It’s tough enough to make an opening night NHL roster, let alone when training camp is significantly shortened due to this season’s accelerated ramp-up.
In the face of those obstacles, six members of the Penguins organization who have played for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season are part of the official camp roster. Forwards Eric Tangradi, Beau Bennett and Jayson Megna, plus defensemen Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait all participated in Sunday’s workout at the Iceoplex at Southpointe.
The first man on that list made the biggest news of training camp’s Day 1, as coach Dan Bylsma indicated to reporters Tangradi would play alongside James Neal and Evgeni Malkin when the latter makes his 2013 Pittsburgh debut at CONSOL Energy Center for Monday’s noon practice.
But while Tangradi’s top-six opportunity is a pivotal moment for someone who has yet to establish himself as a reliable NHL contributor, the 6-foot-4 23-year-old looks to have a better-than-average probability to be in Philadelphia for Saturday’s opener.
Despres and Bennett, both 21-year-old former first-round picks, are in similar situations. Despres played 18 games in Pittsburgh last season and has skated in 27 for the Baby Pens this winter, while Bennett leads the AHL club in points (6g, 18a) in his rookie pro season out of the University of Denver.
Despres and Bennett project as flashier NHLers than Strait and Bortuzzo, but the latter duo could provide always-welcomed blue-line steadiness for years to come if they develop their potential. Of course, that’s a big “if,” but Strait and Bortuzzo aren’t to be ignored this week, even if it’s not an ideal time to change minds.
Unlike the previous five, Megna was never drafted by an NHL team, as the Penguins signed him to a minor-league free-agent deal this summer. The 6-foot-1 right winger has put up six points in 19 AHL games after scoring 31 in 38 NCAA contests last year with Nebraska-Omaha. At 22, Megna still has time to grow his game, but at the least he could be a capable replacement in a bottom-six role if someone like Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale or Craig Adams hits the disabled list.
As mentioned, this is not the kind of camp at which to make an impression. Nonetheless, with a smooth start to the regular season more critical than ever and a couple roster spots still available, Penguins coaches and staff will be swayed by readiness more than most attributes.