On the Penguins: Craig tries to force way into mix

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It is no secret to anyone who has watched him play that Ryan Craig is versatile, capable of manning all three forward positions.

That he has no qualms about handling blue-collar work along the boards and in the corners.

That he puts forth a 100 percent effort on every shift only because it isn't possible to give more.

Clearly, the Penguins had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Craig when they signed him as a free agent during the offseason.

What no one knows is whether he will get a chance to do it in the NHL on a regular basis in the coming season.

That he has been impressive from the earliest days of training camp works in his favor. That he is not one of the 13 Penguins forwards with a one-way contract does not.

"Hopefully, I'll force my way onto this hockey club," Craig said. "That's kind of my plan."

He did not hurt his chances any when he scored two goals in the Penguins' exhibition opener Wednesday night against Detroit, but it cannot help that he was forced to leave their 3-1 victory Saturday night against Columbus at Consol Energy Center because of a sore groin after logging just over nine minutes of ice time.

Craig, 28, was an eighth-round draft choice by Tampa Bay in 2002 and appeared in 184 games with the Lightning the past five seasons. He also played in 103 American Hockey League games in that span -- 73 of them last season -- and concluded that the time had come to pull up roots.

"Mentally and physically, I think it was time for a fresh start," Craig said. "Pittsburgh contacted my agent on July 1, and things kind of took off from there. ... Having a fresh start, this seemed like the perfect place to do it."

Well, maybe in some ways, but it's not as if the Penguins have a shortage of NHL-caliber forwards on their depth chart. No matter what decisions are made when the roster for the start of the regular season is set, their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre is going to include a few centers and wingers who could contribute at this level.

It's far from certain that Craig will be able to separate himself from that group, but being 6 feet 2, 212 pounds and playing his kind of game helps.

"His skill-set is different than other players in our organization of the size that he is," assistant coach Todd Reirden said. "The ability to stand up for his teammates. He does a good job on the penalty-kill as well. He's a bigger body, getting to the net-front, playing a power game."

Reirden got a pretty good look at Craig while coaching the Baby Penguins last season and endorsed the idea of acquiring him when the opportunity arose. He liked the way Craig competed and hit and won faceoffs while playing for Tampa Bay's AHL team in Norfolk.

"As a coach, you always look for guys on an opposing team that you want to add to your organization," Reirden said. "And he was one that I had at the top of my list."

Reirden got to see a lot of Craig last season, partly because Craig managed to stay healthier than he had been since 2004-05, when he dressed for 80 AHL games. Craig's willingness to play a physical game is not much fun for opponents, but it exacts a toll from him.

"I was able to play every game I possibly could [in '09-10] and, for me, that was a step in the right direction," Craig said.

Reirden, along with a few others in the organization, saw enough of Craig to have a good feel for what he could add to the Penguins. That was not true of everyone in management, however, so Craig realized coming into camp that he had to start making a case for himself immediately.

"First impressions are huge," he said. "Every day, you have to come in and try to make a new impression. "They've maybe heard stuff, but haven't seen it in person. For guys like myself and new guys coming in, you want to make those decisions tough."

On that count, he has succeeded. Whether that will translate to steady work in the NHL -- and justify his decision to sign with the Penguins -- should be apparent in a week or so.

"I want to be in a winning organization and one that competes for the Stanley Cup and has lofty goals," Craig said. "And I think I've come to the right one."

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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