by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Eric Tangradi‘s third AHL game brought him down to size, an unfortunate development that has ultimately served to make him an even bigger threat ever since.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s rookie forward was bulling his way through the start of his pro career, figuring his 6-foot-4, 225-pound body was some kind of force field that would be impenetrable to opponents. That, he found out, was folly.
Playing a contest against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Oct. 10, Tangradi made the mistake of going in on the forecheck without checking his rear-view mirror. The Sound Tigers’ Mark Wotton nailed him with a clean hit, injuring Tangradi’s shoulder and puncturing his pride.
"In juniors, I was always able to have my way. Here, I let my guard down and someone clobbered me," he said. "I’m fair game out there on the ice. When I got back to the room, I was frustrated I let myself get in that situation. I’m usually pretty strong on my feet."
The injury cost Tangradi a month, but you better believe he’s been solid on his skates and in his development ever since.
Tangradi leads all Penguins rookies with 30 points (12-18) in 52 games. His four game-winning goals tie him for first on the team, and place him fourth among AHL rookies in that category.
The numbers indicate that Tangradi could be muscling his way up the organizational depth chart to a place on the wing with Pittsburgh Penguins centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and/or Jordan Staal. Those types of shifts might not be as far off as they sound. Tangradi, 21, played with Crosby in an exhibition contest this preseason and earned two assists.
"I think he’s really starting to understand what it means to be a power forward," Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Todd Reirden said. "For a power forward, it’s understanding how to use your body, use your size to his advantage. He does his best work below the dots in the offensive zone. It’s changed a lot for him (from) how he played his junior hockey (with Belleville of the OHL). He got a lot of his numbers being able to beat guys off the rush, stickhandling. Offense came easier for him then. You have to use your strength (now)."
The flash that Reirden speaks of includes a 24-36-60 season two years ago and a 38-50-88 effort in just 55 games last season. That’s precisely the type of domination that Anaheim envisioned when it took Tangradi in the second round of the 2007 draft. It’s also the sort of potential that the Penguins coveted when they acquired him in the Ryan Whitney deal a year ago.
"It definitely caught me off-guard, big-time," Tangradi said of the trade. "I got the phone call, I didn’t know how to react. I was actually pretty negative about it. Anaheim didn’t want me. In turn, I was pretty positive, because Pittsburgh did want me."
The big, raw puzzle piece was also a snug fit because Tangradi, a native of Philadelphia, spent a year at a prep school about 10 minutes away from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s arena. He went to a handful of Penguins games, enjoying the pulse of the avid crowd and wondering what it might be like to take it all in while wearing a hometown sweater.
"I’d sit up in the second level, think, man, it’d be neat to get that far," he said. "The atmosphere was unbelievable. I hoped and knew, and was told with hard work things could happen."
That hasn’t always been a smooth, clear-cut path. Growing up, Tangradi was cut from a handful of national teams before finally polishing his game enough to land on the U.S. World Junior roster last year.
"I’ve experienced a lot of negatives in my career that have turned into positives," he said. "I was able to turn things around when I hit 16 or 17. I am very hard on myself. I don’t like to be satisfied with anything."
Tangradi’s continued pursuit of that philosophy in the pros has taken him along a couple different paths. There is the physical part of his role, of course, learning to follow the simple plays along the wall and avoiding turnovers. The tempo of the AHL also gets the heart pounding. Reirden’s teaming of him with speedy middleman Joe Vitale has forced Tangradi to keep up or move out of the way.
"Whenever the puck hits your stick down low, you have to realize you have to take a couple quick steps to the net," he said. "Just being in pros, everybody plays positionally better. Everything is tight. You have to just go for it."
Tangradi is also wowed by how much of his new challenge has nothing to do with brawn. As Wotton taught him, pretty much anybody can run over anybody else in this league. It’s a player’s ability to prepare for a variety of situations and then mentally sort through them that elevates one prospect over another.
"Every morning there’s a complete pre-scout on the other team," Tangradi said. "It’s almost like you are in class. That’s been the biggest thing for me, understanding how big every game is. Morning skate, it’s not just getting your feet moving. It’s turning your mind on."
Most importantly, Tangradi’s learned that the games are about always turning your head sideways to recognize what’s coming up from behind you, big or small. And if you happen to get caught looking the wrong way at the wrong time, chances are you’ll know better than to make the same painful mistake twice.
"I’ve received and given out my fair share of hits, but nothing that’s caught me by surprise," he said. "That’s been my attitude since I’ve gotten here. Just learn from it."
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.