by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward Eric Tangradi may only be 21 years old, but he’s already experienced a rollercoaster ride’s worth of emotions in his young hockey career.
For someone who was raised just outside of Philadelphia and grew up as a Flyers fan, not least among those emotions was the February 2009 trade which sent him from the Anaheim Ducks organization to the Flyers’ bitter cross-state rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
It isn’t easy getting people back home to turn in their Flyers orange for Penguins black and gold, but Tangradi is giving it his best shot anyway.
“My parents and family were pretty easy to turn over to the Pittsburgh side, but my friends in Philly, I still haven’t gotten them on board quite yet,” he said. “Hopefully if I can make Pittsburgh a permanent home, that might get them to change their minds.”
The second-year-pro did earn a short taste of NHL action by cracking Pittsburgh’s roster out of training camp this year and appearing in nine games for the Penguins, scoring his first career NHL goal on Oct. 15 against the New York Islanders.
But Tangradi was returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Oct. 25, and since his arrival he’s nabbed 13 goals – second-most on the team overall – and added five assists for 18 points in 25 contests.
“Being young and being (in Pittsburgh) for a few weeks, I think I lacked confidence, and that’s something I needed to develop back in the AHL,” Tangradi said.
Checking in at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Tangradi is a towering presence who fits the classic mold of a power forward. As a Flyers fan in the early 2000’s, he enjoyed watching the play of Keith Primeau, a similarly-built forward who made a living using his strength to create headaches for opposing defenses in the offensive zone.
It’s been a learning process, but Tangradi is beginning to outwardly embrace the same mentality.
“Eric’s very strong on pucks down low in the offensive zone with cycling and using his size and strength,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes. “He’s a big net-front presence and likes to get to the front of the net, screen the goalie, and look for rebound plays and tips.”
Tangradi didn’t see himself as a power forward right from the beginning of his playing days, though. That appreciation was cultivated over the course of his three years playing junior hockey for coach George Burnett’s Belleville Bulls in the Ontario Hockey League.
He produced a meager 20 points in his first season with Belleville but increased that total to 60 and 88 points over the next two years, respectively.
“When (Burnett) brought me in, I was definitely a perimeter player,” Tangradi explained. “I didn’t really take the puck to the net or get in the gritty areas. I think I developed through him – I started to really learn my foundation and learn what kind of player I could be if I get to those gritty areas. The points came, my confidence grew, and I truly found what I could do to be effective.”
In 2007, the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks selected Tangradi in the second round (No. 42) of the NHL Entry Draft, but it wasn’t exactly a long-lasting relationship.
To his surprise, in the middle of a 38-goal, 88-point season with Belleville in 2008-09, Tangradi was packaged with veteran Chris Kunitz and shipped to the Pittsburgh organization in exchange for Ryan Whitney.
“Right off the bat I took it as a negative because it was the first time I’d been traded, and immediately I thought it was just that Anaheim didn’t want me,” Tangradi recalled. “But the turn of it was that Pittsburgh really did want me. Talking with everyone in the organization and how high they were on me was definitely very exciting.”
Save for a one-game cameo in Pittsburgh, he spent his entire rookie 2009-10 season in Wilkes-Barre – located just over 100 miles from his hometown of Philadelphia – and produced 17 goals and 22 assists in 65 games.
“I probably learned the most I’ve ever learned in my hockey career last season,” Tangradi said. “I think my first half showed that, but the second half I really turned things around and found that I can be effective in this league and be effective as a pro hockey player.”
After the emotional high of beginning the current season up in the NHL, it took Tangradi a period of time to find his game upon returning to Wilkes-Barre. As November drew to a close, the 21-year-old had managed just four goals and one assist in 13 contests.
“As soon as I got back from the NHL, all I thought about were points and I had to put numbers up,” he said. “I think over the Thanksgiving period, I kind of sat myself down and told myself that I’m playing well, and if I keep playing that way, the points are going to come.”
As anticipated, the points sure did come.
Tangradi posted a goal and an assist vs. Adirondack on Dec. 4, notched his first pro hat trick next time out vs. Toronto – which he termed his “getting-over-the-hump game” – and has totaled nine goals and 13 points in just 10 games during December.
“When he came down, it was an adjustment in terms of playing more minutes here than he was in Pittsburgh, playing in different types of situations as far as being a go-to guy on our team, and then the adjustment of coming down from the NHL to the American League,” Hynes said. “He had to work through all that, and now he’s reaping the rewards.”
Playing on a line with fast-skating, aggressive center Joe Vitale has allowed Tangradi to focus on creating offense near the front of the opposing net, using his size and strength, and avoid trying to be a type of player that he isn’t.
“I’m really starting to find myself in the scoring area, where last year I was trying to be a little too much of a playmaker,” Tangradi said. “In reality, down the road in my career I’m going to need to be able to score those goals in front of the net.”
“He’s really forming an identity as a player, things that he needs to do on a consistent basis to play in the National Hockey League, understanding and playing to his strengths as a power forward,” Hynes added. “His mental maturity is growing in terms of understanding how hard you have to work every day and how consistent you need to be in little aspects of the game to get to the next level.”
Tangradi enjoyed an exceptionally strong training camp to make Pittsburgh’s opening-night roster in the first place, but sustaining strong play from one game to the next is paramount to landing a full-time NHL slot.
He readily admits that his game-to-game performance with the NHL Penguins wasn’t where it needed to be, and it’s been a goal of his to improve on consistency in Wilkes-Barre.
“For Eric, it’s really just about being able to physically and mentally play as hard as he has to play as a power forward to have success on a nightly basis,” Hynes said. “He has the abilities, and now it’s about taking his abilities and his potential and continuing to grow. He’s on his way as long as he keeps working hard and paying attention to his details.”
In an organization enjoying as much success as Pittsburgh, Tangradi will have to earn everything he gets, which only furthers his drive to get better.
It also doesn’t hurt that Tangradi is already developing an expectation to win – like their NHL counterparts, the AHL Penguins are currently first overall in the league at 24-7-0-0 (48 points) through 31 games.
This comes less than three years after a 2007-08 season which saw both Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton reach their respective league Finals.
“The way Pittsburgh has run things the last few years, success is the only way they know, and I think developing a winning attitude at this level will translate,” Tangradi said. “You always want guys who want to win. If we come from a winning atmosphere, that’s all we’re going to know and all we’re going to want if we’re able to hop to the next level.”