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Catching Up with the 2011 Pittsburgh Prospects

by Greg Fernandez / Pittsburgh Penguins
This time last year, some of Pittsburgh’s finest hockey players were making history at the NHL Draft as four natives were selected in the top 64 picks – making it the best class of NHL talent produced by the city.

With the draft’s presence gracing the CONSOL Energy Center this Friday and Saturday, former draft picks J.T. Miller, Andrew Saad, Vince Trocheck, along with Robert Morris University defenseman Andrew Blazek, were able to break away during their instructional guest appearances at the Pittsburgh Penguins Scrimmage Camp to catch us up on their past year.

Saad’s year could be best described as unexpectedly impressive.

After being selected by the Chicago Blackhawks 43rd overall, the forward made the team straight out of training camp, a rare feat for a prospect not selected in the first-round.

Brandon Saad made his NHL debut in 2011-12 with Chicago (Getty Images)
“Going into camp, I really was just trying to work hard, soak up everything I could and was just all about the experience,” Saad said. “Luckily, I played well enough to stick with the team and get a couple games in.”

After two games with the Blackhawks to open the season, Saad was sent down to his junior team, the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League. But, fresh off of a second round defeat in the OHL playoffs, Saad was called up for the final two games in a heated playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes, contributing an assist along the way. It was an experience that Saad said he’ll always be able to take with him.

“It was a whole other level (of hockey),” the left winger said. “To be able to get my first assist, tie the game on that goal and send it to overtime was just awesome for me.”

During his time in juniors, Saad played alongside Pittsburgh native and third-round pick Vince Trochek and enjoyed one of the best seasons in the OHL. Saad finished with 76 points (34G-42A) in just 44 games, leading the OHL in points per game (1.73), was awarded the OHL William Hanley Trophy (Most Sportsmanlike Player) and was an OHL First-Team selection.

Saad credited his juniors success to the taste he received from the NHL.

“The experiences I saw up there, how good the players are and how hard they still work is something that I brought with me down to the OHL,” Saad said. “It’s something I carried along throughout the year.”

Saad also had the opportunity to compete for Team USA during the 2012 World Junior Championship, capping off what was a wild year for the Pittsburgh native.

On draft day, Miller was the first player to hear his name out of Pittsburgh when he was selected 15th overall by the New York Rangers in 2011 – the highest-drafted Pittsburgh player ever (R.J. Umberger, 16th overall, 2001, Vancouver). The center was given no down time though after getting picked by the Blueshirts, heading straight to the New York Rangers practice facility in Tarrytown, New York for prospect camp just a few short days later.

Miller became the highest-drafted Pittsburgh product in history when the Rangers selected him 15th overall (Getty Images)
“Last year, I was a little tired after we played the (World Under-18 Championship), went from that to the combine and then to the draft. It was pretty crazy,” Miller said. “I really didn’t have much time to settle down, but I feel much more prepared this year.”

In a couple days Miller is heading back to New York to go back to Rangers prospect camp after a successful first year in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the Plymouth Whalers. Totaling 62 points (25G-37A) in 61 games for the Whalers, Miller finished as one of the top scorers on the team. There, Miller hopes to show the Rangers his growth as a player over the past year and hopefully gain some momentum heading into training camp.

“I think consistency was kind of an issue for me,” Miller explained. “So I just wanted to make sure that I was bringing the same intensity and focus level to every single hockey game. If I could do that I would be much more successful.”

Miller, a Team USA underager this past year at the 2012 World Junior Championship, will also compete again for a spot on the team this summer at the USA Junior Evaluation Camp held in August, an experience he really enjoyed when he went to Calgary with the team in December.

“It was awesome, it was really the only thing I was pushing for all year,” Miller said.  “I just really wanted to make that team. I thought if I put everything I had into it I had a good chance of doing it. We had a pretty disappointing tournament, but I just want to make sure we learn from our mistakes and really bounce back.”

Trocheck was the final named called from Pittsburgh at the 2011 NHL Draft after he was selected by the Florida Panthers in the third round (64th overall). Trocheck joined Saad with the Saginaw Spirit at the beginning of the year, finishing what was his finest season for the squad. His good season for the team though can be accredited to some of the tips the Panthers discussed with Trocheck to help him improve his game over the year.

Trocheck is all smiles after being drafted by Florida (Getty Images)
“They gave me some weaknesses I needed to work on,” Trocheck said. “They gave us an offseason program that I’m putting into use right now. Also I’m trying to mix and match some stuff to help on those things they need me to work on.”

Dedicating himself to improve, Trocheck finished with a team leading 85 points and 56 assists to go along with 29 goals. Along with continuing his offseason program, Trocheck is also an invite for the Team USA Evaluation Camp, heading there with Miller and Pittsburgh native John Gibson.

“It was a fun time last year, especially getting to see some of the guys I used to play with in Pittsburgh,” Trocheck said. “Just the USA atmosphere is a lot of fun. To get to go down there and try out for that team is just a great honor.”

Before the USA Junior Evaluation Camp begins, Trochek will find himself back in development camp, showing the Panthers his growing game. With a year of experience behind him, he feels much more prepared this time around.

“I feel like I know what to expect a little bit more,” he explained. “I’m just looking forward to having a little bit of fun at the development camp.”

The RMU defenseman was invited to the Pittsburgh Penguins development camp as a college free agent. Blazek took what he learned during his time at the camp and believed he was primed for a big season at RMU. Unfortunately, a severe shoulder injury that required surgery ended his season after seven games.

Blazek takes part in NHL Draft Scrimmage Camp (Pittsburgh Penguins)
“I think that the stuff that I learned from camp and the experience that it gave me really made me ready for the season,” Blazek said. “It was unfortunate that I couldn’t make the most of it but I think that diving into my new role and supporting the team hopefully made the team do better with me being around as a positive entity.”

During his time with the development camp, Blazek was really impacted by the professionalism that many of the players showed. He was able to take away some of the confidence that others exuded throughout the camp. Leading up to next season, Blazek hopes to take some of these qualities and put them to use, making him a better player.

“I just want to do my part and be a leader next year,” Blazek said.

For these four players, the draft coming to Pittsburgh is just a sign of how far the city has come in producing NHL talent. Many of them remembered how hockey was an after thought for most of their childhoods, and they now see the difference just a few years makes.

“Too bad the draft wasn’t here a year earlier,” Saad said with a laugh. “Even though I was drafted last year I’m still coming on Friday. It’s a lot of fun to experience, it’s great for the city and it’s really coming along. Being younger, there weren’t as many things going on but now, as I’ve grown up, it’s just been huge for the city, all the stuff they’re doing for it.”

As for the prospects expected to hear their name called on Friday and Saturday? The theme echoed amongst the former draft picks was to just enjoy the moment. For something that happens only once, it’s a good chance for the prospects to enjoy themselves and relish in the moment with family and friends.

“Just have fun with it,” Trocheck said. “It’s going to be nerve racking regardless of when you get picked. If you’re in the top-10 or if you’re in the sixth round, it’s going to be nerve racking. The wait was long for me, but once you get drafted it doesn’t matter what number you get picked, it’s about how you do after the draft that matters.”

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