Neither player was drafted. Neither player is over six feet tall. Neither player will appear at the CONSOL Energy Center this season.
Much ado about nothing for the Penguins fan gearing up for the playoffs, right?
Last week we took a look at highly-touted college free agent Stephane Da Costa and the Penguins’ chances of luring him to Pittsburgh for a pro career.
In the end, the encouraging paths of college free agents Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy weren’t enough to keep Da Costa from signing with Ottawa and making his NHL debut on Saturday. The Senators had a few factors going in their favor that Penguins GM Ray Shero couldn’t match.
The first was a chance for the player to finish out the season in the NHL. The Penguins have 19 forwards on the NHL roster right now that could see playing time in the playoffs and the odds of Da Costa cracking the lineup were nil.
Experience gained from a handful of games with the Senators will be nice for the youngster, but just one game with the big club also meant that Da Costa’s two-year entry-level contract went into effect this year (in others words, “burning” a year). With only one year remaining, Da Costa now sets himself up for restricted free agency in the summer of 2012 and theoretically a higher payday if he performs well.
On top of that, Da Costa’s $900,000 base NHL salary also features an estimated $850,000 in performance bonuses (according to CapGeek.com). The bonuses are tacked onto the cap hit from Day 1, but in a typical season they wouldn’t be much of an issue for the Penguins. There exists a ‘bonus cushion’ under the CBA that allows teams to temporarily exceed the salary cap by the total amount of these bonuses. If the team finishes the season above the salary cap as a result, the bonus overage is carried over as a penalty to the following year. (Pittsburgh exceeded the cap by $83,979 last season due to bonuses)
But with 2011-12 being the final year of the current CBA, the bonus cushion is no longer in effect. For a team like Ottawa with upwards of $17-20m in cap space next year, Da Costa’s bonuses were a non-issue. For the cap-strapped Penguins looking to preserve every dollar of flexibility, it was potentially a deal-breaker.
Pittsburgh instead turned their sights to Brian Gibbons and Paul Thompson, two college free agents willing to sacrifice performance bonuses and the ability to burn the first year of their two-year ELC’s. Neither player attracted the buzz of Da Costa, but they still carry impressive resumes that caught the attention of a number of NHL teams.
Gibbons, an assistant captain with Boston College, scored 18 goals and 51 points in 39 games during his senior season. He was named to the Hockey East all-tournament team and averaged a point-per-game over his 160 game career. Gibbons also won two NCAA D1 national championships with the Eagles in 2008 and 2010.
His physical limitations at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds are not seen as such by the Penguins. Pittsburgh has had success with a number of smaller players in recent seasons and 5-foot-8 undrafted forward Chris Conner has become a fixture on the team’s third line this season.
Paul Thompson’s college career had a more lackluster start. In 62 games his freshman and sophomore years he had just ten goals – hardly enough to garner the attention of amateur scouts. It wasn’t until his third season at New Hampshire that Thompson found his scorer’s touch.
19 goals as a junior and 28 goals in his follow-up campaign this year earned the
6-foot-1 [Edit: 6’0] , 210 pound Thompson a whole host of honors: Hockey East leading scorer, first-team all-star, two-time player of the month, two-time Academic All-American, and 2011 player of the year; first in the nation in powerplay goals; New England’s most valuable player; and also a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as the nation’s top collegiate player:
“The awards and the things he’s done in college hockey are pretty prestigious,” Wilkes-Barre Penguins (AHL) head coach John Hynes told the Times-Leader. “You have to execute in some big-game situations to get the awards and recognition he received.”
Thompson also signed an amateur tryout contract with Wilkes-Barre and might get a chance to execute in more big-game situations as the team heads into the Calder Cup playoffs. There’s no word yet if Gibbons will be offered or accept a similar tryout offer for this year. Regardless, both will really get their shot to prove themselves in September’s training camp.
Thompson and Gibbons are no strangers to the Penguins organization though. Their contract signatures were simply the finishing touches on a multi-year recruiting effort by the Penguins to reel in the talented youngsters.
When Ray Shero left his position in the Nashville front office to accept the Penguins job, he brought with him a number of traditions developed under the watch of Predators GM David Poile. Organization is one thing the Penguins have tried to emulate (as assistant GM Jason Botterill explained). An in-depth familiarity with league happenings is another. A third is the summer development camp.
The camp isn’t mandatory and only lasts a few days (per CBA restrictions), but what young guy wouldn’t jump at the chance to show the coaches what he’s got. It usually takes place in July and allows the team to take inventory of their entry-level contract prospects on the same ice. Who improved from last year? Who is in shape? Who decided to take the summer off and is sucking wind on Day 3? A lot can be learned from just a few days around the rink.
A lot can be learned by the players from the process as well. In addition to on-ice sessions, players train at team facilities, learn the basics of the Penguins coaching systems (which are consistent at the NHL and AHL level), and get to know fellow prospects and personnel within the organization.
Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey attended last summer’s camp and now find themselves on the NHL roster. Also sitting in the locker room that week last July: Brian Gibbons and Paul Thompson.
Both players had a year of college eligibility left but accepted the camp invite from Shero’s player personnel assistant Tom Fitzgerald to get a sense for what the organization was all about.
In essence, the ultimate soft sell to a college free agent. No commitment necessary, just a chance to look around.
Meanwhile the Penguins get a chance to see how the undrafted players fit into their system and also expose them to all the amenities, coaches, and opportunities the team has to offer. If the experience is a positive one, the player suddenly wants to be a part of the team.
He thinks ‘If only I didn’t have to play another year in college I could meet up with the guys again at training camp a few months from now.’ He no longer dreams about what a professional career might be like…he knows. And every image in his memory bank has a skating penguin logo associated with it.
No commitment necessary, just a chance to look around. Shero, Fitzgerald, and Botterill are confident that once a player looks around, he’ll probably like what he see’s.