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Most Penguins Training Camp Hopefuls Have Long Odds

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With many one-way contracts, the Penguins don't have many jobs up for grabs, but that won't stop these youngsters from chasing the dream.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have most of their roster penciled in heading into training camp 2010. Twenty players (13 forwards, five defensemen and two goalies) find themselves with "one-way" contracts that will pay them a major-league salary and most likely guarantee a spot in the roster at the start of the 2010-11 season.

In net, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson surely have their spots secure for opening night, barring injury. Defensively, Ben Lovejoy is the front-runner to nab the final spot in the playing lineup, but the competition could be wide open behind him, with jobs to win (or lose). Up front, the salary cap makes it unlikely the team carries more than 13 forwards, so things could be about set.

Still, training camp is the one time of the year when the young and unproven get to line up against the established NHL talent and show what they've got. They have a chance to force the organization to keep them, and adjust their existing plans. If no personnel changes are made via a last minute free agency add or a trade, here are the odds of the young players trying to fight their way onto the NHL roster.


FORWARDS:

Mark Letestu

Overview:  Letestu has gone from an undrafted free agent to a bona fide AHL scorer to now someone the Pens trusted enough to insert into an NHL playoff lineup. At 25 years old, Letestu has some big-league experience (ten NHL regular season games, four playoff games) and has made a positive impression on the organization.

Main Obstacle (other than the 13 players in front of him):  Letestu might not find a hole in the NHL depth chart.  No matter how the roster sorts out, the Pens already have a few world-class centers, Craig Adams is firmly entrenched for his penalty-killing abilities, and Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy can play some center too.  

Who He'll Need To Be Better Than: Talbot, Kennedy, Adams, Mike Rupp, Eric Godard and all the other bubble players.

Odds Of Making Roster: 10%.  If the Pens intend to flip Evgeni Malkin to the wing - or if Jordan Staal's foot recovery costs him regular season games and they don't like how Talbot's playing - they'll be looking for another center, and Letestu has to be tops on that list. Otherwise, unless the team is going to trade an NHL forward (and there's no reason to expect that to happen this early), then it's likely going to be a numbers game that dooms Letestu, no matter how well he plays in camp.

Eric Tangradi

Overview: Tangradi is the organization's prized prospect, and he's playing well in the rookie tournament in London, Ontario. He has a combination of size, hands and physicality that no other forward in the entire organization can match, even on the NHL roster.  

Main Obstacle (other than the 13 players in front of him): Experience. Injuries cost Tangradi some games last year and he only has 70 career regular season/playoff games under his belt as a professional (including just one at the NHL level).

Who He'll Need To Be Better Than:  If Tangradi clearly outshines some or all of Kennedy, Talbot and Mike Comrie, it'll be difficult for the team to cut him and might trigger a personnel move to make room for him. But given Tangradi's youth and inexperience, the team will probably give him more time to develop at the AHL level in Wilkes-Barre.

Odds Of Making Roster: 5%. The sky is still the limit for Tangradi, but he needs to learn how to fly first. Expect to see him in the NHL at some point in the season if he plays well in the minors.

Dustin Jeffrey

Overview:  At 22, Jeffrey is something of an "old" prospect now. He's entering his third full professional season and has 15 career NHL games under his belt. He can play all three forward positions and is generally a reliable player in all circumstances.

Main Obstacle (other than the 13 players in front of him): Role and opportunity. Frankly, the Pens have better centers. They have better grinders. They have better skill at the NHL level. Jeffrey projects as an AHL scoring threat, but what's his role in the NHL?

Who He'll Need To Be Better Than: Talbot, Kennedy, Adams, Rupp, Godard and all the other bubble players.

Odds Of Making Roster: 5%. Jeffrey's versatility makes him a good prospect, but with all the bodies in front of him he's going to need an excellent camp showing to stick in Pittsburgh for the beginning of the season. However, depending on how things shake out, Jeffrey would likely be the first forward to earn a call-up if there's an injury.


Nick Johnson, Ryan Craig, Brett Sterling, Chris Conner

Overview:  This is the rest of the pack, if you will. All of these guys are 25 or older and have basically become career minor leaguers. It'd take the camps of their lives or a demonstration of incredible chemistry with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin for one them to stick right out of training camp.

Main Obstacle (other than the 13 players in front of them): Sheer numbers. Most of these guys were brought in or kept around for their abilities at the minor league level. With all the Pens' signed forwards, plus the younger fringe players, it's an uphill battle for anyone in this group to avoid riding the buses come October.

Who They'll Need To Be Better Than: Practically every forward in camp.

Odds Of Making Roster: 1%. Never say "never," right? Any of these guys could find themselves in Pittsburgh later in the season if injuries strike, depending on what the team is looking to add to the lineup (a scorer, a winger, a center, a grinder, and so on). But it'd be a huge, huge surprise if a name from this list were still in the NHL after final cuts are made.

DEFENSE

Ben Lovejoy

Overview:  Entering his fourth season with the organization, Lovejoy should finally stick in the NHL full-time. His game has been refined at the AHL level, where he led all players in plus/minus in 2008-09 and improved in every facet of the game.

Main Obstacle: A last minute veteran signing or a total collapse in camp is about the only way Lovejoy won't make the Pens' opening night roster.

Who He'll Need To Be Better Than: The rest of the defensemen profiled on this list, but if Lovejoy just plays the game he knows how to play, it should be an open-and-shut case for him to finally stick around on an NHL roster.

Odds Of Making Roster: 85%.  Lovejoy has been groomed for this chance for years. Now it's finally his for the taking.

Deryk Engelland

Overview:  At age 28, Engelland has played for six different minor league teams in three organizations. He has found a niche as a tough defenseman with the Penguins, and he didn't look out of place in limited minutes in his nine-fame NHL debut last year.

Main Obstacle:  Perception. All the other main contenders will be younger than Engelland, most with more perceived upside. Some were drafted by Pittsburgh and have been developed for a long time, which may give them an edge.  

Who He'll Need To Be Better Than: Simon Despres, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo, Corey Potter, Andrew Hutchinson, Steve Wagner

Odds Of Making Roster: 50%. If the Pens want to keep a seventh defenseman (and they may gamble with just six until someone gets hurt), Engelland seems to have the inside track. He has played with Pittsburgh before and acquited himself well. His physicality, toughness and experience make Engelland a prime candidate to make the team.

Simon Despres

Overview:  The Pens' first-round pick in 2009 has set the world on fire lately, with strong showings in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, an invite to Team Canada's World Junior Championship camp, and his play in developmental and rookie camps.

Main Obstacle: Youth. It's almost impossible to fill a job as an NHL defenseman as a teenager, especially for a team that intends to contend. Young defensemen make mistakes and can be inconsistent. For the Pens' best chances and Despres' development, he really has to show he belongs in the NHL at this moment or he will be sent back to Juniors.

Who He'll Need To Be Better Than: All of the fringe players, but not only that, Despres will need show that he can fit in with the other NHL-level defensemen.

Odds Of Making Roster: 25%. In 2006-07 the Pens gave Kris Letang seven games in the NHL before sending him back to juniors for the season. If Despres can follow that path, everyone will be happy. If Despres does make the big step of earning a chance to stay, it surely will be for just a handful of games - any longer would "burn" a year of Despres' entry-level contract and take away a year of restricted free agency eligibility. 

Robert Bortuzzo

Overview: A third-round pick in 2007, Bortuzzo completed a successful rookie season in the minors last season, despite fighting injuries all year. He stood out at last year's training camp and has impressed many observers.

Main Obstacle: Ben Lovejoy. There's no point of keeping 21-year-old Bortuzzo in the NHL if he's going to sit in the press box and not be able to play and continue developing. Bortuzzo needs to earn a place as a top six defenseman in camp, or he's going back to Wilkes-Barre.

Who He'll Need To Be Better Than: Lovejoy and the rest of the bubble players.

Odds Of Making Roster: 15%. Odds are Bortuzzo will get a call-up at some point if he continues to impress, but it's going to take a lot for him to win a spot right off the bat.

Andrew Hutchinson, Steve Wagner, Corey Potter

Overview: Much like the group of forwards we highlighted above, these guys were all brought in primarily for their AHL experience and abilities.

Main Obstacle: There's a reason some players never can crack the NHL level full-time - they just aren't skilled or consistent enough to play the position.

Who They'll Need To Be Better Than: Engelland. And they'll have to convince management the Pens should keep a seventh defenseman at the start of the season.

Odds Of Making Roster: 10% for any one player. The competition will be wide open to claim that seventh defensive spot (if it exists), and it probably won't be won by a younger player like Bortuzzo or Brian Strait. A strong camp could take Hutchinson, Wagner or Potter onto the final roster out of camp, but the odds are a lot longer that any one of them would actually be in the opening-night lineup October 7th against Philadelphia.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.