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Insider Only Camp Countdown: Forward group has strong competition and few spots available

 

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The Pittsburgh Penguins enter training camp on Friday with several NHL caliber players vying for an NHL roster spot but only one or two spots are available at the most.
The Penguins head into the season with 12 forwards on one-way contracts and arguably at-least seven players on two-way contracts who figure to battle for one of the final roster spots. For the likes of prospects Joe Viltale, Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson, they should expect to have their bags packed for Wilkes Barre, while veterans Jason Williams, Richard Park and Ryan Craig will be among the intriguing players in camp on two-way contracts who are seen as fits to be carried as a possible extra forward.
The health of Sidney Crosby dictates a lot going into the season. If healthy, the Penguins top-12 is full down the middle with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Mark Letestu on 1-way deals. At the wings, Chris Kunitz and James Neal are penciled in as the first line wingers with Steve Sullivan and Tyler Kennedy the second line wingers.
Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis are the third line wingers and Arron Asham and Craig Adams round out the 4th line on the wings.
That scenario leaves one spot open to carry an extra forward, which would figure to go to a veteran like Jason Williams or Richard Park but with Dustin Jeffrey being eligible for waivers, the Penguins will in all likely hood have to carry Jeffrey on the roster due to fears of him being claimed on waivers.
However, a spot in the top-12 is now likely to be open, with expectations that Crosby won’t be ready to go for the start of the season. From an injury standpoint, Jeffrey also remains a wildcard because it’s not clear how much time he is going to need to get back into things, coming off ACL surgery in April. It’s always possible he could start the season on injury reserve, if things don’t go well in camp.
If Crosby remains sidelined, which is the expected scenario, the Penguins will arguably have around eight players (Jeffrey, Williams, Park, Vitale, Craig, Tangradi, Johnson, McIntyre) fighting for two spots in camp. The team normally carries 13 forwards to start the season.
The Crosby injury will likely force head coach Dan Bylsma to alter his plans early in camp and in the season. The Penguins have intentions of bulking up their first line with James Neal and Chris Kunitz on the wings between Crosby. Malkin would ideally slide into that spot and the team could have Mark Letestu or Jordan Staal move up into the second line center spot. However, it’s likely the team splits up Kunitz and Neal with Crosby sidelined but look for Neal to remain at right wing.  Camp though is all about tinkering and exploring options so what we see early on, probably won’t stick for the regular season opener in Vancouver.

Player Updates

Centers

1. Sidney Crosby – Age 24
Contract Status ($8.7MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $9 million | 2012-2013: $7.5 million | 2013-2014: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 41GP – 32G – 34A – 66Pts
Buzz:Sidelined since January 2011 due to concussion symptoms, Crosby is not expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. The Penguins and team doctors are optimistic that the Crosby will be cleared to play at somepoint this season but it’s impossible to predict when that will be.
2. Evgeni Malkin – Age 25
Contract Status ($8.7MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $9 million | 2012-2013: $9 million | 2013-2014: $7.5 million | 2014-2015: UFA
2011-2012 Stats: 43GP – 15G – 22A – 37Pts
Buzz: Coming off ACL surgery last February, Evgeni Malkin(knee) enters training camp at full strength. The Penguins intend to lean heavily on Malkin early in the season as the team’s No. 1 center with Sidney Crosby expected to sidelined for an unspecified amount of time. Malkin’s goal this season: Emerge again as one of the game’s most dominant players.
3. Jordan Staal – Age 23
Contract Status ($4MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $4.5 million | 2012-2013: $4.5 million | 2013-2014: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 42GP – 11G – 19A – 30Pts
Buzz:Unlike last season, Jordan Staal enters training camp healthy. After much discussion, the Penguins plan is to keep Jordan Staal as the No. 3 center, with situational games or shifts centering Evgeni Malkin, when the team has a healthy roster down the middle with Crosby, Malkin and Staal.
4. Mark Letestu – Age 26
Contract Status ($625,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $625,000 | 2012-2013: $625,000 | 2013-2014: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: A player whose spot on the depth chart varies depending on Sidney Crosby’s health. When 87 is healthy, Letestu is out of the top-9 spot at the center position, a tough blow for a player who showed top-9 ability, scoring 14 goals in 64 games.

Left Wingers

1. Chris Kunitz – Age 31
Contract Status ($3.75MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $4 million | 2012-2013: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 66GP – 23G – 25A – 48Pts
Buzz: The soon to be 32 year old is entering the final year of his contract and is coming off an excellent campaign, collecting 23 goals and a +18 rating in 66 games for the Penguins. Kunitz though has struggled to stay healthy the past two seasons due to his bruising style, dealing with abdomen and groin issues. Kunitz trained hard in Chicago this summer and is fully healthy for camp.

2. Steve Sullivan – Age 37
Contract Status: ($1.5MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $1.5 million
2010-2011 Stats: 44GP – 10G – 12A – 22Pts
Buzz: Sullivan comes into the season as a question mark due to age and injury concerns, dealing with back and groin issues for the past several seasons. It remains to be seen whether he has it in him to make it through an entire season. The Penguins though have high expectations for the 37 year old. Sullivan is penciled in as a second line winger and expected to be a contributor on the top power play unit, being looked at as an option to carry the puck into the zone and play up high.
3. Matt Cooke – Age 33
Contract Status ($1.8MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $2 million | 2012-2013: $1.25 million | 2013-2014: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 67GP – 12G – 18A – 30Pts
Buzz: Cook is a tremendous asset for the Penguins at even strength and on the penalty kill, but Cooke is the poster child for what’s wrong in the NHL. Suspended for 21 games last season, including the final 17 games of the season (including playoffs), Cooke has vowed to transform his game. We will see….
4. Arron Asham – Age 33
Contract Status ($775,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $775,000 | 2011-2012: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 44GP – 5G – 6A – 11Pts
Buzz: The tough rugged winger had an excellent 2011 playoffs, collecting 3 goals and an assist. Asham is penciled in for one of the 4th line winger spots, likely at left wing with Craig Adams expected to see more time at right wing than center. With Mike Rupp out of the picture, Asham will be counted on to provide a consistent toughness presence.

Right Wingers
1. James Neal – Age 24
Contract Status ($2.875MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $3.5 million | 2012-2013: RFA
2010-2011 Stats: 79GP – 22G – 23A – 45Pts
Buzz: James Neal struggled tremendously with the transition to Pittsburgh, scoring 2 goals in 27 games but the Penguins are expecting a big turnaround from Neal. One change in Neal’s game will be getting a long look as a right winger, where head coach Dan Bylsma told reporters in Oshawa that he has sights set on a top line of Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby and Neal.
2. Tyler Kennedy – Age 25
Contract Status ($2MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $2 million | 2012-2013: $2 million | 2013-2014: RFA
2010-2011 Stats: 79GP – 21G – 24A – 45Pts
Buzz: A breakout season earned Tyler Kennedy a $4 million contract and expectations have emerged for Kennedy to become a consistent contributor in the top-6. Most intriguing about Kennedy’s game is that he’s still just 25 years old and showed goal scoring ability last season, scoring goal scorers type of goals. Kennedy though figures to see much less time on the power play this season, which could hurt his chances to hit the 20-goal plateau for a second straight season. He had 7 power play goals in 2010-2011. Kennedy also projects to see some time with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke on the third line, when Bylsma looks to go in that direction.
3. Pascal Dupuis – Age 32
Contract Status ($1.5MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $1.5 million | 2012-2013: $1.5 million | 2013-2014: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 81GP – 17G – 20A – 37Pts
Buzz: Dupuis received a two year contract this summer with the Penguins and is a valuable top-9 player who can play anywhere in the lineup and is an excellent penalty killer. He should be counted on for around 15 goals and strong two-way play. 
4. Craig Adams – Age 34
Contract Status ($675,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $675,000 | 2012-2013: $675,000 | 2013-2014: UFA
Buzz: A key leader on and off the ice, Adams will be an anchor on the 4th line and the penalty kill. Adams has the ability to play center and right wing. The Penguins are said to prefer to play Adams at wing. Adams had an appendectomy in August and is expected to be ready to go for camp.

Two-Way (Contracts) players in the mix for final spots
Dustin Jeffrey – Age 23
Position: C/W
Contract Status: ($575,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $525,000 (2-way) | 2012-2013: $625,000
2011-2012 Status: 25GP – 7G – 5A – 12Pts
Buzz: Had knee surgery in early April to repair torn ACL. Is currently on schedule to being close to a full participant in camp. A true wildcard due to his health and contract situation. He is on a two-way contract for this season and is waiver eligible. By sending him down to the minors, the Penguins would risk having Jeffrey claimed, which would be a strong possibility. Jeffrey figures to benefit from Sidney Crosby expected to being sidelined for start of the season, as a spot in the top-12 opens up, most notably at center, his strongest position. If Jeffrey is not fully cleared in camp or ready for the start of the season, the Penguins can place Jeffrey on IR.
Jason Williams – Age 31
Position: C/W
Contract Status ($605,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $605,000 (two-way) | 2012-2013: UFA |
2010-2011 Stats: 27GP – 2G – 3A – 5Pts
Buzz: The 31 year veteran is a player the Penguins are very intrigued about. Williams can play wing and center and also has the ability on the power play, collecting 32 career power play goals. Williams who has 93 career goals, is not that far removed from a 19 goal – 48 point season in 2008-2009, and is a player who would be a good fit as a 13th forward.
Joe Vitale – Age 26
Position: C
Contract Status ($512,500 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $525,000 (two-way) | 2012-2013: RFA
2010-2011 Stats: 9GP – 1G – 1A – 2Pts (WBS: 60GP-9G-21A-30Pts)
Buzz: Extremely underrated player in the Penguins system who got a cup of coffee at the NHL level last February and didn’t look out of place. Vitale has excellent speed and intangibles for a 4th line center/forward but unfortunately there just isn’t a spot available for him. Unlike veterans Jason Williams, Ryan Craig or Richard Park, the Penguins won’t keep Vitale at the NHL level unless he has a regular spot in the top-12.
Richard Park – Age 35
Position: C/W
Contract Status ($550,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $550,000 (two-way) | 2011-2012: UFA
2011-2012 Stats:47GP – 15G – 19A – 34Pts (Geneve Servette).
Buzz: The 13-NHL veteran returns to the NHL and Pittsburgh after spending last season in the Swiss National League. Park had a productive final four seasons with the Islanders and the team believes he can still contribute at the NHL level. Park is an excellent skater and strong penalty killer with some offensive ability. Park scored 45 goals in his final four seasons with the Islanders (2006-2010). Like Jason Williams, he’s a player who would be a viable candidate to keep as an extra forward on the roster.
Ryan Craig – Age 29
Position: C/W
Contract Status ($525,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $525,000 | 2012-2013: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 6GP – 0G – 0A – 0Pts (WBS: 71GP-19G-29A-48Pts)
Buzz: Ryan Craig had a strong chance to go into training as a top-15 forward but the signings of Jason Williams and Richard Park have hurt his chances to earn a final forward spot. Craig who’s an excellent leader, had a strong season for Wilkes Barre and likely would have made the Penguins roster to open the 2010-2011 season over Eric Tangradi, if it wasn’t for a groin injury.
Tangradi, Johnson Big Longshots
Prospect Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson should prepare to begin the season in Wilkes Barre. Tangradi and Johnson go into the season with little to no chance to open the season with the big club. Johnson who could have been a UFA this past summer, opted to resign with the Penguins because what he felt would be an opportunity to crack a top-9 spot. That opportunity just isn’t there. Even with James Neal likely moving to right wing, Tangradi remains hard pressed to earn a top-9 spot. He is destined for Wilkes Barre.
Enforcer Steve MacIntyre will also be in the mix for a roster spot but like Tangradi and Johnson, MacIntyre is a big longshot.

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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