and Brian Gibbons
, both incredibly talented but undrafted college hockey players, attended Pittsburgh’s prospect development last summer as free-agent invitees.
This year, they’re both back at camp. But this time, they’re no longer free agents, as both players signed two-year entry level deals with the Penguins at the end of their senior seasons.
On the surface, it may appear that Thompson (University of New Hampshire) and Gibbons (Boston College) were at last summer’s camp on tryouts.
But Tom Fitzgerald, Penguins assistant to the general manager, emphasized that the opposite was true. The Penguins were the ones trying to leave a good impression on those two players in hopes that they would consider signing with the team when they were eligible.
“The college free agents that come to our camp and are invited are scouted thoroughly,” Fitzgerald said. “We know them well. This is an opportunity for us to try out for them. That’s what we did last year for those two particular players.”
And with the talent possessed by both Thompson, 22, and Gibbons, 23 – two of the top-three scorers in their league, Hockey East – it’s no wonder the Penguins wanted to make a good impression on them.
Thompson, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward, capped off a four-year career at New Hampshire by being named the Hockey East Player of the Year for the 2010-11 season after scoring a league-leading (tied) 52 points in 39 games.
Gibbons, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound forward, won two NCAA national championships (2008, 2010) in his four-year career at Boston College. He finished his senior campaign with 18 goals and 51 points through 39 games, the second-highest point total in the league.
Both players had a number of offers from NHL clubs once their prestigious college careers ended, but both Thompson and Gibbons chose Pittsburgh thanks to the comfort levels they built with the organization starting last year's camp.
“I had a few offers,” Thompson said. “But I was really comfortable with the whole Pittsburgh organization. Just being here last year and getting to know the team and the management and some of the younger guys, I felt really comfortable and it felt like a really good place to be.”
Gibbons agreed, saying: “I had interest from a couple teams, but the Penguins kind of had a leg up on everyone else because I’ve been here and I experienced it. I felt comfortable here. I got to know a lot of guys in the organization. You just kind of get gut feelings sometimes, and this one seemed like the right fit.”
Establishing that comfort and familiarity that both players referenced is something the Penguins really try to do with these players when they arrive in town for camp.
“We’ve had other free agents come in here, but those two came in and saw what we had to offer and what we are, which is that we’re very up front, black or white, this is it,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s no gray with what we are. And it worked. It was an attraction for them, probably because of being comfortable – whether it was with me or other staff members that saw them play this year. They had other offers to go other places, and we’re real fortunate that they chose us.”
Not only did Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes work with both players at last year’s camp, but he also coached them for a brief period during his team’s playoff run. He’s excited for the opportunity to work more closely with both young men during the upcoming season.
“They’re really exciting players,” he said. “The reason we signed them is because they have great speed and they’re on the upward swings of their careers. Having seen them, I know what they’re like as kids. They have a lot of character. They’re very competitive guys.
“I think they’re going to be good impact players. … They’re both very competitive players that can play a very fast game. That’s what we’re looking for with those players.”
This year, the Penguins are trying out for free-agent forward Scott Zurevinski, who is entering his senior season at Quinnipiac. WATCH: SCOTT ZUREVINSKI TALKS TO PENSTV
Seeing fellow college players like Gibbons and Thompson sign contracts with the team is a motivating factor for Zurevinski, who scored 14 goals and 25 points through 39 games last season as a junior.
“You see that they like guys out of the college level,” he said. “That’s great for myself to see. That shows that they’re giving those types of guys opportunities.”
While Zurevinski knows it’s important for him to put forth his best effort this week, Fitzgerald can say the same for the organization.
“Zurevinski is going into his senior year,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s no more development camp for him next year. He’s going to pick a team to sign with, and hopefully his last impression is what the Pittsburgh Penguins can offer him and what we do to develop players.”