Penguins Training Camp: Prospect's future is right now
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Just about everyone in the Penguins' training camp is competing for something.
For some, it's a spot on the big league roster. For others, a more prominent spot on the depth chart, or maybe a little extra playing time. Or, for some prospects, simply to catch management's eye.
Not Ryan Schnell. He's fighting for his livelihood.
Schnell, you see, is in camp on a professional tryout. No contract, no promises, no guarantees.
Just an opportunity.
Not that it's anything new for him, really.
The Penguins brought Schnell in to compete in a 2009 prospects tournament in Kitchener, Ontario, because they wanted to add some toughness. No one knew whether his gig would last even a week.
It did. He performed well enough to earn an invitation to the Penguins' training camp, and then a spot in the camp of their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.
Schnell, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound left winger, did enough there to earn an American Hockey League contract and, even though he spent the season with Wheeling in the ECHL, got himself onto the franchise's radar.
That yielded an invitation to this year's prospects tournament where, despite an ill-considered hit from behind on Toronto's Dave Cowan, he acquitted himself well enough to earn an invite to the Penguins' camp again.
Schnell won't waste any time house-hunting while he's here -- his best-case scenario at this point is to get another AHL deal -- but he has positioned himself to claim a place with the Baby Penguins.
"This year, we have our team in Wilkes-Barre set up where Jesse [Boulerice] is sort of the veteran enforcer down there, and we're looking for a younger guy to take on that role, as the second guy," said assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as GM in Wilkes-Barre. "Hopefully, Ryan can step up and take that.
"This is a great opportunity for him, a great experience to be in a National Hockey League camp. But his main focus is Wilkes-Barre's camp, starting up next Friday."
Although the Penguins haven't announced their lineup for their preseason opener against Detroit Wednesday at the Consol Energy Center, Schnell seems unlikely to be part of it.
He said it would "be a dream come true, to put on that jersey and play a real game," but since he is neither an elite prospect nor a contender for a job in the NHL, getting Schnell onto the ice for an exhibition game won't be a priority for management.
So Schnell will have to try to get attention with his work in drills and scrimmages, and continue to approach every workout as if his future depends on it, because it quite possibly does.
"I think I'm a very good skater for my size, and they just want to see me be physical and make room for my teammates and finish every check," he said. "Not have any quiet shifts. Make sure I'm doing something, whether it's an aggressive play in front of the net or blocking a shot."
Schnell appeared in 60 games with the Nailers in 2009-10, putting up two goals, four assists and 173 penalty minutes. If he doesn't stick with the Baby Penguins, there might well be a spot for him in the ECHL again, but that's not an option he's contemplating at this point.
"I'm not even thinking about that," he said. "My focus is all to be in Wilkes-Barre."
Schnell is an alumnus of the U.S. national development program under-18 team, and knows Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes from their time together there. That relationship could work to his benefit, but not so much that he can take getting another contract for granted.
That kind of uncertainty has to compound the stress Schnell feels during camp, although he admitted that it makes getting motivated to do his best work pretty easy.
"It definitely is added pressure," Schnell said. "But in a case like this, it kind of keeps the carrot dangling in front of your nose and you have to lay everything on the line."
Sometime in the reasonably near future, he'll follow that line across the commonwealth to Luzerne County, where he will resume his struggle to prove that he deserves a place on the Baby Penguins' payroll. Until then, his challenge is to do everything possible to show the front office why he belongs in the organization.
"A spot is open for me in Wilkes-Barre," he said. "I'm trying to get better here every day and show them that I deserve that spot."