Penguins' development camp by-product of salary cap

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Goals by Zack Sill, Joey Haddad and Nick Petersen Saturday afternoon at Southpointe will not be logged in any official manner, but the reason they and several others were in town and on the ice is something of growing importance for the Penguins.

The three young forwards scored in the scrimmage that marked the end of the annual development camp, which was started by general manager Ray Shero after he arrived in 2006.

Shero brought the idea with him from Nashville, which held the camps before the NHL lockout. In the salary-cap era, teams such as the Penguins with a payroll that tickles the cap need every advantage they can get in turning prospects into pros.

"It's huge," Tom Fitzgerald, Penguins assistant to the general manager, said of these camps. "There's an acceleration process now because of the salary cap. Guys, kids who get drafted, you try to project maybe four years out them being part of your roster.

"Here in Pittsburgh, [owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle] have allowed Ray to [have] a cap team. So you need the young guys. We need to inject youth into our lineup because of the cap situation."

The Penguins have several key players locked up for at least a few seasons, and all have graduated beyond their lower-paying, entry-level contracts. Barring a trade or significant free-agent acquisition before preseason camp opens in September, the Penguins are expected to have at least one forward spot and one spot on defense open.

With only $2 million to $3 million of cap money left, rookies will have a good chance to grab those spots, and there is a good chance it could be someone who attended the development camp this week.

Fitzgerald emphasized that these are not tryout camps but, rather, a chance to help prospects become more prepared to advance. It seems to be working.

"In our past three camps, 16 players from these development camps have gone on to play National Hockey League games," noted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the camp. "We need them to get there for our organization."

Shero figures the more comfortable each prospect is with the Penguins' system and the atmosphere around a pro team, the better it is for everyone.

"This is such an educational week for these kids," Shero said. "I remember when I was drafted way back when and I went to training camp in Los Angeles. Four years of college and then all of a sudden to go into that environment ... I know what it's like to feel like a fish out of water.

"It's important for these kids to know what it's all about, the training, the expectations physically, the things off the ice, getting to know people. Even the college guys, they're going to take this and utilize this when they go back to college."

In addition to four practices, the prospects spent the week working out, doing team activities and attending several meetings and seminars covering everything from X's and O's to nutrition to dealing with the media.

"The last two years, we've put an emphasis on making sure that we are giving them all the tools and resources that they need on and off the ice to make sure that they're really prepared when they come into [training] camp because the way the salary-cap structure is, our organization, we're going to need these guys to play for us," Reirden said.

"We can start to put some of the thoughts into their minds systematically, how things are supposed to look and terminology we use, points we emphasize as an organization. It's all part of the process of preparing these guys to come up and have success."

The 28 players at camp ranged from teenagers drafted last month to some who have played in the American Hockey League under Reirden, maybe have had a quick taste of the NHL and could be ready to step into the NHL on a more permanent basis.

From the latter category, forwards Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey and defensemen Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo are the most likely to get a shot at playing in the NHL. Perhaps, the most improved player from camp last year to this year was defenseman Simon Despres, a first-round pick in 2009 who has a year of junior eligibility left but could reach the pro level.

"This has been the hardest-working group we've had at development camp," Reirden said. "We did take it up another level in terms of what the expectations were for the guys. It's been a difficult week on them. It's been full days, but fair days."


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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