Penguins give Bissonnette chance to stick as winger

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Some people might be surprised that Paul Bissonnette still has a place on the Penguins' training-camp roster.

Understandably so.

Even the decision-makers in the Penguins' front office likely are, if they pause to reflect on Bissonnette's place in the organization -- or lack of one -- just a year ago.

After all, his preseason visit here last fall could have been timed on a stopwatch.

Bissonnette wasn't invited to participate in the prospects' camp or tournament last September, and, after a few days at the regular camp -- without taking so much as a single shift during a scrimmage -- he was sent away.

Not demoted.

Exiled.

The Penguins didn't assign him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, but to their ECHL team in Wheeling.

Because the Nailers' camp wasn't scheduled to open for several weeks, Bissonnette had plenty of time to skate with a junior team in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and to reflect on how little hope there was of resurrecting his career with the franchise that claimed him with a fourth-round draft choice in 2003.

"It was pretty rough, just a tough situation," Bissonnette said. "There are a lot of sleepless nights. You just wonder what's going to happen with your career, your future."

There still are questions about his future, but not about whether he has one with the organization.

Bissonnette still has to be considered a front-runner to be sent to Wilkes-Barre when the Penguins make their final preseason cuts, likely Saturday, but general manager Ray Shero and his staff are adamant that Bissonnette remains a viable candidate to open the season in the NHL.

He has shown enough that he played in the Penguins' 3-2 preseason victory against Toronto at Mellon Arena last night. It was his second exhibition appearance in the past three nights, proof that management is taking a serious look at him.

"He's certainly a strong candidate to get NHL action this year," assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

In the past, there were times Bissonnette exercised questionable judgment, on and off the ice -- like when he wore a fake pro wrestling title belt during a pregame warmup, earning a suspension -- but there is a maturity, a sense of stability, about him now.

Bissonnette began to rehabilitate his image -- and his career -- with a renewed commitment to his craft last season.

"He showed a lot of resiliency, a lot of hunger," Fletcher said. "I think he saw that he was a long way from where he wanted to be."

Bissonnette's transformation has included a change of positions. A defenseman when he broke into pro hockey, he now labors as a blue-collar winger.

Bissonnette skates well, is a strong forechecker, plays with an edge -- he picked up the nickname "Biz Nasty" in the minors -- and is rather fearless. He fought Tampa Bay winger David Koci twice Monday and traded punches with Maple Leafs tough guy Jamal Mayers last night.

"He's big and tough," Fletcher said. "He's a tough kid, and he's committed to doing what he has to do to play in the NHL."


NOTES -- Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko and Evgeni Malkin scored for the Penguins last night, while Alexei Ponikarovsky and Mikhail Grabovski beat goalie Dany Sabourin for the Leafs. ... Center Sidney Crosby (groin) was held out of the game as a precaution, but said he expects to return when the Penguins visit Toronto tomorrow.


Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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