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Development Camp Practices Used As A Teaching Tool

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma had the following message for his players when he stood in front of them for the first time on Feb. 15, 2010:


Players such as forward Nick Peterson (above) will learn the same practice habits the Penguins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Penguins use during development camp. Credit - Getty Images
“We will leave an impression on everybody. The pen is in our hand. They are going to write something about us, so what kind of impression are people going to leave the rink thinking of the Pittsburgh Penguins?”

An 18-3-4 regular-season finish and a Stanley Cup championship later, I think we all remember the lasting impression the Penguins left following Bylsma’s arrival.

Leaving a positive impression will be a key theme for the Penguins once again during the upcoming week as the team hosts its annual development camp featuring many of the top prospects and recent draft picks from within the farm system.

For many of the players invited, especially those just selected last month in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, development camp serves as the first chance to showcase their skills to the hockey operations and coaching staffs in Pittsburgh.

“The one thing I learned in my career was first impressions are always lasting impressions,” said Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald, who is one of the instructors who will help run the camp. “You have one chance to make a first impression. This is a first impression for all of these kids.

“I will have an impression of all of them on Monday night. I will say that 99 percent of them will be great first impressions.”

The on-ice portion of those impressions will begin on Tuesday when the players hit the ice at Southpointe for the first of four practices which are all open to the public. (Click here to see the camp schedule)

While all of the players will be evaluated by Bylsma, general manager Ray Shero and assistant coach Tony Granato, among others, the main function of the camp is not to necessarily grade the players on their individual performance, but rather to teach the kids about the daily structure of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

“On the ice, we try to give the guys a look at what both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins do to prepare for games,” said Fitzgerald, whose previous job description saw his working extensively with the Penguins’ prospects. “It gives us a chance to inject all of these kids on what we are teaching Brooks Orpik, what we are teaching Sidney Crosby and what we are teaching Evgeni Malkin. What we are doing with these young kids is no different than what we are doing with our team. That is what we are trying to accomplish here.”

To help in that regard, Fitzgerald will be assisted at the camp by WBS head coach Todd Reirden and WBS assistant coach John Hynes. In addition, Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche will be on hand to work with the three young netminders scheduled to appear.

Throughout the course of the week, Fitzgerald and his staff will run the team through a variety of practice sessions designed to mirror a Penguins weekly schedule.

Among the themes of these practices will be a flow day where the emphasis is on skating drills, a systems practice where the players focus on learning the varying nuances of the team’s overall system and a “work day” where the players will skate hard for about 50 minutes to an hour.

“One of the days we will have a flow practice where there isn’t much battle drills but rather a lot of flow where goalies see a lot of pucks,” Fitzgerald said. “We will also work on system drills which show them how we like to break the puck out, what we like to do in the neutral zone and what we like to do on the forecheck.

“Finally, we show them a work day. Those are days where you better put your work boots and hard hat on because you will be going to work out there on the ice. When we have those days your legs will feel it within 50 minutes to an hour. We give them what we try to teach our guy.”
   
Besides teaching the players what an NHL practice structure looks like, another benefit Fitzgerald finds with development camp is it also allows the Penguins a chance to show their prospects the specific tendencies the coaches teach.

“We can teach guys like Alex Grant how we defend a one-on-one,” Fitzgerald said. “Do we cross over or do we defend them stick on puck? Up front, it might be something different. It could be how we cycle the puck.”

Fitzgeral believes development camps such as these, which weren’t around when he was breaking into the league, are invaluable to a player’s progression. Having this chance to come in for a week and take valuable learning tools back to their junior or college teams will allow the players to progress at a quicker rate and become more ready to contribute at the NHL level once they turn pro.

“We have to inject these guys into our lineup because we can’t just go out and sign a bunch of free agents,” Fitzgerald said. “We have to develop from within and be able to inject some of these young kids into our lineup without skipping a beat and still be a contender year in and year out.”


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