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Prospects Impressive In Championship Run

by Joe Sager / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins capped a successful summer off the ice with some rewards on it.

The team’s prospects prevailed at the Kitchener Rookie Tournament in Ontario. The team won three of four games, topped by Monday’s 5-1 triumph over Ottawa Senators prospects in the championship contest.

Todd Richards

Under the direction of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Todd Richards and assistant Dan Bylsma, the Penguins youngsters beat Toronto on Friday and Florida on Saturday before falling to Ottawa on Sunday. The Senators and Penguins battled in Monday’s title game and Pittsburgh rolled to the win in the four-team tournament.

“I liked the effort of the players. I thought the players played and worked extremely hard,” said Penguins Assistant General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who oversees Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “I am also impressed with how quickly Todd and Dan were able to bring together a group of individuals and mold them into a team.”

Fletcher and the rest of the Penguins’ front office and coaching staff were on hand to evaluate the young squad, comprised of 23 players in Pittsburgh’s system, including most of this year’s draft choices (minus Angelo Esposito and Keven Veilleux, who are recovering from injuries) as well as young players from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and other prospects.

“In a general sense, we are very pleased with the general grouping of kids we just drafted,” Fletcher said. “The young players played well. Sometimes the 18- and 19-year-old kids who have just been drafted can struggle in a tournament like this because there are older players in tournament, too.

Dustin Jeffrey

“We are very pleased with how the young players performed on defense. Jake Muzzin, Alex Grant and Robert Bortuzzo all played well. Dustin Jeffrey and Luca Caputi produced significant amounts of offense, five points apiece, so they both did well offensively,” he continued. “All the kids contributed. Combine that with the veteran grouping we had and it made for a pretty good team.”

Overall, Fletcher was pleased to see the progress the Penguins youngsters made over the summer.

“I know from the amateur scouting staff’s point of view, it’s always a little nerve-wracking go out and see your recent crop of kids drafted perform in front of the entire organization,” he said. “But, there is a lot of happiness in how those players played. There is a lot of hope and promise for the future.

“The tournament was basically half a junior tournament and half an AHL tournament. Some of the guys from last year played well like Mark Letestu, Joe Jensen and Tim Wallace,” he continued. “They had a chance to play and played very well. They all put in a summer’s worth a work, but this maybe gives you a sense of what the future is going to be like in the AHL this year.”

The Penguins also displayed character – as well as talent – as they battled back from big deficits against Toronto (three goals) and Florida (two goals) and shook off a 3-0 loss to Ottawa for a convincing 5-1 championship win.

“They came back to win both of the first games and the character they showed in the third game was impressive,” Fletcher said. “We dominated the second and third periods – the last two periods it looked like the ice was titled, but Ottawa’s goaltender was just outstanding. I liked the way we worked until the end; there was no quit and the players kept winning battles and tried to make up a three-goal deficit. They carried over that effort into the final where we took it to them.”

Luca Caputi

Fletcher credits Richards and Bylsma for bringing the players together.

“I go back to the coaches and how quickly they were able to get the players to play a particular way and in a particular system,” he said. “The players played extremely hard. Our fore-check was a dominant factor in every game. We spent a lot of all four games in the other teams’ end. That’s the way we want to play. It was fun to see.”

The tournament gave the 14 prospects heading to the Penguins’ main camp a solid head start as well as those returning to their junior teams.

“I think it’s great for them. Obviously for the players attending the rookie camp and now the main camp, it will give great sense of confidence and comfort with some good on-ice success under their belts and knowing some of their teammates, coaches and support staff,” Fletcher said. “There is that sense of familiarity and the knowledge they have accomplished something as Penguin.

“That’s part of the whole development program, which starts with the rookie conditioning camp to the rookie camp and then to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where hopefully a lot will matriculate up to the NHL together,” he continued. “That’s how you build the chemistry, friendships and trust the players need to form a successful team. You can’t always win these types of tournaments, but it’s nice to win them. It gives everyone a sense of accomplishment and success for the group. A lot of these kids will play together at Wilkes-Barre at some point. As junior kids, a lot of them will climb the ladder to Pittsburgh together. It’s these common experiences that start to define the group.”

Fletcher and the Penguins hope to be regular participants in rookie camp tournaments.

“Definitely, now that we have a conditioning camp in late June or early July where we can teach and educate and concentrate on fitness,” he said. “Now we can continue on with this type of tournament with our young players. It’s better for the players to show what they can do in games against different teams rather than just in practices and it’s better for us to evaluate them. But, without that conditioning camp in the summer, it’d make playing in this tournament difficult. We need the teaching, education and focus on off-ice training in the summer and, hopefully, the players come back with their fitness levels where they need to be so we can put them in a tournament where they can compete.”

Thirteen of the players who attended rookie camp already have been invited to the main training camp: forwards Aaron Boogaard, Jonathan Filewich, Tyler Kennedy, Kyle Rank, Ryan Stone, Jensen, Letestu and Wallace; defensemen Jonathan D’Aversa, Kris Letang, and Ben Lovejoy and goaltenders David Brown and John Curry. The Penguins’ coaches and management also extended an invitation to Jeffrey, who performed well at the prospects camp. Jeffrey, 19, was selected by the Penguins in the sixth round (171st overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.  He scored five points (3+2) in four games during the prospects tournament.

The Penguins’ training camp opens Thursday with physicals and meetings at the UPMC facility on the South Side, and the first on-ice practice will be Friday at ICEOPLEX at Southpointe.

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