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Leading the Way

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
The word “rookie” means “novice,” which in turn means “beginner,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

But while that term may technically apply to all 24 of the Penguins prospects attending the 2011 rookie tournament in Oshawa, Ontario – which began Friday and runs through Tuesday – that word doesn’t apply to some of them here.

That’s because some of this year’s attendees have been to this camp numerous times and have seen plenty of time in the professional ranks with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, namely Eric Tangradi, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sill.

These players, along with a select few others, won’t all be dressing for each game, as the Penguins staff knows what to expect from them on the ice. They’ll be relied on more for what they can bring off the ice.

“One of the reasons we have the older guys is because it is a good week for them to get prepared for the main camp, but it’s also a chance for them to be leaders and be able to lead the way,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes, who is behind the bench for the Penguins this weekend. “We don’t have all of those guys playing each night. They are going to sit out some nights. So everyone’s going to be able to step up and play.”

Those players know exactly what to expect over over next four days, where they’ll play three exhibition games against prospects from the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. They want to use that experience and familiarity to mentor their teammates who are attending their first or second camp.

“There’s a good group of us that have been around for a little bit playing pro hockey,” Strait said. “So I think playing pro hockey in general is what we want to get these guys used to. I came from college and some of these guys came from juniors, so we can all relate to what they’re going through. It’s a lot different. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but we’ve just got to get guys to calm down and just play how they normally do, get them on the same page as the team and I think we’ll be okay.”

Bortuzzo agreed, saying, “I’ve been through this four or five times now. Every team needs someone to step up and talk to the young guys. I’m definitely going to do that. Hopefully we can find that teamwork quick and have some success out there.”

Tangradi has the most extensive professional experience of all the prospects on the roster, as he cracked last season’s opening-night roster for the first time and went on to appear in 15 NHL games.

The 6-foot-4, 221-pound power forward is feeling comfortable with his game, saying that he’s never felt stronger, faster or more confident in his abilities. He’s hoping that translates to a bigger leadership role both on and off the ice this week.

“I was just having a conversation in the room, this year I feel more confident and know that I can make an impact,” he said. “Last year, you just wanted to work and stick around. Having the mindset, I’m comfortable here and confident here. I’m just taking my game to the next level.”

Sill, who signed a two-year NHL contract with the team on May 16, completed his first full season with WBS in 2010-11. He was a top performer and a camp leader back in July, and one of his main focuses heading into this week is to continue that leadership role with more older prospects around,

“There were a lot of young guys at the camp in July, and Eric and I were kind of the only ones who knew the ropes really well,” Sill said. “Here we have a lot of older guys that we know really well, so if I can keep up that leadership role with the older guys around too, then that’s the next step – to not only lead the way with the young guys, but to try to step in and lead the way with the older guys as well.”

These players are scheduled to attend the Penguins’ training camp next week, just three days after they get home from Oshawa.

They’ve got one last chance to leave an impression on the staff in attendance at the rookie tournament, which is essentially the entire Penguins organization – including general manager Ray Shero and the entire Pittsburgh coaching staff. Hynes is confident that impression will be continue to be positive.

“Those guys, they look good,” he said. “They’re in great shape, and I think they’re excited to play.”
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