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Great Expectations

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
OSHAWA, ONT. – The 24 Penguins prospects participating in the 2011 rookie tournament are all at different levels of the developmental ladder, meaning they all have varying expectations heading into the camp.

Top prospects like defensemen Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo along with forward Eric Tangradi, who have all spent time at the professional level, will be looking to regain their competitive edge after a long summer of training.

This tournament is the perfect way for them to get their legs back underneath them before reporting to training camp on Sep. 16, with Bortuzzo calling it a “good transition.”

“It’s a great way to get ready for training camp,” Strait added. “None of us have felt the speed of an actual game for a while, because playing hockey over the summer is completely different. It’ll be good to throw a few bumps and get bumped a couple of times, and with two or three games here, it’s a great way to start out and get yourself ready for the camp.”

No one can probably attest to that more so than Tangradi, who cracked the Penguins' opening-night roster last season for the first time and appeared in 15 NHL games.

"I’m here a week early," he said. "I’m going to be hitting, getting to the net and doing things you can’t really do until preseason games. I’ll have an edge as far as getting in game shape and game ready right now as opposed to next Friday.”

Tangradi explained that although the prospects in attendance at the camp are young, the competition level at these games is fierce. Every single player on the ice is looking to earn an opportunity to attend their team’s training camp, which makes for some incredible hockey.

“It’s extremely fast and extremely physical,” Tangradi said. “Every game is treated like a playoff game. Guys are going a million miles an hour and throwing the body around. It’s very physical and tough game out there.”

The nature of this tournament is something that Tangradi and the rest of the veterans have explained to camp rookies like 2011 draft picks Joseph Morrow, Scott Harrington and Dominik Uher.

But while they’ve emphasized how tough it is, they also made sure to tell their teammates who will be experiencing this camp for the first time not to forget one important aspect – to enjoy themselves.

“Any of the older guys I talk to, they say it’s pretty rough out there but it’s fun,” Morrow said. “That’s a huge key in hockey, to just have fun out there. It should be exciting.”

The Penguins’ recent draft picks aren’t the only tournament rookies.

Prospects who just finished four-year college careers, like forwards Brian Gibbons and Paul Thompson, are here for the first time because the timing of the tournament doesn’t allow college hockey players to attend.

They and the rest of the first-year attendees will be spending the next week seeing how the systems, drills and terminology they learned at development camp in July translate to actual game situations. It’s a lot to digest, but they’re excited for the opportunity.

“I’m just going into it with an open mind and looking to learn about how the Penguins play and what they’re looking for out of me,” Gibbons said after practice on Friday. “The process has already started and I’ve learned a lot already and I’ve only been here for a day. I’m just trying to keep getting better every day.”

Strait couldn’t emphasize enough how much this tournament accelerates the learning curve for those prospects that are just getting versed in what it takes to become a professional hockey player.

“I know going in my first year, I didn't understand the expectations for me,” Strait said. “I felt almost lost out there a bit just because you’re coming from a completely different situation. It’s hard to just play hockey when you don't feel comfortable with the guys in a system you don't feel comfortable in yet.

“So I think that for these young guys, getting their first or second experience, it’s great because come next year when they go to training camp or if they go to training camp this year, it’s a big, big help for them, definitely.”

To top it off, there are five players attending camp on a tryout basis – Jessey Astles, Stefan Fournier, Daniil Tarasov, Ian Watters and Maxime Lagace.

But Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald said that every player on the Penguins roster is here for a reason. They’ve gotten the invite, and now the ball’s in their court to perform to the best of their abilities over this next week.

“There’s a reason that everyone’s here, whether it’s the draft, the free agents that sign with us or free agents here on a tryout basis,” Fitzgerald said. “Our scouts did their due diligence, and here we are. We pulled together a group of good young athletes that will represent the Penguins very well. So it’s exciting to go into a tournament like this, seeing the compete level, the teamwork and working together as a group and watching the details that go into the game that our coaches will instill over the next few days.”
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