After skating to a 1-0 win over Hershey on Friday night in Wilkes-Barre, a group of WBS players got some great news following the game – they learned they would be attending NHL training camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Forwards Eric Tangradi, Beau Bennett and Jayson Megna and defenseman Simon Despres arrived in Pittsburgh Saturday and participated in the team’s informal practice at Southpointe. Defensemen Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo did not participate in Saturday’s skate, but should be in Pittsburgh for training camp whenever it starts.
Training camp sessions at CONSOL Energy Center will be open to the public (free admission). Specific dates and times have yet to be announced.
“We got the news after the game last night,” Bennett said. “It was really good to hear (that I was) coming up with those guys. Even if it’s just for experience, it’s definitely a good opportunity and it’s going to be fun.”
“I’m pretty excited to be here,” added Megna. “It’s one step closer to my dream and where I want to be, in the NHL. It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to learning a lot this week and soaking it in.”
Bennett, 21, and Megna, 22, may be rookies in their first professional seasons. But the two roommates have impressed the organization with their play in the American Hockey League this season and have earned this opportunity to try out for the NHL club, as WBS head coach John Hynes told Bennett last night.
“After the game, (Hynes) just said congrats and first and foremost, he just wanted to say he thinks we’re ready,” Bennett said.
Bennett, who signed an entry-level contract following his sophomore season at Denver, leads WBS in scoring with 24 points (6G-18A) through 30 games and has been a fixture on the top power-play unit.
His name has been mentioned as a possible candidate to fill a top-six role here in Pittsburgh. But while Bennett has been doing well with WBS, he knows he’s still young and has a lot to learn.
“It would be a great opportunity, but I’m still real young and trying to learn the system and stuff,” he said. “Don’t want to come in with too high hopes. Definitely just want to play my best and learn from these older guys. It’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t go the right way, but definitely want to just learn and take the experience forward.”
Megna suffered a high-ankle sprain before the season began and didn’t play his first professional game until Nov. 4. But now that he’s skated in 19 games, he feels comfortable with the style the Penguins utilize throughout the organization.
“It took me some time to get used to the system,” he said. “Once I jumped into the system and was playing and practicing everyday it was a smooth transition. The AHL is a very good league and a lot of players are going to be called up and play in the NHL. It was good for me to play in a league that strong.”
The Penguins invited Megna to their 2012 prospect development camp after watching him play for the University of Nebraska-Omaha while checking on Penguins prospect and Mavericks forward Josh Archibald. They identified Megna as a player they wanted to have in this organization, and the respect and admiration the Penguins have for the Chicago native turned out to be mutual, as he signed a two-year deal with the franchise following a solid performance at camp.
There’s so much they like about Megna. Hynes called him a “high-compete, high-IQ player” with speed, smarts and work ethic that finds ways to score goals. And this week, Megna is hoping to showcase all of that on the ice and have another solid camp performance.
“I’m going to work hard, skate and play to my strengths,” he said. “All you can do is go out and do your best. That’s what got you here. Hopefully, they notice that and you get rewarded for it.”
Unlike rookies Bennett and Megna, Tangradi has been through this before. He’s no longer a wide-eyed prospect on the ice with superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the first time. Tangradi, 23, has developed into a professional that’s never felt better about his game and is ready for anything the coaches may ask of him this upcoming week.
“I’m just going to do my best with wherever I’m placed,” he said. “I feel like I fit in in different areas. I’m just going to play my game. In the past I’ve tried to do different things in different spots. I need to play a north-south game, play physical, play big and go from there.”
The big-bodied power forward is looking forward to coming in having the advantage of playing a normal game schedule.
“Other guys in this room haven’t played against opposing defensemen and being gritty in different areas,” he said. “That’s an area that I have an edge on guys. With the quick turnaround we’ll be battling it out early on, but I’m as fit as I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m ready to go.”
Despres, who made a solid impression on the coaching staff last season after skating in 18 regular-season games and one playoff contest with Pittsburgh during the 2011-12 campaign, also feels ready to go after playing a lot of AHL games.
But despite all of that, Despres isn’t letting himself get the least bit comfortable.
“Nothing’s ever written so I’ve got to work hard and prove that I can make it,” he said. “I want to make the best impression I can. I want to work hard and leave a good impression and crack the lineup.”
With Despres, Strait and Bortuzzo all coming to ca knows it’s going to be a battle for spots on Pittsburgh’s blue line, but says that will only make him a better player.
“It’s a healthy competition,” he said. “A lot of people can play. So you’ve got to work hard to earn your spot and it makes you that much better.”
Overall, the group couldn’t be more pumped about the opportunity they have to be in Pittsburgh this week – and plan to make the most of it.
“We’re pretty hyped up,” Despres said. “We’re excited to get on the ice with the coaches. It’s going to be a fun time this week.”
NOTE: Fifteen players participated in the Penguins informal practice at Southpointe on Saturday: Tangradi, Bennett, Megna, Despres, Joe Vitale, Dustin Jeffrey, Pascal Dupuis, Tanner Glass, James Neal, Craig Adams, Deryk Engelland, Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Tomas Vokoun and Marc-Andre Fleury.
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