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Penguins development camp heavy on undrafted free agents

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Carter Robertson (27) of the Ottawa 67's is among the players at Penguins development camp this week.

As the Penguins opened their summer development camp Wednesday afternoon, general manager Jim Rutherford offered the following tantalizing observation.

“I know there’s one player here I’m watching really close that could get a contract coming out of the rookie tournament (in September),” he said.

It sounded like the plot line for a TV reality show. Like “Survivor,” except on ice in Cranberry.

It also is a good indication of how dramatically the annual camp has changed in the past couple of years.

As recently as 2015, the camp roster was full of prospects on the verge of making the NHL. That year, Matt Murray, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust were participants, and by the end of the season, they had their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Nowadays, it’s different.

The Penguins told their more experienced prospects, the ones who already have been through several development camps, to stay home. They’re better served, the team figures, staying on their individual offseason workout programs.

Instead, they invited 14 recently drafted or signed prospects and 24 undrafted free agents.

For the players, it’s a chance to get familiar with the inner workings of an NHL team. For the Penguins, it’s more or less a tryout camp.

Last year, the Penguins signed three players from development camp — forwards Jordy Bellerive and Sam Miletic and goalie Alex D’Orio — to NHL contracts by the end of September.

“They’re invited here for a reason,” player development director Scott Young said. “We’ve scouted them for the past year or more, and we feel there’s potential. We’re going to be following them. We want to develop relationships with those guys. We could possibly sign them as a free agents.”

Carter Robertson is one of the prospects hoping to earn a contract.

A 6-foot-2 defenseman with a good, two-way game, Robertson had five goals and 18 points in 57 games with Ottawa of the Ontario Hockey League last season. Projected to be a mid- to late-round pick, he attended last weekend’s NHL Draft in Dallas.

Imagine his horror as the last few picks were made and his name hadn’t been called.

Imagine his relief when the Penguins approached and invited him to camp.

“It was tough sitting through all the rounds, seeing everyone else go,” Robertson said. “It was emotional. To see them come up to me, it was nice. They came up and made me feel like I was part of the team. I had to immediately get focused on coming to camp.”

If Robertson needed any advice for how to earn an NHL contract at development camp, he only needed to look across the room to D’Orio and Miletic.

After the Penguins included Filip Gustavsson in the Derick Brassard deal last season, D’Orio became the only goalie prospect in the organization under NHL contract.

He had a tough year for a rebuilding Saint John team in the QMJHL, but the Penguins like his 6-2 size and athleticism.

“For confidence, to have my contract, it feels nice, but at the same time, I need to prove some things again,” D’Orio said. “I’m here to prove I can do the same things as I did last year.”

Miletic, meanwhile, earned his contract with an impressive power-forward game in last year’s camp. He had 36 goals in 73 games in the OHL last season and looks to be headed to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the fall to start his pro career.

He remembers the day assistant GM Bill Guerin offered him an NHL contract vividly.

“Man, it was awesome,” Miletic said. “Best moment of my life, for sure.”

Miletic had a simple bit of advice for the roster longshots who hope they’re the one Rutherford has his eye on.

“Just work hard and play your game,” Miletic said. “The Pens obviously value people who work hard. Just make the most out of your opportunities.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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