PITTSBURGH (AP) — Eric Tangradi joined a veteran teammate and a Pittsburgh Penguins staff member in poking fun at rookie teammate Beau Bennett after practice.
Tangradi laughed and cracked a joke on Saturday. Then he made a self-deprecating joke. It seems that the burly 23-year-old forward is finally comfortable being in an NHL locker room.
On the ice, too.
Almost four years after the Penguins acquired the 6-foot-4, 232-pound winger, Tangradi is poised for an opportunity to earn a prominent role in the team's plans as training camp is set to begin.
Coach Dan Bylsma all but called for an open audition for someone to play on a line with reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin.
Saying he's feeling "as good as I ever have," Tangradi will have a chance to take advantage of his vast potential to earn that spot.
"I think I definitely can make an impression, for sure," he added. "Where I'm going to be placed, I don't know. All I'm worried about is just trying to make this roster and putting the sweater on every day. That's my mind-set, that's my focus. Wherever that may be, I'll be happy. I feel like I can add something to the lineup."
The Penguins have felt that way since they acquired Tangradi and veteran Chris Kunitz from Anaheim for defenseman Ryan Whitney on Feb. 26, 2009.
Four months later, Kunitz was an integral part of a team that won the Stanley Cup. The following spring, Tangradi made his NHL debut in the regular-season finale as a 21-year-old player.
The future appeared bright for the second-round draft pick and Pennsylvania native after he put up 62 goals in 111 games over his final two seasons of junior hockey.
But that future hasn't yet materialized at the NHL level.
Tangradi played in 39 NHL games over the past two seasons and has managed only one goal. Bouncing up and down between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL, he has often been a healthy scratch when he was with the big club.
This time around, he plans on things being different.
"I'm just going to play my game," Tangradi said. "I think in the past I tried to do different things, different spots, but I just need to play a north-south game and play physical and play big, and I think the opportunity will go from there."
Tangradi's size is what sets him apart. When he's on, he is difficult to knock off the puck and nearly impossible for a small defenseman to clear from out in front of the net.
It's a skill set that is particularly beneficial on the power play. Playing for the AHL Penguins during the NHL lockout, Tangradi was second on the team with 10 goals and ranked among the league leaders with six power-play tallies.
"At the AHL level, he's dominant," said the 21-year-old Bennett, also called up from Wilkes-Barre for a chance to win a spot with the Penguins. "He was dominating down low and making plays in the corners and stuff. He's physically gifted in the fact that he has hands — but he's 6-4 and 230. Definitely, his physical attributes were above what they needed to be at at the AHL level."
But can they — or will they ever — translate to the NHL level?
Tangradi said he spent the offseason focusing his training on speed and quickness. It's been his skating — along with defensive lapses — that have kept Tangradi from earning regular NHL work.
"He's a big, strong guy, and he's got good hands, too," veteran forward Craig Adams said. "He's so big in the offensive zone. If he makes a concerted effort to hang onto the puck, I think he can control shifts and spend a good amount of time in the offensive zone."
Tangradi seemingly is battling the likes of Bennett, Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey for what would figure to be one of the most premium and coveted spots in the league on a line with Malkin and James Neal. Both were named first-team NHL All-Stars last season.
If he loses out in the second-line derby, and Bylsma can trust him defensively, Tangradi also could be a candidate for third- or fourth-line duty.
After 178 AHL games and 60 AHL goals, Tangradi believes he has proven he is ready to take the next step.
"I have a confidence in myself that I feel like I can play at this level," Tangradi said. "I don't expect to come in here and light the world on fire; I know I have a lot longer to go to get to that point, but I definitely think I'm comfortable enough to come in here to make an impact, wherever that may be.
"In the past, I'd come into training camps and maybe didn't believe in myself 100 percent. Now, I know where I've come from, and with the tools I've given myself, I know I can be successful here."