The Pittsburgh Penguins head into the 2014-15 season with an incomplete NHL roster, and while some of that could change from now to start of the season, the organization seems content to let their prospects battle for whatever remaining spots there might be.
There appears to be at least one spot up for grabs at forward, with possibly more to start the year, depending on whether wingers Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett have recovered from their respective surgeries enough to play.
“There’s definitely spots for somebody,” said Adam Payerl, a 6’3 power forward who is entering his third full pro season with the Penguins organization. “I’m going to come to camp with an attitude that I want to earn that spot and show that I can play there. I want to make it a hard decision for the coaches.”
Payerl is not alone.
“If there’s a chance (to make the NHL roster) I want to take it seriously,” said forward Dominik Uher, who like Payerl, is entering his third season of pro hockey. “That’s my goal.”
It is common for any player to want to make the NHL team out of training camp but not always realistic. However, with a mandate from Penguins ownership to get younger, faster, and grittier, minor league players like Payerl and Uher have legitimate chances to make the Penguins NHL roster to start the season.
“This is the first year I’m spending the whole summer in North America, trying to get in the best shape of my life so I’m ready for training camp,” said Uher, who is a native of the Czech Republic.
Uher is training with Jeff Saibil, a popular personal trainer who has done work with the prestigious Adrenaline Performance Center in Montreal, and if the 21-year-old Czech is not yet in the best shape of his life, he appears well on his way to be.
Known as a bit of a pest on the ice, Uher’s game grew substantially over the 2013-14 AHL season. He started the year on the fourth line, but with the Penguins organization hit by injuries early, often, and throughout their lineup, the he was pressed into a bigger role with more responsibilities.
“It was a good season,” Uher said a giant grin. “I feel like I developed a lot last year. I think the coaches saw it too, I got more ice time. I feel like I was more consistent. That [consistency] equals the ice time and the opportunities I was getting, especially on the penalty kill.”
By the end of the 2013-14 season Uher was a regular penalty killer for the Penguins and was often deployed on a shutdown line with Payerl and Bobby Farnham. He did however see time in a scoring role for the Penguins, and finished with seven goals and 23 points, which ranked eighth on an offensively challenged Wilkes-Barre roster.
“You always have to have the same way to your game,” said Uher. “No matter if I play in a first line or a fourth line, I still have to bring my energy and my physicality. The difference, is on the fourth line, you kind of have two players that play the same way. On the first line, there’s time to make a play instead of just chip in the puck and getting on it.”
“There’s a difference but you still want to be the same player,” Uher added. “So I’m trying to be an energy guy almost every shift I get on, no matter if I am in a first or fourth line.”
Like Uher, Payerl has made penalty killing a big part of his game, and he feels that it can help him make the next step in the NHL.
“That was definitely something I was happy to add to my game,” Payerl said. “I’d like to build on that and, if I can be a staple penalty killing guy at whatever level I play at, I think that would be a huge addition to my game.”
Unlike Uher, who is a versatile pest, Payerl is a big, mean, power forward who can provide a strong net-front presence.
“His nickname is beast for good reason.” said Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin. “He’s a mountain of a man. The more he can be in front of the net, the less goalies are going to see.”
Guerin was quick to point out that Payerl also possessed a fair amount of skill to complement his big frame and physical style.
“He’s got a good skill level. We push him to have a good mix between a physical game and being able to make plays. Adam is a very capable guy,” Guerin added. “You’re always looking for size and speed and if you can mix in it a pretty good set of hands, then every team is looking for that.”
Payerl made his NHL debut at the end of the 2013-14 season, appearing in two games – an April 6th match against the Colorado Avalanche and an April 9th match against the Detroit Red Wings. He registered no points and averaged a little over nine minutes while playing on the fourth line.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Payerl when asked to talk about his NHL debut. “The season is going pretty quick and you don’t really have time to reflect on it. But at the end of the year I had a little bit of time to reflect back on the season and I was pretty happy to get those games.”
Payerl is not satisfied with just those two games though. And after seeing big, physical players like Jordan Nolan and Dwight King hoist the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings this past summer, he is as driven ever to make the NHL roster.
“You see guys like that have success,” said Payerl. “It’s a motivator for me to improve different parts of my game to be able to contribute that kind of style at the NHL level.”
“I got to consistently play my game every shift, every game,” Payerl added. “Show that I can be a big power forward every game. They want me to prove every shift, every game that I can be physical, I can get over pucks in the offensive zone and create offense and make smart plays – skill plays around the net when I have to.”
Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald cautions that while the Penguins have several forward prospects who could compete for a role out of training camp, the organization is not going to rush any of their prospects.
“As far as development is concerned, we feel like we are not rushing anybody,” Fitzgerald said. “The [Olli] Maatta‘s and the potential [Derrick] Pouliot‘s are the exception to the rule. But the norm is play in the American Hockey League and develop your craft down there and grow at your pace, with the help of our coaches and our development staff.”
The next step for Uher and Payerl will be the 2014 NHL Rookie Tournament in London, Ontario. The tournament takes place in mid-September and features prospects from the Penguins, Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, and Toronto Maple Leafs competing against each other. For Uher, it cannot come soon enough.
“It’s going to be great, it’s going to be competitive, and I’m going to be ready for it.”
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh