Corey Andonovski has been in pro hockey for a little over a year now, and has a pretty good idea of when he’d like to secure a spot at the NHL level.
“I wish,” he said, smiling, “it was today or tomorrow.”
Of course, Andonovski doesn’t have to put his Princeton education to use to realize that can’t happen until sometime next month, at the earliest.
And that, with all of the NHL veterans who will be competing for jobs on the third and fourth lines when the Pittsburgh Penguins open training camp Thursday, the chances of it happening then are, to be charitable, quite slim.
But he’s OK with that, too, because his ultimate objective is to not simply reach the NHL, but to earn steady work there.
“I’m not a guy who necessarily wants to play one game in the NHL,” he said. “I want to play 100, 200, 300 or whatever. So for me, I don’t think there’s any rush. Obviously, the faster it happens, the better for everyone. But just being realistic about myself and my game, I think there’s longevity there.”
Andonovski, 24, is the oldest member of the Penguins’ squad competing in the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo — he edges fellow forward Jagger Joshua by three days — and closed out the scoring in their 8-3 victory against Ottawa Saturday with a goal from the inner edge of their right circle.
While his goal didn’t have much of an impact on the outcome of that game, it could have given Andonovski a confidence boost that his belief that he has untapped offensive potential is rooted in reality.
He had eight goals and 11 assists in 62 games with the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre in 2022-23, and never scored more than 10 goals in his three college seasons. Nonetheless, he think he’s capable of putting up some bigger numbers.
“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s a part of my game that maybe wasn’t realized as much last season, but it’s something that’s still there.”
Andonovski is 6-foot-1, 194 pounds, and signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an undrafted free agent in March, 2022.
Although the transition from Princeton to the pros was not without its challenges — Andonovski had to adapt to playing a lot more games and said competing in the American Hockey League was “a little more grueling than I experienced in college” — he said that first season was a positive step in his development.
“Overall, I thought it was a good experience,” he said. “It comes with lots of ups and downs, which I think a lot of guys probably experience in their first year pro. For me, it was a good experience to go through that and find ways to battle through adversity at times and, obviously, just kind of build on that going into this season.”
AHL regulations require that no fewer than 12 of the 18 skaters a team dresses for its games must have played no more than 260 games in the NHL, AHL or a European Elite league prior to the start of that season, and another guy who has appeared in no more than 320.
That might prevent the Penguins from carrying any more veterans in Wilkes-Barre than they did a year ago, but whoever is assigned there after failing to earn a spot on the major-league roster likely will be more accomplished than some of the players who were there in 2022-23.
While that could, in theory, lead to reduced ice time and responsibilities for younger players, Andonovski believes an upgrade in the team’s established talent will be beneficial for him.
“I still think there’s a development focus in Wilkes-Barre, with our coaching staff,” he said. “When you have guys who have played five, six seven years pro or in the NHL, you can always learn something from those guys, so I don’t look at it as a negative at all.
“If there are more established guys, obviously, my job might become a little harder, but that’s OK. I welcome the challenge.”
And while there are quite a few obstacles — mostly, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bounty of bottom-six forward candidates — in his path to the NHL, at least in the short term, Andonovski is adamant that he has no misgivings about accepting the free-agent deal he was offered by former GM Ron Hextall.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “The organization’s been great. Even the old staff, although they’re gone now, they were great with me when I was here. The organization’s top-notch.”
Andonovski will be a restricted free agent after this season. The onus is on him to prove that he merits a place in it beyond next spring. And, eventually, on its NHL roster.