Joe Vitale: Penguins C Earning His Way with Tenacity, Penalty Kill Prowess
With Sidney Crosby and Dustin Jeffrey unlikely to skate when the Penguins open their season October 6 in Vancouver, Dan Bylsma will find himself in familiar territory—with injuries at the center position.
Last year, the team's top five centers—Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Jeffrey and Mark Letestu—each missed more than 15 games due to injury, with 122 games lost between Crosby, Malkin and Staal.
While Geno and Staal figure to be healthy and ready to man the top two lines at this season's outset, the third and fourth-line center positions are a bit murkier. Certainly, Letestu will occupy one of those spots, and Craig Adams is also capable of centering the fourth unit.
Vitale, who saw some action last year during Pittsburgh's injury parade, has proven to be a fine fit on the fourth line and during penalty killing situations. The young center made his NHL debut last February against Los Angeles, and landed a goal and assist in nine games with the Penguins.
His performance in two preseason games so far has been exactly what the staff would like to see from the perceived role player, and the injuries to Crosby and Jeffrey may be just enough to open up the room for Vitale to crack the opening day lineup.
It's not often that younger players are tasked with being "role players." As Penguins play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald pointed out during Vitale's last game, the specialized roles are often won by older, savvier, more experienced players.
However, the former seventh-round pick is built to excel in the role of a grinding PK specialist.
The first asset in Vitale's game is his hustle. Players in the Bylsma era have lived and died by the effort they put forth, to the point that the Craig Adams' and Pascal Dupuis' of the world earned themselves multi-year contracts while established snipers like Petr Sykora and Alex Kovalev were run from the league after being unable to keep up.
Like Adams, Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy, Vitale is a hustler. That sort of work ethic will not only strike the fancy of the staff, but also contributes to his ability to kill penalties.
In two preseason games, Vitale has seen 11:10 of (time on ice) TOI during short-handed situations. His highlight play of the preseason so far was a diving clearing attempt made during one of Pittsburgh's several three-man penalty kill situations last Saturday.
That sort of effort during an exhibition game is what it takes for a borderline player to make his mark.
Vitale's true usefulness as a penalty killer comes in his draw ability. The 26-year-old center went 10 of 16 (62.5 percent) against Detroit, and eight of 15 (53.3 percent) against Minnesota on the draw, with a good portion of those faceoffs won during PK situations.
In a game against San Jose last season, Vitale went a perfect 8-for-8 in the faceoff circle and finished 36 of 66 in the circle (56.25 percent) in nine games with Pittsburgh.
Which borderline player deserves the first call-up?
Winning draws in the defensive zone is crucial to maintaining PK success, something the Penguins did last year, with the league's best unit (86.1 percent), and have continued in three exhibition games this year (14 for 14).
Essentially the replacement for Max Talbot, Vitale's draw ability should help the unit become even stronger.
While Malkin, stud prospect Joe Morrow and CrosbyWatch have stolen the show at Penguins' training camp, the coaches know that the weeks prior to the season are an audition for players like Vitale, who are fighting for job promotions.
As deep as this Penguins squad is, Vitale's exceptional play in his given roles may be enough to put him over the top.
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