I played with a guy like (Ilya) Kovalchuk," Sterling said, referring to his stint in the Atlanta Thrashers organization. "I'm the guy that's usually out there scoring goals, so it's tough when you put two [players with similar styles] together. Here, I feel there's a lot more opportunity."

"[The Penguins have] so many playmaking guys here. If they need another shooter, hopefully I can fill that role."

While the battle for spots on offense will continue all the way up until opening night,  there are battles on the defensive side as well.

Veterans like Orpik, Martin, Michalek and Letang figure to be shoe-ins for regular work, while Goligoski's offensive instincts from behind the blue line make him a valuable asset.

That leaves the sixth and seventh spots up for grabs.

Ben Lovejoy is perhaps the favorite to snag the sixth spot because of his familiarity with the organization and success when called up from the minors. Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland will also have a say in the matter – as will under-the-radar newcomer Corey Potter.

Brought in from the New York Rangers in the offseason, Potter provides solid two-way play and a reliable physical presence, not to mention some experience at the highest level.

Bylsma has been impressed with what he's seen from Potter – and Potter has been impressed with what he's seen out of the Penguins organization.

"The new arena is awesome here and I'm happy to a part of the organization," he said. "One of the reasons why guys want to come here is for the chance to win a Stanley Cup. They did it recently and they all believe they can do it again, so it's a pretty exciting feeling.

Competition, conveniently, doesn't get in the way of enjoying the experience.

"I'm used to the competition," he said. "It's a healthy environment to compete in and only makes you better."

The same certainly applies to the organization as whole.

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