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Just Keeps Getting Better

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
After seven years in the minor leagues, Deryk Engelland’s dedication and persistence paid off last season.

The Penguins defenseman played his first full NHL campaign in 2010-11 at age 28 and signed a three-year, one-way deal last January. It could be argued that those achievements alone would have legitimized Engelland’s long journey to the pros.

But no, Engelland hasn’t gotten complacent just because he’s finally made it. That’s just not the way Engelland works. The way Engelland has always worked is harder than anyone else, and his continued dedication to growing and developing as a player has earned him a more expanded role than the one he occupied last year.

“He just keeps getting better and better,” fellow defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think you see a lot of guys who view making the NHL as kind of the end goal, but he’s a guy who doesn’t take it for granted at all.

“He’s never gotten comfortable. He’s the first guy to the rink every day. He puts in extra work all the time. Starting with the East Coast Hockey League and every league he’s moved up to from there, he’s had to kind of work for everything. I don’t think all of a sudden you just get here and you change your habits. It’s just kind of who he is. He’s kind of a blue-collar guy. He doesn’t come from a lot of money. He just comes from a middle-class family and is a hard-working guy.”

After spending three seasons in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (after splitting the previous four in the ECHL and with other AHL teams), Engelland’s commitment to improvement impressed the coaches enough to give him a chance with the parent club last September.

That summer, he overhauled his offseason training regimen and came to camp in the best shape of his life, making the team and establishing himself as a rugged, physical presence whose pugilistic achievements kept him in the lineup – finishing the year with a team-leading 13 fighting majors.

Engelland still brings that fighting ability and tough, aggressive edge to the lineup this year. He’s built a reputation as a guy you don’t want to tangle with and someone you’ll have to answer to if you mess with his teammates. That’s incredibly invaluable to any NHL squad.

But with a host of injuries hitting the Penguins blue line hard during the first half of the season, Engelland got an opportunity to undertake a bigger role – and he’s stayed there even with the defense back to full health.

“Not a lot of guys have had it harder than the way Deryk came through,” forward Dustin Jeffrey said, who roomed with Engelland and former Penguin Mark Letestu in Wilkes-Barre and has pegged him as a mentor.

“He literally fought his way up and by the time I played with him in Wilkes, he was turning into the defenseman that we see now. He’s a good defender, he’s a tough guy to play against and obviously he can fight with the best of them. His consistency and just the way he works, he had a long road here and now I think you can tell that he’s going to do anything to keep it. It’s something to be admired, the way that he’s battled all the way through his whole career.”

Engelland’s average ice time has increased by just over three minutes this season, up to 16:22 minutes from 13:20 minutes last season. He’s got just 42 penalty minutes through 48 games and is on pace for less than 68, which is radically lower than last year’s total of 123.

As Jeffrey said, he’s earned tough assignments against other team’s talented players, defending well and holding them accountable physically as he ranks third (tied) on the team with 105 hits.

He’s even been seen utilizing his improved footspeed and skating ability to join the rush as the Penguins encourage their defensemen to do, and as a result he’s got career highs of 10 assists and 12 points.

Essentially, Engelland’s importance to this club has grown so much as a valuable cog in the defensive rotation that it hurts them when he’s in the penalty box – and as a result, this is the best he’s ever felt about his game.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries this year and it’s given me an opportunity to play probably a lot more than I ever would have if we were healthy,” Engelland said. “It definitely helped me gain confidence and showed that I can play those minutes against key guys. I think it’ll definitely help in the long run.”

But while Engelland is happy with the minutes he’s logging, don’t get him wrong – fighting will always remain a key element of his game.

“It’s good to play the minutes when we had the injuries and show that I can do more than just fight, but it’s a huge part of my game,” he said. “I enjoy doing it. I don’t think that will ever leave my game.”

Neither will his work ethic, which makes him one of the most admired and well respected men in the Penguins dressing room. Because Engelland sure doesn’t want to go anywhere.

“Being here, you don’t want to leave,” he said. “You’ve got to keep getting better year after year after year, because there’s always someone trying to take your spot."
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