-- Eric Tangradi
has played all of 17 NHL games, only one in the playoffs. This week, though, he's a five-year veteran.
Tangradi is by far the most accomplished of the 28 mostly very inexperienced players who are taking the ice this week during the Pittsburgh Penguins
' player development camp, which is being held for the first time at Consol Energy Center.
This is fifth such July camp for the left wing – two with Anaheim, three with Pittsburgh – and Tangradi claims the experience never grows old, even if the players around him keep getting younger and younger.
"I don't remember them being this young," Tangradi said Tuesday, eyeing a room filled not only with fresh faces but multiple players old enough to be college freshmen. "They're all kids."
At 22, Tangradi isn't that far removed from being one himself. Having him around this week serves two purposes for the Penguins, who are 2 1/2 months removed from a first-round playoff series elimination – only the second time that's happened in their last eight Stanley Cup Playoffs appearances.
First, he can relate to the other prospects – some of whom aren't signed to professional contracts – what it's like to play in the NHL and the effort that is required to reach hockey's highest level.
"I try to tell them it doesn't matter what place they're drafted from, whether it's the fifth or sixth round like Dustin Jeffrey
or the first round, if you're prepared to come and work, an opportunity will be yours," he said. "I like to see the young faces and be put in kind of a leadership role, because I know that in September, it's the reverse effect and I'm the young guy again."
Second, having Tangradi around for a full week allows the Penguins to judge how rapidly a forward who could land on one of their top three lines during the 2011-12 season has progressed since playing only two games in the final three months of last season.
Tangradi sat out two months with a concussion sustained when the Islanders' Trevor Gillies
elbowed him in the head during a 9-3 loss on Feb. 11. Tangradi was one of four Penguins players to miss considerable playing time with a concussion – the most notable, of course, being team captain Sidney Crosby
, who didn't play after Jan. 5.
After experiencing many of the same symptoms as Crosby – headaches and a sensitivity to light – Tangradi recovered in time to appear in one regular-season and one playoff game. It wasn't a good ending to a very promising season, but he also realizes how much worse it could have been.
"I think missing the second half of the season is tough and definitely leaves a fire burning," he said. "No one likes to go into a summer playing two games since February, but I'm definitely hungry and I feel as healthy as ever."
With an emphasis on healthy.
"I've been working out full-speed all summer, haven't even had headaches. I'm very thankful the doctors were able to take care of me," Tangradi said. "Everything's been great."
That's the Tangradi that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach John Hynes
remembers before the forward's midseason promotion to Pittsburgh. When the AHL season began, Hynes sensed Tangradi was carrying some disappointment at not being in the NHL with him onto the ice. But that didn't last long.
Tangradi had 18 goals and 15 assists and was a plus-9 in 42 AHL games, establishing himself as one of the league's top power forwards while providing a sturdy net-front presence.
"To have him be a big presence offensively, whether that's on the power play or the net front or being strong on the puck and a physical presence, that's the biggest area of his game that really improved," Hynes said. "His consistency doing that night in and night out was big."
The Penguins, only 1-for-35 on the power play as they squandered a 3-1 series lead and lost to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, likely could have used the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Tangradi as just such a presence against the Lightning. But his only series appearance came during Pittsburgh's 3-2, double-overtime victory in Game 4.
"Disappointed? Absolutely," he said. "When you love the game of hockey, you always want to play and I definitely wish there could have been an opportunity there. But there's nothing I could do. I practiced every day to play and prepared to play -- and if it wasn't in the game plan to play, so be it."
Could he have made a difference, especially given how out of sync the power play was the entire series?
"It's a 'could've, should've, would've' situation," said Tangradi, who scored his first – and only – NHL goal last season. "I've always been a good player in the playoffs, and I definitely feel I could have helped out. But the past is the past and I'm looking toward the future."
"I try to tell them it doesn’t matter what place they’re drafted from, whether it’s the fifth or sixth round... or the first round, if you’re prepared to come and work, an opportunity will be yours."
-- Eric Tangradi
Especially since he figures to be a big part of the Penguins' future. Not surprisingly, coach Dan Bylsma
is promising changes in strategy, alignment and personnel for the power play this upcoming season, and they could involve Tangradi.
Tangradi, acquired by Pittsburgh along with Chris Kunitz
in the February 2009 trade that sent defenseman Ryan Whitney
to Anaheim, might find room in the lineup now that longtime Penguins forward Max Talbot and former NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr
have signed with Philadelphia. Jagr flirted with a return to the Penguins before deciding to play for one of their biggest rivals.
"I'm going to camp to be a top-six forward and a power-play guy and do those things in front of the net that maybe other guys might not be able to do," Tangradi said. "My mindset all summer is to prepare to be an NHL player and if I'm here and do all those things right in camp and play great and feel great, I can't think of anything that would change that."