Penguins' Sill embraces role of agitator, checker

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Zach Sill has been around for about two months now, and he’s starting to settle in.

He’s getting used to jetting around North America on chartered flights.

To sleeping in hotels where a one-night stay can cost nearly as much as a mortgage payment.

To sharing a locker room with some of hockey’s most-celebrated figures.

But that doesn’t mean Sill is taking any of it for granted.

“I’m comfortable playing [in the NHL], but I’m trying to not get too used to it,” he said. “I’m trying to stay on my game, not be too conceited or think that I’m going to be up here or anything like that.”

Sill, a 25-year-old blue-collar center, made it to the NHL this season nearly by default; if the Penguins lineup hadn’t been shredded by injuries — their man-games lost total through 48 games stands at 288, an average of six per game — he likely would have spent the winter with their AHL team in Wilkes-Barre.

But he seized the opportunity he was presented and exploited it.

Odds are he never will be so secure in the NHL that he could afford to become complacent, but Sill has proven he is not out of place at this level. Sure, he is cast strictly as a role player, but clearly he is capable of handling that role.

Sill’s average ice time of 10:58 is the lowest of any Penguin appearing in more than five games — heck, it’s barely longer than a typical Alex Kovalev shift used to be — but it has been enough for him to make his presence known.

He has become an integral part of the Penguins’ penalty-killing unit, averaging one minute, 55 seconds of short-handed work per game to place fourth among the team’s forwards, while embracing the usual array of fourth-line responsibilities with gusto. There’s an emphasis on playing well in the defensive zone and on playing the body as vigorously and frequently as possible. Sill also has a knack for annoying opponents, a nice addition to the repertoire of anyone with his job description.

“He’s a guy who plays really hard,” frequent linemate Craig Adams said. “He’s a strong checker. You can see that when he hits somebody. He’s definitely thrown some big hits and he’s a tough guy, too.

“He’s doing a tough thing, coming in and trying to figure out how to play that role and those sorts of minutes. But I think he’s done a good job.”

Sill does not have a point in 19 games with the Penguins, and likely won’t pad those numbers much, regardless of how long he is drawing an NHL paycheck. He had a career-high 11 goals in 80 games with the Baby Penguins three winters ago, and it’s possible he never again will approach that total as a pro.

Still, like most players who make it to the NHL, there was a time when he was a dominant offensive force, capable of accumulating points faster than Tiger Williams piled up penalty minutes a few decades back.

That had changed by the time he was in his mid-teens — Sill never scored more than 18 goals in three seasons with Moncton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — but he didn’t mind because he already had embraced his job as a checker-hitter-agitator.

“That was the role I loved to play,” he said. “Even from a young age, I was hitting hard. I was always a hard hitter, that sort of guy. Blocking shots, that sort of thing.

“Scoring got harder. [Defensemen] got better. Everyone around you got better. The thing that always stayed the same was my hard hitting and blocking shots and being able to take on that role of playing against the other team’s best players.

“I learned to love that, learned to love disrupting plays and making other skilled guys a little [upset] and agitated. That’s the role I’ve played, and I love it.”

He has filled it effectively for Wilkes-Barre, beginning in 2010-11, but acknowledged there were times when he wasn’t certain he’d ever get to do it in the NHL. Which doesn’t mean he entertained the idea of walking away from the game.

“The last couple of years, I’ve been trying to get here, trying to get here,” he said. “I’ve been kind of sticking it out, sticking it out.

“The coaching staffs that have been around me kept pushing me, kept telling me that I was going to get there. Even from a young age, when I started playing pro, I had the faith of the coaching staff that, if I grew my game, there’d be a chance I could play in the National Hockey League.”

“I just kind of ran with that and tried to get better. And it worked out.”

NOTES — The Penguins canceled Thursday’s practice and have a scheduled day off today. … Defenseman Simon Despres and forwards Nick Drazenovic and Luc-Pierre Letourneau-Leblond were assigned to Wilkes-Barre.

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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