Beau Bennett appears to have a role to play in USA Hockey's future


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When the Penguins get going in 2013-14, Beau Bennett might pick up where he left off for part of last season -- on a line with center Evgeni Malkin and right winger James Neal.

Bennett is a right winger by trade but embraced a move to the left side to play on that high-octane second line in his first pro season, at least until some late-season trades altered the team's line combinations.

"I started to mesh with them a little bit through the year," Bennett said Tuesday, the day after he got word that he is on USA Hockey's radar for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and beyond.

He has been invited to an Olympic orientation camp next month in suburban Washington.

If everything goes well for those three forwards, they could take an interesting path -- a good first four months of the season together, a split to play for three teams in the Olympics (Malkin is Russian, Neal is Canadian), then back together for the NHL stretch run.

That's a little much for Bennett, 21, to fathom right now. It's still soaking in that, in addition to trying to continue establishing himself in the NHL, he will be auditioning for Team USA, which will watch players closely this season before finalizing its Olympic roster around the end of the calendar year.

"It's going to be a good experience to take forward," Bennett said. "I know I'm young, but I'm just going to try my best. Just to be considered and them to be thinking of me is pretty important."

Team USA general manager David Poile, also the Nashville Predators general manager, isn't ruling out anyone based on age for the Olympics and embraces a new wave of younger players.

Eleven of the 48 players invited to camp next month were born after 1990. Some have yet to play an NHL game. The youngest defenseman is Seth Jones, 18, who was drafted by Nashville last month. The youngest goaltender is John Gibson, 20, a Whitehall native who is an Anaheim prospect.

There are three forwards younger than Bennett, including Brandon Saad, 20, of Gibsonia, who just won the Stanley Cup with Chicago

"We have a future component to this camp that we probably didn't have back in 2010," Poile said of a team that won a silver medal in Vancouver. "For sure, we have our eyes on 2014, but we also have a little bit of an eye toward the future.

"I want them to be around some of these more veteran guys. I want them to be a part of it. Whether it's today or somewhere down the road, they're going to be a big part of it. I think they're all tremendous young players."

Bennett, a first-round draft pick in 2010, has played in 26 NHL regular-season games (three goals, 14 points) and six playoff games (one goal), all last season. During the NHL lockout, he had seven goals, 28 points in 39 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. He left Denver University after his sophomore season to turn pro in spring 2012.

"There's a lot of NHL players he competed with to get that invitation," said Penguins assistant Tony Granato, who Tuesday was named one of three Team USA assistants for Sochi.

"It's well deserved. He's worked extremely hard to get himself this opportunity."

With or without Bennett this time around, the hockey tournament in Sochi will have a strong Penguins flavor.

Bennett, Malkin, Neal and five other players have been invited to participate in their countries' orientation camp. The Penguins' Dan Bylsma is coaching Team USA and general manager Ray Shero is a Team USA assistant general manager.

In addition, Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier will serve in the same capacity for Team USA.

Granato, who played in the 1988 Olympics before NHL players participated, has been a Penguins assistant the past four seasons, working with the forwards and penalty killers.

He said the staff hasn't settled on which coach will do what for the Olympics. His comfort level working with Bylsma will help, he said, but mostly he's just keyed up about his appointment.

"It will be one of my most exciting things in hockey, to get a chance to coach in the Olympics, get a crack at the gold medal," Granato said. "It's going to be a very competitive tournament. The games are incredible. The hockey, the skill on that ice, are incredible."

The other American assistants are Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette and Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, a former Penguins minor league coach.

During the season, Bylsma and Granato are on opposite sides from Laviolette in one of the league's most-heated rivalries.

In the closing couple of minutes of the Penguins-Flyers final regular-season game of 2011-12 at Consol Energy Center, there was an on-ice brawl after a hit, and a blowup on the benches. Laviolette, in frustration, broke a stick over the glass, sending a piece onto the Penguins bench. Granato and Laviolette then stood on the dasher boards at the end of each bench screaming at each other.

After the game, Laviolette said Bylsma made "a gutless move" in sending out his fourth line with a less than two minutes left in a game the Penguins trailed. Granato was fined $2,500, Laviolette $10,000 for the incident.

It turns out Granato's friendship with Laviolette goes back a long way. They were teammates on the 1988 Olympic team.

"It's pro sports. It's hockey. It's the way it is," Granato said of times when tempers flare. "I played against friends. There are battles on the ice. I still have a lot of respect for Peter."

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For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published July 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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