The Penguins made somewhat of a surprising move earlier this week when they signed forward Joseph Cramarossa to an NHL contract for the remainder of the season.
Cramarossa, 26, had been playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for nearly a full calendar year after being acquired in a trade with the Stockton Heat in February 2018. He was playing on an AHL contract -- not property of an NHL club, not eligible to be recalled. His deal was at the minor-league level only.
Being on an AHL contract was a far drop for Cramarossa, who spent nearly the entire 2016-17 season in the NHL with Anaheim and Vancouver.
"It was pretty frustrating, honestly," Cramarossa told me of these past two seasons. "I lived my dream for a whole season, then the following year didn't even have a chance to get called up. It's frustrating. But it's also even harder because you've got to get up and play well, knowing that if you're the best guy on the ice, you're still not getting called up. It's definitely hard, but now that I'm on an NHL deal, it's made me stronger in that regard."
Cramarossa had made it clear to the organization last season that his goal was to earn an NHL contract again. There had been discussions with Pittsburgh since then, but contract talks with Cramarossa had picked up over the last few weeks. After a stretch of consistent, strong play from Cramarossa, Pittsburgh made the offer for a two-way deal worth $650,000 at the NHL level and $200,000 at the AHL level.
"I knew, just at my age, I had to get to that next step sooner than later," Cramarossa said. "I'm happy that I was able to do that and they believed in me enough to reward me with that. It's just the next step to actually getting up there. By no means is the work done, but it's a nice step to getting back to the NHL."
Cramarossa isn't the flashiest player, and he's not one to show up on the scoresheet every night. He put up six goals and six assists in 28 games with Wilkes-Barre last season, and has two goals and eight assists in 37 games with Wilkes-Barre this season.
Cramarossa also leads Wilkes-Barre with two shootout goals, both of which were game-winners:
Cramarossa, 6-feet and 192 pounds, is gritty. He works hard. He has speed, and he plays physical. He's strong defensively, and kills penalties. He's a respected leader in the Penguins' locker room. It all adds up, and that's why he was signed.
"Obviously I haven't been putting up crazy numbers by any means this year," admitted Cramarossa. "I think that just shows that all the other little things I do were enough to earn me that. That's kind of what I based my pro career on, and it's nice that management and the organization has noticed that. It kind of proves that the goals and points don't always matter, but the little things behind the points do."
Cramarossa has also been known to drop the gloves. He's been a fighter dating back to his early junior years, and has fought players such as Tom Wilson, Steve Oleksy, and Steve Ott in his career. In his one season in the NHL, he had nine bouts.
Fighting is on a decline at all levels of hockey, albeit a slower decline in the minor leagues. The AHL averages .37 fights per game this season, a four percent drop from last season. Wilkes-Barre has had 29 fights this season, the second-most in the league. 15 different Penguins have fought this season, and Cramarossa has had the most fights, with five.
Cramarossa is aware of the changing attitudes towards fighting in hockey, but still believes it has a place in hockey for now.
"I think there's a time and place," he said. "There's a decline in fighting as everyone knows, but I think in certain instances when guys try to take liberties against your team, it's nice to have guys that will step in as a deterrent to them. I think there will always be a spot for that in the game. It's something that I've added to my style, and I think it gives guys extra space, and myself space. It kind of gives your team a little respect because you know guys aren't going to take runs at you."
Cramarossa isn't one to waste time with "staged" fights, and he's not jumping at the opportunity every time he gets challenged. I asked him how he personally decides when to pick his spots.
"If someone hits someone dirty and you feel they're trying to hurt someone, or if you feel your team needs a spark, there's all different factors" he said. "But you try not to if your team's winning and someone else is looking for a fight, you maybe tell them no just to keep your team in it. You're winning, you don't want to give them any momentum. There's definitely a game within a game there. It's something that not everyone does, and I think that's an advantage for me."
Will Cramarossa take the next step and earn a call up while on his new contract? Maybe. He said he hasn't had any talks with coaches or management on what their actual plans are for him for the rest of the season, and he acknowledged that he knows Pittsburgh is in a tight race of its own and may not have an opening any time soon.
Whether or not Cramarossa gets the call this season, he's determined to prove to the Penguins that they were right to give him a contract.
"It's more accountability of me to play my game and show them that I deserved it, and that it was worth it on their end."
THE ROSTER MOVES
• Cam Brown was recalled from Wheeling after a 12-day stint in the ECHL. He recorded one goal and two assists in five games during that time.
• Defenseman Kevin Spinozzi was reassigned to Wheeling on Feb. 12.
• Defenseman Blake Siebenaler joined the team since being acquired from Columbus for a conditional seventh-round pick.
• Goaltender John Muse was recalled from Wheeling during Tristan Jarry's emergency recall at the beginning of the month, and remains in Wilkes-Barre. Muse will not be going back to Wheeling this season, and the team will carry three goaltenders.
• Thomas Di Pauli hasn’t played since Dec. 16 with a lower-body injury.
• The Times Leader reports that a lease renewal with the Penguins and Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza is "very close". This isn't a matter of whether or not the Penguins will leave the area, rather the two sides negotiating things like funding for arena improvements. A major point of the discussion is the awful, awful Wi-Fi in the building.
• Ryan Scarfo was the guest on the latest Penguins Podcast. These are always great, definitely give this episode (and past episodes) a listen if you have time.
• Feb. 22: vs. Hershey, 4-2 loss
Riley Barber opened the scoring for Hershey on Friday with a power play goal 2:47 into the second period. Ryan Haggerty scored back-to-back goals before the end of the period ... and those were the only goals the Penguins would score all game.
Former Penguin Jayson Megna tied the game less than a minute into the third period, and another goal from Barber gave Hershey the lead. Barber completed the hat trick and sealed the win with an empty net goal in the final minute.
Jarry took the loss with 26 saves on 29 shots.
The Penguins went 0-for-1 on the power play, and 2-for-3 on the penalty kill.
• Feb. 24: vs. Rockford, 4-1 win
Scarfo got the Penguins off to a better start on Sunday with his first goal of the season. Rockford's Luke Johnson tied the game in the final two minutes of the first period.
Jimmy Hayes, a late addition to the lineup after replacing Anthony Angello, scored two goals in the second period to give the Penguins the lead. An empty net goal from Adam Johnson in the third period (after a Jarry attempt went wide) sealed the win.
Jarry took the win in his second start of the week, with 33 saves on 34 shots.
The Penguins' power play went 0-for-3, and the penalty kill went 2-for-2.
• Goals: Teddy Blueger, 21 in 45 games.
• Assists: Ethan Prow, 24 in 54 games
• Points: Blueger, 39 in 45 games; Prow, 39 in 54 games
Adam Johnson – Jean-Sebastien Dea – Sam Lafferty
Sam Miletic – Joseph Blandisi – Ben Sexton
Ryan Scarfo – Jarrett Burton – Ryan Haggerty
Joseph Cramarossa – Cam Brown – Jimmy Hayes
Jeff Taylor – Zach Trotman
Matt Abt – Kevin Czuczman
Chris Summers – Ethan Prow
• After this week, the Penguins record is 26-22-5-2. They remain in sixth place in the eight-team Atlantic Division.
• The power play sits at 17.6 percent, 19th in the 31-team league. The penalty kill is operating at 79.5 percent overall, 24th in the league.
• The magic number to clinch a playoff spot is 48.
• The Penguins will have two road games this week -- one against the Providence Bruins (28-20-7-1) on Friday, and one against the Hartford Wolf Pack (23-25-6-3) on Saturday.
• The Penguins will practice at the Toyota SportsPlex on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, all at 10:30 a.m.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Just a great individual effort from Haggerty:
Cramarossa has a Bears turnover fall into his lap, feeds the puck to Haggerty, and Haggerty rips another huge shot:
Hayes scored these two goals:
I like that the smallest player on the team, 5-feet-7 Cam Brown, is typically paired with one of the two 6-feet-5 guys, Angello or Hayes. Brown had to reach up pretty high to pat Hayes on the head after that second goal.
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Jarry stopped this one with his big toe:
WILKES-BARRE FUN THING
Hayes and his wife found out they were having a boy. He could not look more thrilled:
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So ... you want to work in minor-league hockey?
This is what they call in the business, “other duties as assigned.” pic.twitter.com/6gRyCb0cST
— Jason Iacona (@nafsnep) February 24, 2019
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