KITCHENER, Ontario — The Penguins realized a couple of years ago that Casey Pierro-Zabotel had some serious potential.
Hey, they did not invest a third-round draft choice in the kid because general manager Ray Shero or one of his scouts believes that hyphenated names are cool. But they did not necessarily foresee just how productive he would become. Or at least how quickly it would happen.
When they claimed Pierro-Zabotel with the 80th selection in the 2007 entry draft, he had not skated a single shift of major-junior hockey, having labored for the British Columbia Hockey League’s Merritt Centennials the previous three winters.
But Pierro-Zabotel, who had been playing Tier II hockey to preserve his college eligibility and planned to pursue a business degree at Michigan Tech, opted to step up to the Western Hockey League a few months after being drafted and acquitted himself nicely by putting up 48 points in 49 games with the Vancouver Giants.
A point-per-game pace is pretty nice, at least until placed alongside Pierro-Zabotel’s output in his second season of major junior, when he won the WHL scoring championship by accumulating 36 goals and 79 assists in 72 games.
“I had good teammates, good linemates, and a good coach who pushed me every day, made sure I was consistent,” he said. “That was the main focus, to be consistent every day, and I thought I was.”
Pierro-Zabotel was held out of the Penguins’ 4-1 loss to Ottawa in a prospects tournament at Kitchener Memorial Auditorium last night, a move Shero said was “by design.” Winger Luca Caputi was the other healthy scratch. Both had played with Eric Tangradi on the Penguins’ top line in a 3-1 pre-tournament loss to Toronto Sunday and figure to fill prominent roles in games against Toronto tomorrow and Boston Thursday.
While it remains to be seen precisely what Pierro-Zabotel will accomplish in this tournament, he believes his participation last year led to his WHL success.
“I gained a lot of confidence from this camp, and then going to the main camp,” he said. “I think that helped me all year.”
Pierro-Zabotel will get another opportunity to impress management when the regular training camp starts with practice and a scrimmage Sunday, but his objective will be different. He is not interested in raising his profile inside the organization; he wants to prove he is ready for the NHL.
While Pierro-Zabotel likely recognizes he is a long shot, at best, to open the season on the NHL roster — after all, he has never been more than an interested observer at a professional game — it is clear his goal is to be with the Penguins, not their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, a month from now.
And while he said “I’m ready to make any step. If [Wilkes-Barre] is the first step, I’m ready to do that,” that should not be interpreted to mean he is resigned to playing in the American Hockey League.
“I just want to go [to camp] and show them what I have, show them I can keep up with the [NHL] guys,” he said.
What Pierro-Zabotel has is good size (6 feet 2, 210 pounds) and a nice scoring touch that is complemented by his willingness to go to the net and absorb whatever punishment is necessary to score goals. His defensive game has been criticized at times and his acceleration is nothing special, although he usually seems to get to where he needs to be.
There is little doubt that Pierro-Zabotel still has a ways to go to realize his full potential, but less about how far he has come since he was drafted.
NOTES — Nick Johnson got the only goal for the Penguins and Penguins goalie Brad Thiessen, signed as a free agent from Northeastern, stopped 25 of 28 Ottawa shots before the Senators scored an empty-net goal. … Shero said that, unlike some previous years, a significant number of the players in the prospects tournament will attend the Penguins’ main camp. … The Penguins are expected to make cuts after a Sept. 17 intrasquad game at Wilkes-Barre.