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Esposito's fall from grace doesn't faze player or Penguins

by Shane Malloy correspondent / Pittsburgh Penguins
Expectations are powerful labels in all walks of life. In hockey, they have the power to define or destroy established players. Expectations are even more powerful when associated with budding players who have yet to have a chance to establish themselves.

Just ask Angelo Esposito, the precocious young forward from the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. This past weekend, Esposito found himself in the same tenuous position as so many that have come before him – NHLers Alexander Daigle, Dan Cleary, Phil Kessel and, most recently, Brady Quinn of the National Football League.

What do those athletes have in common? Each was blanketed by media coverage and tagged as possessing elite potential at such an early age. So, each was already over-scrutinized by the time their respective draft years arrived.

And, except for the case of Daigle -- who went No. 1 overall in 1993 -- each was drafted lower than expected – there’s that word again – after some pre-draft struggles.

In Esposito’s case, he was pegged for greatness upon reaching his teens. As a 16-year-old rookie in the QMJHL, he was being bandied about as a surefire franchise player after posting 39 goals and 59 assists in only 57 games. That year, he was named the Michel Bergeron Trophy winner as the QMJHL's Top Offensive Rookie and earned a berth on the QMJHL All-Rookie Team.

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Esposito also helped lead the Patrick Roy-coached Remparts to the Memorial Cup championship. In the QMJHL playoff run, Esposito had a respectable 11 points in 23 games. He added four points in five Memorial Cup games.

The sky appeared to be the limit for Esposito then. But some offensive struggles this past season with a young and inexperienced Rempart team sent Esposito’s stock tumbling. He was No. 1 among North American forwards in NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings. By season’s end, he had fallen to No. 8 on that same list.

This past week, at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, 19 teams passed on this one-time, can’t-miss prospect before the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him at No. 20. It was a humbling fall from grace for Esposito, who, by the way, had managed a more-than-respectable 79 points in 60 QMJHL games this year.

“It was a long, long wait,” Esposito admitted after he was selected late in Friday night’s first round.

But, now the wait is over and Esposito can look forward to the future, while still enjoying all that he has already accomplished.

In Quebec, Esposito is fortunate to have Roy as a coach. Roy, the legendary former goalie for Montreal and Colorado, has been in so many high-pressure games and situations during his Hall of Fame career. He has helped guide Esposito on the path to pro hockey.

“It is hard to count how many times Patrick Roy has helped my game and me personally,” Esposito said. “You look at his character. He is a winner. Seeing what it takes to win and how important that is leaves an impression on you.”

Esposito knows it is the chance of a lifetime to be around Roy on a regular basis and he doesn’t take the blessing for granted. He tries to soak up every moment like a sponge.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero was pleasantly surprised to be able to select Esposito at No. 20.  
“His determination and passion for the game stands out among everyone,” Esposito says. “It is hard not to get excited when you are around him on a daily basis.”

While Esposito struggled statistically in the eyes of many, he grew in many other areas this past season.

Quebec lost a lot of players after loading up on vets to win the Memorial Cup last year. So, Esposito was asked to assume more of a leadership role on this year’s team. The role of mentor to the next group of rookies was a personal responsibility he embraced with open arms.

“I learned a tremendous amount this season,” Esposito related. “More than any in the past since we had a much younger team this year and that exposed me to a different perspective as a player. Honestly, we as a group of veterans knew there would be some additional pressure, so it was not all upon myself. But, you do take a certain amount of personal responsibility to help teach the younger players.”

Those lessons translated into his being named captain once again -- this time of the Canada’s 2007 WJC U-18 team. Esposito had already had the previous privilege of captaining Team Canada to a gold medal at the Under-18 Junior World Cup in the Czech Republic in 2006.

“It was an honor to be named captain for Team Canada at the U-18 World Junior Championship,” Esposito said. “It was not all me, since most of the players are captain or assistant captain on their teams back home and it is a team effort.”

And, while many people dismissed Esposito’s accomplishments – both domestically and internationally -- this year as his stock fell, Esposito did maintain some supporters in his corner throughout the season.

One of those backers was Nashville rookie Alexander Radulov, who played on the same line with Esposito during Quebec’s Memorial Cup-winning campaign. Radulov heard all the knocks against Esposito this year, but wasn’t buying the line of thinking advanced by the naysayers.

“He is a great player and will make the NHL soon,” Radulov said during the NHL regular season. “He is fun to play with because of all his skill and fun to be around. I think he should be a top draft pick and score lots of points. He is a good teammate and plays hard all the time.”

Clearly, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero agrees wholeheartedly with Radulov’s assessment. Shero was pleasantly surprised to be able to select Esposito at No. 20 and add the young forward to his already loaded young talent base, headed by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Esposito is excited, too. He can’t wait to seize the opportunity Pittsburgh has presented to him to prove his critics wrong – once and for all – and meet or exceed the expectations that made the 2006-07 season such a trying time for the player.

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