WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – They staggered off the ice after practice, dripping sweat and obviously fatigued from a tough skate – which included a timed skating test to measure their conditioning.
But while the players were clearly exhausted, they were also thoroughly excited to be back at the rink with their teammates playing hockey again after a long offseason as Friday marked the opening day of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton training camp.
“It feels good,” forward Zach Sill said of starting camp. “We had a little bit of a longer break this year than we are all used to. I felt guilty hanging around home so long. It felt good to get back with the guys and back on the ice. You missed the guys over the summer. When you come back everyone is in good spirits. It’s a good time of year.”
Thirty-three players – 19 forwards, 11 defensemen and three goaltenders – reported to camp at the team’s practice facility, the Ice Rink at Coal Street. They’ll be fighting for spots in front of an extended coaching staff that includes Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma, who was on the ice for both of Friday’s practice sessions.
“Not many guys can play in the same system with the same coaches and do the same drills,” forward Eric Tangradi said. “To be able to have that opportunity and do that four hours from where you would hope to play is a nice thing to have.”
“I’m trying to prove myself to these coaches here,” added defenseman Joe Morrow. “I did the best I could when I was up with Pittsburgh (in last year’s camp). Now I have to show these guys that I’m capable of playing in this league too and that I can contribute to this team as well. I’m just looking at setting a good example with these guys. Hopefully, they see something they like and I can stay around here.”
There are plenty of new faces this year, with Philippe Dupuis, Benn Ferriero, Riley Holzapfel, Warren Peters, Trevor Smith and Upper St. Clair-native Dylan Reese all reporting to their first camp with the Penguins organization after signing contracts this offseason.
There’s also a number of rookies who are all making the jump to the professional level this year and hope to crack the AHL roster, including forwards Beau Bennett, Tom Kuhnhackl, Jayson Megna, Dominik Uher and defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Morrow.
The first day of training camp is always overwhelming for these young men, but now that it’s done, the nerves are starting to subside – especially since a number of them have been skating together here in Wilkes-Barre these last few weeks.
“(Those skates are) very important because when you come in as a first-time rookie – this is my first camp – things can be kind of overwhelming,” Megna said. “At least you’ve been here for a little while, gotten to settle down and you know some people in the locker room, so you’re starting to build a little bit of a comfort level. So that’s nice.“
Players that will not only be looking to set a good example for the coaches, but for their fellow teammates as well are Tangradi, Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres and Brian Strait. All four players have been developing in the Penguins organization for years and have all seen time in the NHL with Pittsburgh, and they’ll be counted on to provide leadership at this year’s camp.
“I’m actually excited to get back here,” Tangradi said. “I feel like in my fourth year, I can be a leader here and kind of show the ropes for a lot of young guys. I’m 23, but I feel old looking in that dressing room (laughs).”