Penguins 2009 Prospect Conditioning Camp review

By Ian Altenbaugh

The Pittsburgh Penguins held their annual Prospect Conditioning Camp from July 20-25 with all of on-ice activities held at the Iceoplex at Southpointe.  The camp was held later than other teams in the NHL, a byproduct of an extended playoff run, and rigorous off-season. The Penguins held four days of on-ice activities which not only included the traditional drills and scrimmages but also on-ice tests. Aside from physical tests, instructional sessions, and fitness training with Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Kadar, the off-ice activities for prospects included attending a Pirates baseball game, going on a scavenger hunt, and engaging in a paintball match.

Headlining the group of 26 prospects were trade deadline acquisition Eric Tangradi and 2009 first-round pick Simon Despres. All but two of the players who attended, Robert Morris University standouts Nathan Longpre and Dennis Urban, are property of either Pittsburgh or Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Other new faces at camp were 2009 draft picks Andy Bathgate, Ben Hanowski, Alex Velischek, and Nick Petersen, as well as free-agent signees Brad Thiessen, Zack Sill (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton), and Lane Caffaro (Wilkes-Barre Scranton). Rounding out the rest of the camp roster were Penguins pro prospects Jonathan D’Aversa, Luca Caputi, Nick Johnson, and Dustin Jeffrey; CHL prospects Robert Bortuzzo, Joey Haddad, Patrick Killeen, Nathan Moon, Casey Pierro-Zabotel, and Keven Veilleux; and NCAA prospects Nick D’Agostino, Carl Sneep, Brian Strait, and Joe Vitale.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach Todd Reirden, Penguins Assistant to the General Manager Tom Fitzgerald, and Robert Morris University Head Coach Derek Schooley were in charge of on-ice activities.

The goal of the camp is to identify player strengths and weaknesses, track annual progress, and design individual conditioning regimes for players. The Penguins extended the length of the camp this year and added an additional day of on-ice instruction.

Of the 26 players who attended camp, 25 participated in the on-ice training while 20-year-old forward Haddad was present for the instructional sessions but could not partake in the on-ice activities due to off-season knee surgery.

From Day 1, it was the Eric Tangradi show. While other prospects performed well and at times showed flashes of brilliance, Tangradi’s giant frame, up-right stance, and quick feet stood out from the pack. Despite recent wrist surgery and some difficulty moving his hand because of scar tissue, Tangradi also showed why he scored 38 goals last season for the OHL Belleville Bulls, redirecting passes and shots during drills, and later scoring a goal in the scrimmage. The 6’4 power forward was acquired in February of 2009 in part of the deal that saw Chris Kunitz come to Pittsburgh in exchange for Ryan Whitney. At 20 years old, Tangradi was not the oldest prospect present but, listed conservatively at 221 lbs, was the most physically mature. 

As far as the 2009 draft class was concerned, Despres and Hanowski impressed the most. One of the highest scoring forwards in Minnesota High School history, Hanowski showed brilliant puck-moving ability at times, and a diverse shot repertoire. Meanwhile, Despres showed onlookers why the Penguins were so enamored with his skating ability and overall potential. Despres is a fluid, graceful skater who has good size, and can use his stick very effectively to break up passing and shooting lanes. During the scrimmage, the blueliner at times looked unstoppable, clogging up passing lanes and showing good gap management.

Velischek, an extremely raw defensive prospect, showed brilliant, mobile skating ability and poise beyond his years. However, like many offensively minded prospects on the blue line, Velischek often tried to do too much, and was frequently caught out of place. Nonetheless, he has shown good skating, puck-distribution abilities, and a near reckless habit of jumping into the play offensively.

Of the players who have attended the Penguins conditioning camp before, Bortuzzo and Veilleux looked to be the most improved. Standing at 6’5, Veilleux is a center with probably the most offensive abilities of any of the Penguins prospects attending the camp.  While it is undermined how he will perform in his first professional season in 2009-10, it is safe to say he is a brilliant puck-distributor who can become a great asset for the Penguins down the road – particularly if he can adapt to the wing. For Bortuzzo, it was a matter of seeing him fully healthy for the first time in two years. The 6’4 defenseman is a swift skater for his size and possesses a booming right-handed point shot. He is also an underrated puck-distrutor, showing a crisp first pass, and the potential to man the point on the power play.

Eleven of the 26 prospects to attend the camp, forwards Haddad, Pierro-Zabotel, Tangradi, Veilleux and Vitale, defensemen Strait, Bortuzzo, Grant, and goaltender Thiessen will all be entering their first full professional season – most likely in the AHL. Petersen, drafted as an overager in 2009, could also be signed by the beginning of the season.

The two biggest concerns that plagued the Penguins prospect pool, a lack of scoring forwards and overall depth, have been addressed through trade, free agency, and the draft this past season making pool as deep and as promising as it has looked since 2006.