As the preseason marches on, the Penguins training camp roster continues to get thinner and thinner.
One player whose name is still listed with just two games left before the season opener is center Joe Vitale
– and he’s very deserving of his opportunity.
“I think he’s had a really solid camp,” Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato said. “He’s deserved to still be here.”
Vitale, a seventh-round draft pick of the Penguins in 2005, has spent the last two-plus seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He played nine NHL games with Pittsburgh in 2010-11 – impressing the coaching staff with his play – and his stint with the parent club did wonders for his confidence.
“I came into camp this year with a completely different attitude than I did the previous two years. That’s got to be the main reason,” he said.
“I remember just being so nervous the first two years. I’m still nervous now, but the nerves definitely have settled down quite a bit. You feel more comfortable and a little more confident around the guys in the room. That’s where it starts. Then obviously on the ice, it kind of carries over from there.”
There’s a lot to like about Vitale.
In addition to being a physical presence (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) that plays with energy and speed, Vitale is a smart, defensively reliable forward who thrives in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill.
On Sept. 21 vs. Detroit, Vitale went an impressive 10-for-16 (63 percent) on draws. On Sept. 25 vs. Minnesota, he won eight of his 15 faceoffs (53 percent).
And with the majority of Pittsburgh’s forwards being left-handed shots, the fact that Vitale is a right-handed shot adds to his value – as the Penguins’ 39.4-percent success rate on penalty kill faceoffs last year being a stat they want to improve next season.
“Being good in the circle, especially on the PK, is something that we need to get a lot better at,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “A guy who can PK and win draws on the right side will be a big factor.
“Joey V. last year won 63 percent of his draws. He’s been very good in Wilkes-Barre with his draws and percentage there. It’s something he can come in and do and be a factor. It’s something he can make a statement with.”
Faceoffs are something that Vitale puts a lot of work into. He works closely with Granato, who oversees the Penguins’ forwards and last year’s top-ranked penalty kill unit, to make sure he’s fully prepared heading into games.
“Tony Granato has helped me a lot with that, not just the techniques of it but knowing your opponent and kind of knowing their strengths and kind of playing towards their weaknesses,” Vitale said.
“Tony, in the scouting of the other centermen, has helped me go into draws more prepared for these games. We talk about the guys I’m going to be facing that night in the morning. So that kind of gives me an overview of kind of what to expect from them and that helps me.”
And on a team loaded with capable penalty killers, Granato says Vitale “fits right in.”
“In fact, in the Minnesota game when we had nine penalties, he was out on the ice and killed the majority of those and did a great job,” Granato pointed out.
Vitale appreciates the opportunities he’s been given thus far this preseason.
“There’s been some good moments and some moments where I need to work on things,” he said. “But definitely it’s a learning experience and I think I’m getting better and better, so hopefully I can continue that.”
And Granato is confident that Vitale has earned the chance to see time with Pittsburgh at some point this season.
“Hopefully he can keep playing the way he’s playing and he’s going to help us, whether it be in the first game of the year or whether it be somewhere down the road,” Granato said. “He’s a good player that’s going to help the organization.”