Zach Sill celebrates a goal in drills Wednesday at prospect camp at Consol Energy Center.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There's the fast track in hockey, usually reserved for flashy top draft picks.
Then there's the Zach track.
"I've been kind of slowly moving forward my whole career," said Zach Sill. At 24, he's older than just about everyone else this week at Penguins development camp.
He doesn't get the attention heaped on first-round draft picks such as Joe Morrow, Beau Bennett and Derrick Pouliot. Or even the attention spread around to most of the other prospects.
"It's been scrap and claw," coach Dan Bylsma said of Sill, an upbeat, outgoing center who is entering his third season in the organization.
"You watch signees, free agents and draft picks, and you feel like you're not a guy that's being watched very much."
The Penguins are paying attention, though. They signed Sill to a two-way NHL contract a little more than a year ago.
Sill, 6 feet and 202 pounds, went undrafted playing for his hometown junior team, the Truro (Nova Scotia) Bearcats. He made a brief stop at the University of Maine before moving on to Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, then turned pro, splitting 2009-10 between Penguins affiliates Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and Wheeling of the East Coast Hockey League.
He spent the past two seasons full time with Wilkes-Barre and is entering the final year of that NHL contract, but he's not discouraged that he hasn't gotten a call-up.
"This year coming is the year where I have to make that step or I'm going to feel like I'm going backward," Sill said.
"It would have been nice to get a couple of [NHL] games last year, but it didn't happen. This year it's time to make that step and try to get my foot in the door."
Sill's game is suited to the third or fourth line. His assets are energy and penalty killing. He has 26 goals, 58 points and 173 penalty minutes in 202 AHL games.
The Penguins already have stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as their entrenched top two centers and expect Brandon Sutter, acquired from Carolina in the Jordan Staal trade, to be their third-line center.
That means Sill is left to hope to beat out players such as Joe Vitale and veteran Craig Adams or be in line for a promotion during the season if there are injuries, suspensions or trades.
"I've got a pretty good idea what I've got to do to impress and stay around a little bit longer than I have in the past -- just play more aggressively," he said.
"The past couple of years I might have been a little bit passive. In drills in practice and in exhibition games, being more aggressive, maybe fighting a little bit more -- doing what I do best, and not being deterred by it in any way."
Along the way, Sill has adopted some veteran tendencies despite not getting into an NHL game.
"You can see that leadership ability," Bylsma said.
Sill has embraced it.
"The coaches threw an 'A' on my chest [as an alternate captain] for a couple of games last year when guys were hurt," he said.
"That was only my third year in the league. It means a lot to step into that role of leadership.
"And it's development camp, so that's what I'm doing here, too -- developing in leadership and that kind of thing."
That doesn't mean in Saturday's scrimmage he'll hold back against players seven years younger.
"Me pushing harder on them is going to make them better hockey players" Sill said.
"And them being in wicked shape and trying hard to impress, they're going to push me, too. It's all give and take."
NOTES -- Team power skating instructor Marianne Watkins worked with the players for the first 30 minutes of practice, and a lot of the rest of the time was spent on fast-paced, short-rink, three-on-three scrimmages. ... After visiting Children's Hospital and bowling, the campers played paintball Thursday. ... Bylsma, who holds an annual youth camp in Michigan, is having one concurrent to the development camp at Consol Energy Center. "What we're doing on the ice with these players is what we do on the ice with the older players," he said. "That's what the best players in the world are doing. We go through the same things."