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Penguins Camp Surprise: ‘Tenacious’ Drake Caggiula, the Dark Horse Becomes a Favorite



Pittsburgh Penguins, Drake Caggiula, Josh Archibald

CRANBERRY — In every training camp, there is a surprise or a player who makes one wonder if someone new could upset the established balance and the team’s best-laid plans. It’s exciting but usually lacks a satisfying payoff. Typically, the best players come through, eventually, and what “could be” becomes “what is.” The flashy training camp fades, and the unexpected shiny new toy finds his level, but that is what makes Drake Caggiula a little bit different.

He is unquestionably the early breakout candidate in the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp.

He’s also a pretty affable guy.

Caggiula isn’t a minor league grinder on a “try hard” candidacy. Nor is he over his head. Upon leaving North Dakota University in 2016, Caggiula was a highly sought college-free agent. Teams were heavily recruiting him, and he had his pick of the litter. And just like Justin Schultz before him, Caggiula chose the Edmonton Oilers.

In August, he signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Penguins that pays him $750,000 in the NHL and only $400,000 in the AHL.

Playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, Caggiula has been a camp standout and has raced to an early lead in the race for the precious few roster spots at the bottom of the Pittsburgh Penguins roster.

“It’s been great. They’re obviously both tremendous players in their own right. And, you know, being able to step into camp and watch them and learn from them, ask them questions — that goes a long way,” said Caggiula. “You know, I’m not necessarily a young guy anymore, but you’re never too old to learn.”

While head coach Mike Sullivan expressly told reporters he’d like to reserve judgment on other new faces, he made no such qualification on Caggiula.

“I think he’s been pretty good so far. He brings a ton of speed. He’s tenacious on the puck. We’re trying to put guys in positions where they might have an opportunity to play to their strengths,” Sullivan said. “Geno and Rusty are guys (that have) played an awful lot together … We just thought we would try a speed guy, a guy that can bring some energy and tenacity on the puck and see what that might look like. That line’s been really good so far.”

Probably the best line of training camp.

Drake Caggiula Backstory

Caggiula, 28, is not a jumbo package option. He’s 5-foot-10, 176 pounds.

But he knows what is required of a fourth-liner, and he has some offensive ability when the opportunity or desire presents itself (sounds like Zach Aston-Reese, doesn’t it?).

In the last six seasons, Caggiula has played in 278 NHL games. The offense promise he flashed in college gave way to a fourth-line role. He has reached double-digit goals (13) just once in his career, which was back in 2017-18.

(Edit: he scored 12 goals in 2018-19, split between the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks)

It’s been that long.

Caggiula has bounced through Edmonton, Chicago, Arizona, and Buffalo in recent seasons. He played only 29 games over the past two seasons with the hapless Buffalo Sabres. Last February, he underwent surgery for a herniated disc in his neck that he suffered last November. When the Penguins came calling, it was an easy choice.

“I mean, the organization kind of speaks for itself, right? I just wanted a fresh start; come to an organization with tradition and winning habits and get to learn some stuff from highly touted veterans here,” the zippy winger said. “And, you know, I think just a change of scenery to take on a new challenge and the like.”

After suffering the neck injury in November, he attempted to rest and avoid surgery, but by February, it was no longer a choice. The surgery carried a six-to-nine month recovery. Caggiula is still fresh from the recovery and worked with Gary Roberts through the summer.

“I went from pain every day and issues with my arm and all that from the nerve to that instant relief after surgery and worked really, really hard in the summer with therapists and at the gym to make sure I’d be ready for camp … It feels good to be cleared and be playing hockey again.”

Caggiula began skating in May, but doctors did not clear him for contact until early September.

It’s a crowded field at the bottom of the Penguins’ lines. Gone are mainstays Dominik Simon, Aston-Reese, and Brian Boyle. The Penguins acquired former first-round pick Ryan Poehling from the Montreal Canadiens in the Jeff Petry deal. They also signed Josh Archibald at the beginning of NHL free agency, and former college free agent Drew O’Connor begins his third professional season.

Caggiula seemed like an afterthought signing on a two-way deal.

But in the first days of Penguins training camp, it’s been CAggiula, not Poehling nor Archibald, who has grabbed attention, but the speedy Caggiula, who might play perfectly into Sullivan’s system and be able to help in one pressing area of need.

After the NHL trade deadline, in which Aston-Reese was dealt to Anaheim in the Rickard Rakell deal, Jeff Carter was pressed into PK duty. The Penguins’ penalty-kill regressed.

Winning a Job: Pittsburgh Penguins Penalty Kill

The Penguins PK, while not specifically any one player’s fault, imploded against the New York Rangers in Round One. Penalty killing will be a renewed emphasis after the late season falters by one of the league’s best PK units. Caggiula has been a PK guy throughout his NHL career, and his speed would seem to be quite useful. So, too, might his attitude.

“It will be a bit of a learning curve with the new system and all that sort of stuff. Those are the little things you’ve got to take pride in. Not everyone’s going to be a power play guy. Not everyone’s going to score 100 points in a year. So you have to find a little niche that you can carve out for yourself and do some little things to help teams win,” said Caggiula. “That’s something that I’ve done throughout my career is the penalty kill. I’d like to take some more steps forward in that aspect and take on bigger roles…”

As GM Ron Hextall put it, the team must make some tough decisions. Only Drew O’Connor is waivers exempt. Caggiula, Poehling, and Archibald would need to clear waivers to remain with the organization (Two-way contracts merely specificy a lower salary in the minors, they do not allow a player free passage to the AHL).

For his part, Caggiula is doing his best to make that decision easier for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Bundle Up

But for anyone who has ever been to Grand Forks, ND, or its sister city, International Falls, MN, you know it is the most frigid, unforgiving tundra in the continental United States. I wore out a booth at Hardee’s during the 2006 World Juniors there because it was the only place open on the one-mile walk between the arena and my apartment. Daily temperatures were often below minus-50.

Caggiula spent four years at the blue blood hockey program, North Dakota University.

How did he survive?

“Some things you can’t say on air,” he said before a broad grin emerged.

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Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
2 months ago

I knew that you were going to pick Caggiula. He was an under the radar signing but his style of play definitely fits the system. I would not be surprised if he is at least the 13th forward.

2 months ago

He scored 12 goals in 18-19 in 55 games and 9 goals the next season in 40 games so please check your stats as i count twice he reached double digits in goals.

2 months ago

Another little guy. We need bigger guys.

2 months ago

speed looks good in camp, but in regulations, ice positioning on O & D is just as important. Speed only gets you 8 min a game

2 months ago

Only in pro sports do “only $400,000.00” make remote sense. Sure an extra 350,000.00 is awesome but won’t be hurting either way.