Long, hard road leads free-agent center Derek Grant to Penguins
By signing with the Penguins last Thursday, free agent Derek Grant put himself in a situation where he might have to switch frequently from center to wing. At times, he’ll have to fight for his spot in the lineup.
Neither possibility seems to have the 28-year-old from British Columbia rattled.
When a player’s path to the NHL is as difficult as Grant’s has been, it doesn’t pay to get rattled easily.
“I think having played up and down (in the NHL and AHL) and in different positions in both leagues, I think it’s rounded my game to a point where I’m comfortable playing in any situation,” Grant said in a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters Saturday.
“I’m pretty thankful for it. It’s probably not the way you think about it when you’re coming into the league or growing up. But I’m thankful for what it’s gotten me and I’m excited for the opportunity and excited to get the season going.”
Grant was a scoring star throughout his youth. In his final season before turning pro, he led Michigan State in scoring as a sophomore with 33 points in 38 games.
Shortly after joining Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, however, reality set in for the 2008 fourth-round draft pick.
Only the elite of the elite play a scoring-line role in the NHL, he discovered. If he wanted to play in the best league in the world, he was going to have to adapt.
“I actually took on kind of a third-line checking role and took a lot of pride in that and learned that part of the game,” Grant said.
The process took a while. He played 121 AHL games before making his NHL debut. He played 194 more games in the minors before becoming an NHL regular.
At times, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. In his first 86 NHL games with Ottawa, Calgary, Buffalo and Nashville over four seasons, he didn’t score a goal.
Finally, last season, everything came together.
When Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler went down with early-season injuries, Grant capably centered high-end wingers Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell. When the Ducks got healthier, Grant settled successfully into a bottom-six role.
When the dust settled, he had turned in a career year: 12 goals and 24 points in 66 games, earning ample playing time on the power play and penalty kill.
“Last year was a big year for me personally,” Grant said. “Confidence obviously goes a long way. Every day I came to the rink, I tried to learn from the guys I was surrounded with and tried to get better every day. I think I’ve done that throughout my career. I maybe didn’t catch on as early as I hoped. I guess some people would say maybe I was a late bloomer or whatever, but it’s something I try to do every day.”
Anaheim surprisingly let Grant walk in free agency.
He thought he had a deal with another team sewn up around July 1, but it fell through.
After a few tense weeks on the open market, he received a call from general manager Jim Rutherford.
Shortly thereafter, he ran into Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz, a fellow British Columbia native whom he has known since their junior hockey days.
Between those two interactions, the road ahead became clear.
“It’s an organization when you get a chance to come play for, you want to jump on that opportunity,” Grant said.
Grant’s place in the lineup isn’t as obvious.
With six centers among the team’s top 14 forwards, he might have to shuffle over to the left wing occasionally if not permanently.
After the road he’s traveled, it’s not a step he’s afraid to take.
“For me, it’s an adjustment that doesn’t take too long,” Grant said. “I think I’ve done it enough over the last few seasons that I’m open to it. The way I bounced around over the last few years, you take every opportunity you can and try to make the most of it.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.