Engelland took long, hard road into NHL

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Yeah, Deryk Engelland says, there were times when he was not sure he would get here.

Lots of them.

For good reason, too.

Engelland, you see, played 148 games in the ECHL -- two full rungs below the NHL -- and nearly twice that many in the American Hockey League before pulling on an NHL sweater for the first time two years ago Thursday.

"I thought I was definitely a long shot a few years ago," he said, smiling.

He was. On merit.

No one questioned his toughness, but his skills were modest and his foot speed suspect.

That's a bad combination for a guy seeking work at the highest level of the game.

But 15 games into the 2011-12 season, Engelland looks as if he truly has arrived.

He is not going to be mistaken for one of the elite talents sprinkled throughout the Penguins' depth chart, but he embraces his role as a physical, blue-collar defenseman and has executed its duties effectively.

He leads the Penguins in penalty minutes (16), is tied with Kris Letang for second in blocked shots (23) and is third in hits (30).

His ice time has risen from an average of 13:20 in 2010-11 to 16:32 this season, and the caliber of opponent against whom he has been matched also has gone up.

"If you were to look at the level of competition, the players he's played against this year compared to last year, it's a significantly better player he's playing against," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who handles the Penguins defense.

Reirden has had a pretty good look at the evolution of Engelland's game, because the two were together with the Penguins minor league team in Wilkes-Barre before claiming their niches in the NHL.

"Deryk and I have been through this journey together, from [Engelland] just trying to get one NHL game to trying to get 10 to trying to get a one-way contract," Reirden said.

Engelland realized that final objective when he accepted the three-year deal that kicked in this fall and carries an annual salary-cap hit of $566,667.

The contract was tangible evidence that he has, indeed, made it as an NHL player. It was not, however, a signal that Engelland could ratchet down his commitment every now and then, maybe go less than all-in on an occasional shift.

"We often talk that he, at 90 percent, is probably not going to be as effective," Reirden said. "Some guys can not be at the top of their game and get away with it.

"He's a guy who can't."

Of course, Engelland is also a guy who understands that, and realizes that job security is something he has to earn daily.

"I don't want [to have] a three-year contract, then be questionable or a bubble guy after that," he said.

"I want to solidify another contract and play as long as I can."

Engelland got the deal he is working on now, in large part, because of his decision a few years ago to put a greater emphasis on offseason conditioning, and related issues such as weight-training and diet.

"I got called up for the first time and got a taste of it and really went to work that year, that summer," Engelland said. "And it paid off."

Engelland ended up appearing in 71 American Hockey League games the season in which he made his NHL debut, but has not been back since.

And probably won't be anytime soon.

When the Penguins defense corps is healthy -- how's that for a hypothetical concept? -- Engelland is not likely to crack the top four, but he should not be in any great peril of losing his spot on the No. 3 pairing, either.

He is reliable in his own zone, playing a simple, solid game and has established himself as a capable fighter when circumstances call for it.

"He always provides that security for our players that they know that he always has their back if anything doesn't go as planned," Reirden said.

But, while his place on the major league roster is not in jeopardy, Engelland can't take it for granted, either. Likely never will be able to.

"He's the type of player who has to work for everything he's gotten in the game, in terms of his skill level and his ability to play National Hockey League games and play against top players on the other team," Reirden said. "Every night, it's a battle for him."

NOTE -- The Penguins sent forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Steve MacIntyre to Wilkes-Barre on conditioning assignments. They will remain on the 23-man major league roster during their time with the Baby Penguins.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.


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