Penguins' Strait ready for next level


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As he got late into last hockey season, defenseman Brian Strait decided a championship probably would be enough to convince him he was ready for a career-changing move. Then there he was, on the ice with his teammates grinning and celebrating as they posed with their trophy.

That was four days before the Penguins opened play in the postseason on their way to the Stanley Cup title.

Strait, a third-round draft pick by the Penguins in 2006, helped Boston University cap off a 35-6-4 season with an NCAA championship in April and decided the NHL club was right: It was time to turn pro.

"It was a difficult one," Strait, who is participating this week in the Penguins rookie and prospects camp, said of the decision to forgo his senior season. If he had not signed an entry-level NHL contract, he would have become a free agent.

"[The Penguins] came to my agent around January. At the time, it's midseason, we're having this unbelievable season. I can't think about it because I'm concentrating on the season."

Strait, 21, a solidly built defensive defenseman whose accent nails him as a Boston native, eventually settled on turning pro after the Terriers' Frozen Four success.

By the time he arrived here for his third Penguins prospects camp -- the first he didn't have to pay his own way to attend now that he's out from under the NCAA rules -- Strait wondered why he had agonized so much over turning pro.

"You're getting pressure from both sides -- and they're good at talking," he said. "They can really sway your opinion. That's why it made it harder than it actually should have been."

That is, until he was able to clear his head and look at things a little more objectively. Then he realized he liked his earlier conclusion, that winning college hockey's national championship would be the perfect way to end his amateur career.

In 38 games, Strait had two goals, seven assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-10 as Boston University won every tournament it entered through the season, ending with the Frozen Four.

"That's the pinnacle," Strait said. "I was thinking, 'How could it get any better than this?' Next year was just going to be a disappointment to me.

"On top of it all, the No. 1 reason is I want to play in the NHL. When I weighed the options with my parents, it just seemed like a no-brainer to me. I really wanted to be in Pittsburgh. I didn't want to go through being a free agent."

So the Penguins won the tug of war.

"Our feeling was that another year of college would not have done him that much good developmentally," said Penguins director of amateur scouting Jay Heinbuck. "He needed to make that next step and get to another caliber of hockey."

Strait's role didn't change through his three college seasons, but the 6-foot-1, 200-pound left-handed shot got better at it.

"From freshman year to junior year, I have really come into my role," he said. "I am a defensive defenseman, but I can jump up once in a while, move the puck. Freshman year, you're physically OK to be there, but you're not physically ready to dominate. Last year, I felt it was a lot easier to be there. Mistakes came minimally to me."

For anyone who likes comparisons, Strait could be seen as a younger version of Rob Scuderi, the shutdown defenseman and elite penalty-killer who helped the Penguins win the Cup before moving on to Los Angeles earlier this month through free agency.

"He's always been really solid defensively and with the first pass, not an offensive, point-producing guy," Heinbuck said of Strait. "He's got a ways to go to become Rob Scuderi, but we looked at him in that sort of mold."

Strait is likely to begin the season at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.

It will be a lot different from filling his weekdays with practice and studying and playing on weekends, as it was in college.

"I've played some pretty good hockey. The AHL is obviously not the NHL level, but guys I've talked to say it's not that much of a jump as it would be from juniors to the AHL," Strait said. "But they say the schedule is a grind. It's going to be a lot different. I'm sure after a couple months, I'll adjust to it. I'm more excited to try something new."

This prospects camp isn't so new for Strait. Two years ago, he was one of the wide-eyed newbies, as the 2009 draftees are this week.

"When I came here, 19 years old, I was nervous. I'm at an NHL camp," Strait said. "This year's a lot more relaxed. You know people already and you get to know more people. I'm still a little nervous just because I'm starting my pro career, but I'm more familiar with everybody, and it makes it a lot easier to enjoy it."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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