Perseverance pays off for Engelland

by Edward W. Stanks III || AHL On The Beat Archive

The road to the National Hockey League can be an extremely short one for some players.

Take Sidney Crosby for example. A phenom since his pre-teen years, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain made the jump right from the junior ranks to the highest level in the sport, and has done nothing short of thrive.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland, on the other hand, had a much longer journey.

Born in the small, industrial town of Chetwynd, B.C., Engelland followed in the footsteps of millions of Canadian kids, strapping on the skates and shimmying around a backyard rink from the age of 2.

Engelland progressed through the youth ranks before suiting up for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League from 1999-2003. It wasn’t goal-scoring or play-making that led to him being selected by the New Jersey Devils in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Rather it was the physical presence he brought to the blue line (he racked up 458 penalty minutes in his final three seasons with the Warriors) that drew attention.

“I’m not the most gifted player, one that is going to get there on talent,” he admitted. “I’ve got to get there on hard work and dedication.”

Engelland spent his first four professional seasons shuttling between minor leagues. He suited up for 148 games in the ECHL between 2003 and 2007, while also seeing stints with the Lowell Lock Monsters and Hershey Bears in the AHL.

Engelland often drew the ire of Penguins fans during his two seasons with Hershey. He was a member of the Bears squad that captured the 2006 Calder Cup, and had a few memorable run-ins with Pens fan favorite Dennis Bonvie during his time in Chocolatetown.

But those ill feelings were quickly put to bed when he joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as a free agent prior to the 2007-08 season.

Engelland quickly became a fan favorite for his willingness to stick up for his teammates, and for the big hits he put on the opposition.

Never flashy or outspoken, Engelland quietly went about his business, appearing in every regular-season and playoff game for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the past two years. Still, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal of making it to the NHL.

Engelland was one of the final cuts from Pittsburgh’s training camp roster this past October, and reported to Wilkes-Barre knowing that he was closer than ever to earning his first NHL recall. He didn’t let the disappointment of another AHL assignment cloud his perspective.

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“This is what I picked for a career and I want to get to the highest level I can,” he said. “If you lose focus, you have to refocus and think about what you want to achieve.”

The crowning achievement of Engelland’s career so far came a month into this season. A rash of injuries decimated the Pittsburgh defensive corps, leading head coach Dan Bylsma to dip into his player pool in Wilkes-Barre. Engelland was his first choice to join the big club.

Shortly after a 2-1 loss to the Norfolk Admirals on Nov. 6, Engelland was summoned to head coach Todd Reirden’s office. Usually that’s not a good thing after a home loss.

This time was an exception.

“We just finished the game and Reirden called me in and told me,” he recalled. “I was shocked, obviously I wasn’t expecting it. It was very exciting.”

The good news was followed by an exhausting trip, which began with a two-hour drive to the Philadelphia airport, a flight to San Jose where he was to join the team, then an hour cab ride to the arena moments before the start of practice.

As for being nervous for his first NHL appearance, he said, “I didn’t really have a whole lot of time to think about it. I flew the whole next day, got to the rink and had 10 minutes to get ready to practice.”

Engelland pulled on the Pittsburgh sweater for the first time on Nov. 7 and participated in warm-ups for the game against the San Jose Sharks, only to be scratched prior to puck drop. It would prove to give him time to settle in, get to know his new teammates and prepare for the next game.

“Even though I knew I wasn’t going to play in San Jose, I was nervous and then had a couple days to calm down,” he said. “I played the next game and my nerves were a little calmer since I had time to let it sink in.”

The next game proved to be a baptism by fire for Engelland. He was inserted into the lineup for the game against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 10, but figured to see only spot action. That all changed after an injury to defenseman Brooks Orpik in the first period.

“I was kind of just thrown in, and I didn’t have the time to think about it,” said Engelland, who logged more than 19 minutes of ice time in his first NHL contest.

Less than a week later, Engelland found himself enjoying another memorable moment, as he picked up his first NHL point with an assist against the Anaheim Ducks.

“(Jordan) Staal was right by the red line,” he recalled. “So I just kind of hit him and he did the rest. It was definitely a memorable moment.”

Health returned to the Pittsburgh defense as Kris Letang, Sergei Gonchar and Orpik all found their way back to the ice in late November, which led to Engelland being returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. And although he’s now clearly focused on helping the AHL club, he knows his return to the NHL could be just a phone call away.

“You get a little feel for (playing in the NHL) and you want it again,” he said. “It’s just going to take more hard work to get back up there.”