BUFFALO — What a difference a year makes. In the 2018 tournament, the Pittsburgh Penguins were forced to sign undrafted prospects to simply fill out their Prospects Challenge roster. Several did not have a legitimate chance of making it beyond the weekend and the team was spanked by the opposition. Fast forward to Friday night at the Buffalo Harbor Center, the Penguins prospects who received the most praise from Prospect Challenge head coach Mike Vellucci were the defensemen.
Vellucci is also the coach/GM of the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. When specifically asked which players jumped out at him after Game 1 of the tournament, Friday night, Vellucci went straight to his blueliners and focused his praise almost exclusively on them.
“(Calen) Addison had a real good game. He had a couple of assists early on. He was a plus player and did well on the power play,” Vellucci said. “We talked about (PO Joseph), we talked about (John) Marino. (Niclas) Almari. All four of those D had a really good game.”
Where once there was none, now there are four, in just 12 months time. Almari led the rush on the Penguins first shift of the game. Later, Marino went end to end, too.
Addison competed in his first tournament last year and was easily the Penguins bright spot, as the team was winless and blown out in two of three games. He smiled when PHN asked him to compare last year to this year.
“Big difference,” he said. “We didn’t have those big scorers last year. That was a big difference.”
Addison rightly felt he played well, too. He moved the puck, was active, and told PHN he felt much more confident, which was obvious in his play. One player not cited by Vellucci, but would certainly qualify as a big scorer was Sam Miletic.
Miletic, 22, was also on the team last year but was not much of a factor. However, he played in WBS last season and his growth was clear. The 6-foot, 185-pound undrafted free agent who played for London and Niagara of the OHL surged in the AHL. Miletic scored 35 points (12g, 23a) in 49 games. He scored the first goal of the game with a sharp wrister from the right-wing circle after a pillowy pass from Addison.
“I worked hard this summer. I worked on my skating and being around better players all summer, which was good,” Miletic said. “With more comfortability, getting more confident, and confident on the plays to make.”
WBS observers have told PHN Miletic was a standout in the AHL last season. The 22-year-old has placed himself firmly on the Penguins radar. Vellucci will get a good dose of Milletic this season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Perhaps Miletic will earn a little praise, too.
The Penguins lost Game 1 in the final two seconds as their defensemen Joseph and Almari left Bruins prospect Anders Bjork alone in front of the net. Bjork lit the lamp with just 1.9 seconds remaining, but in a Prospect Challenge, the final score is less important than player analysis.
“I thought it was a good game, overall. For the first game of rookie camp, it was pretty exciting hockey end to end,” Vellucci said. “A lot of good plays.”
The white-haired Vellucci who was hired to coach the WBS Penguins just a few weeks ago, then given GM duties after Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin was hired as the Minnesota Wild GM, may have a few more white hairs with his defensive crew. While Joseph may have made a few good plays, there were also a few…not so good plays. When asked about the special teams and the challenge of installing a system with one day of work, Vellucci dismissed the ending in favor of the positive.
“(Boston) scored on a power play at the end. That’s a turnover,” he shrugged. “That’s a tough one to give up, but overall, we killed the five-on-three for almost two full minutes.”
Game 2 Saturday will be an important showing for several players. Game 1 was a bit chaotic and at times sloppy. Given the hurried conditions and lack of practice time, it’s par for the course for all teams. As players settle in, we’ll see more in Game 2.
However, the Penguins have already shown more, a lot more, than a year ago.