Minor league call-ups capitalizing on opportunity with Penguins
November 26, 2013 10:33 PM
Zach Sill celebrates a goal in drills during a prospect camp at the Consol Energy Center earlier this year.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They are a collection of six forwards, all undrafted and later signed by the Penguins, who began the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
They can testify that the Penguins, when they need to promote someone to fill a vacancy on their NHL roster, are willing to give different players a chance, so long as they are playing hard in the AHL.
“You’ve got to always believe that — if you play well, you’re going to get rewarded,” Zach Sill said after practice Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
“It’s been that way since I’ve been here. They trust guys in the organization.”
Sill, 25, made his NHL debut in an earlier call-up and is back. He has no points in two games.
Matchup: Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. James Reimer for Maple Leafs.
Penguins: Are 4-5-1 in past 10 games. … Have won three home games in row. … James Neal has nine points (five goals, four assists) in past four games.
Maple Leafs: Are 4-5-1 in past 10 games. … Winning 46.7 percent of faceoffs, among worst in NHL. … Phil Kessel, has 31 giveaways, among most in league.
Hidden stat: Penguins C Sidney Crosby leads NHL with 624 faceoffs taken (327-297, 52.4 percent).
Sill and Andrew Ebbett are expected to be in the lineup tonight when the Penguins face the Toronto Maple Leafs at Consol Energy Center. Ebbett was recalled over the weekend but did not play Monday at Boston.
“You’re not going to get called up just because you’re so-and-so or you have this many games played,” Ebbett said. “It’s the guy that’s playing the best, playing well, that’s going to get the call.”
In addition to Sill, Jayson Megna and Brian Gibbons have made their NHL debuts with the Penguins thanks to call-ups this season. Megna and Gibbons got their first NHL goal, too.
Two others were called up earlier this season, Harry Zolnierczyk and Chris Conner, who is in his second stint with the organization.
Ebbett, 30, has 25 goals, 64 points in 191 NHL games with Anaheim, Chicago, Minnesota, Phoenix and Vancouver. The Penguins, he said, stand out for the cohesiveness and inclusiveness throughout the organization.
“More than probably any team I’ve been on, I feel like that,” Ebbett said. “They treat you when you come into [training] camp as if everyone’s all on the same team, all the same family. Even the guys down in Wheeling [of the ECHL] that come up to Wilkes-Barre I think felt part of the organization right away. It’s been really good.”
That’s by design.
“It’s been a strength of our organization, not only the strength of the players but the development of the players,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
“We really view our team and the depth of our team to be more than just the 22, 21, 23 players on our [NHL] roster. We anticipate and expect guys to be able to come up and contribute.”
And they have — particularly Megna, 23, and Gibbons, 25. Megna had two goals, three points in six games. Gibbons had a goal and an assist in five. Both played mostly on the third line.
For several years, the Penguins have encouraged continuity by having their minor league affiliates use the same systems — even the same terminology, the same faceoff plays.
At Wilkes-Barre, the team not only is winning — 12-4-0-2 — but also is a place for players to hone their game in anticipation of playing in the NHL when there are injuries or other openings.
“Coach [John] Hynes does a great job of getting everyone ready, probably the hardest practices I’ve been a part of down in the minors,” Ebbett said. “He has everyone ready, and I think it’s shown with the guys that have come up so far this year. They’ve done a really good job.”
Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as the Wilkes-Barre general manager, and other members of management keep in close contact with the AHL team.
“It’s a pretty tightly run organization — lots of communication,” Sill said. “[Botterill] is always around the room after games, coming in and talking to us. It shows a lot of interest from the big team. It’s always promising to see how many times we have a scout or a GM or somebody [from the NHL club management] watching our games.”
In addition to those forwards, backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff has made his first four NHL starts this season while Tomas Vokoun is out for a lengthy period because of treatment for a blood clot.
Zatkoff, 26, had a strong season in Wilkes-Barre in 2012-13 after spending his first four pro seasons in the Los Angeles organization. He has been buoyed by the Penguins’ decision to stick with him rather than signing or trading for an experienced backup.
“I’ve only been a part of two organizations, but I think it’s night-and-day different,” Zatkoff said. “The professional manner that it’s handled, and the respect they have for not only their players here, but their prospects down in Wilkes-Barre, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
“They want to get looks at different guys to see how they play at this level. I’m fortunate that they’ve given me an opportunity. I’ve been blessed with that, and I think you’ve seen it with the rest of the guys — calling them up, rewarding them for good play in the minors, and seeing them play their first game and playing well.”
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