Renars Krastenbergs' summer was busier than usual.
In June, the 19-year-old Latvian winger was one of the free agents invited to Pittsburgh's annual prospect development camp. Then, in early September, Krastenbergs was one of only two unsigned players the Penguins brought back to play in the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo. After continuing to impress in the tournament, he was the only one of those forwards to receive an invite to Wilkes-Barre's training camp.
On Oct. 5, his hard work paid off, and Krastenbergs was signed to an AHL-level contract with Wilkes-Barre. After playing in Wilkes-Barre's preseason, he was reassigned to Wheeling to begin his professional career.
"It felt good. It was a long, long summer," Krastenbergs told me this week. "When you get rewarded like that with a contract after, it feels good."
Krastenbergs has three years of experience in North America after spending a year in an American youth league and two years playing junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. Krastenbergs credits his time in Oshawa as being huge for helping him get acclimated to both the style of hockey and the culture in North America. He had some experience speaking English prior to coming to North America, and his time in Oshawa helped him become more comfortable with the language.
"We took English in high school in Latvia, so I learned a little bit there," he said. "But obviously, when you come here, it's completely different when you talk to people. You just try to talk as much as you can and just learn."
Krastenbergs is the lone European on the Nailers' roster this season, but that doesn't bother him. He said in his time in North America, he's used to being the only one on the team. He likes having Japanese forward Yushiroh "Yush" Hirano, with him, since he's also newer to North America.
It was exciting for Krastenbergs to play in Wilkes-Barre's training camp, where there was another Latvian in Teddy Blueger. They were able to speak to each other in their own language, and Blueger helped him be more comfortable in the transition.
"It was a great time," Krastenbergs said. "It was my first time playing with another Latvian on the team. We talked a little bit. I didn't really know him personally, so I just got to know him a little bit."
You wouldn't think Wheeling has anything in common with a town in Latvia, but Krastenbergs doesn't feel his new home is too different from his hometown. He hails from a city called Jelgava, with a population of 63,000, about twice the size of Wheeling. Both have a similar small-town feel, although Krastenbergs said the food is a bit different.
In junior hockey, 5-foot-11, 185 pound Krastenbergs developed a reputation as a speedy, skilled sniper, amassing 30 goals and 32 assists in 124 games. The defensive side of his game sometimes was lacking, but he has been strong defensively in his time in the Penguins organization. He had no problem backchecking in the Penguins' Prospects Challenge:
— Taylor Haase (@TaylorHaasePGH) September 10, 2018
In his two games with the Nailers, he's shown no aversion to backchecking or blocking shots:
"I would say I'm an offensive player," said Krastenbergs. "I like to play with the puck, I like to make plays. But I like to compete, too, play hard, and win battles. I like to play offense and score goals."
He hasn't scored in either of Wheeling's games, but he recorded two assists in his debut.
Krastenbergs' main goal for this season is just to be more consistent. He already noticed how much faster and cleaner the professional game is compared to junior hockey. He enjoys it, but he's still learning.
"It's a little different. It's not that much of running around with your head cut off," he laughed. "It's more physical. You have to be smarter, you've got to play consistent with what the coach says. But it's fun. I'm trying to learn everything every day and get better."
Growing up in Latvia, Krastenbergs used to stay up late and stream NHL games online, especially Penguins games to see his favorite players, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Finally in North America and playing in the Penguins' organization, Krastenbergs knows that he's living his dream.
"That's every hockey player's dream back home," he said. "It's a big opportunity for me to be playing here."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Oct. 20: at Norfolk, 4-1 loss
• Goaltender Evan Cowley was released after backing up in both of the Nailers' games this season. Forward Christian Isackson also was released.
• Johnny Austin did not play this week, as he served the first game of his two-game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit in the season opener. He'll be eligible to return Oct. 28.
• Through two games, the Nailers are still searching for their first win of the season. Zac Lynch was the lone goal scorer for Wheeling this week, and Matt O'Connor made 21 saves on 25 shots.
• After scoring three power-play goals in the season opener, the Nailers' power play went 0-for-5 on Saturday and allowed Cincinnati to score shorthanded.
• Cedric Lacroix dropped the gloves for the second time in as many games. His efforts weren't as successful as they were last week, but he's quickly becoming a fan favorite for his blue-collar play.
• Lines and defense pairings from Saturday:
Zac Lynch - Cam Brown - Eliot Grauer
Renars Krastenbergs - Nick Saracino - Yush Hirano
Cedric Lacroix - Michael Phillips - Winston Day Chief
Robbie Hall - Danny Fick
Craig Skudalski - Dane Birks
Aaron Titcomb - Kevin Spinozzi
• The Nailers will go another full week between games. They’ll visit the Reading Royals for a two-game series on Oct. 27 and 28. They won’t play a home game until Nov. 3.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
There was only one, from Lynch:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
O'Connor made this series of stops against the Cyclones:
WHEELING FUN THING
Brad Drobot (in blue) was teaching Craig Skudalski how to fight at practice:
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) October 17, 2018
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