CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Thomas Di Pauli hasn't had the best of luck in his first three professional seasons.
In Di Pauli's rookie year, 2016-17, he suffered an injury in training camp that kept him out of the lineup until November. He played eight games in November, but a lingering back injury had become more of a problem. He could have kept playing with the necessary treatments, or he could have had surgery to fix the problem. He elected to have surgery and was kept out of the lineup until March, then played 13 games to finish the season. In the 21 games he played, he scored two goals.
In Di Pauli's second season, he was briefly injured in November, then suffered a season-ending upper-body injury after a hit on March 23. He played 58 games in total, during which he recorded 12 goals and eight assists.
Two months into last season, Di Pauli was looking stronger than ever. After a nine-game stretch in November in which he scored six goals and four assists, he was Wilkes-Barre's No. 4 leading scorer
“I consider myself ready to be a player in the NHL,” he told me at the time.. “But there’s still something to my game that I can improve on. That’s what I’m doing right now, is fine-tuning things that I think would make me an effective hockey player at the next level.”
Then, in December, Di Pauli suffered a lower-body injury that ended his season. He had played just 29 games that season, scoring seven goals and eight assists.
Despite Di Pauli only playing in 108 regular season games and no playoff games in his first three professional seasons, the Penguins opted to give him another chance, and re-signed him to a one-year contract extension this summer.
After a rough year, Di Pauli is feeling completely healthy as he begins training camp for his fourth professional season.
"It feels 100 percent," Di Pauli told me of his lower-body injury from last season. "I did a lot of work this summer. Unfortunately it happened, I was really finding my game that time at the middle of the season in December. I was producing, I was playing well, with a lot of speed and a lot of confidence, which is key, obviously, for my game. Then that happened. It was unfortunate. You learn from it I guess. I rehabbed it all the second half and all summer, and I can honestly say it feels better than it ever has."
The thing about Di Pauli is that even with his history, it wouldn't be fair to call him more susceptible to injuries than other players. He's not a physically weak player. He has decent size — 5-feet-11 and 190 pounds —and it's not like if he trained differently, or added more muscle, he would have been any better off. He's just had terrible luck.
Regardless, Di Pauli has used his injury history to stay motivated and improve on his training, as a way to stay mentally strong during his extended absences from the game.
"I train, I watch exactly what I eat, I'm very precise with my habits," he said. "But stuff happens. You can look at it two ways. You can look at it like, 'Why me?' and pout about it and blame everything and be upset, and everything comes tumbling down. Or you can say 'Hey, maybe it is a little bit my fault. Maybe I can improve on this or that' And that's how you mentally stay on top of it and not get down on yourself, and not get down on hockey."
Di Pauli didn't want to elaborate on what exactly his lower-body injury was last season, but said that he was nearing a return until Wilkes-Barre was eliminated from playoff contention. At that point, it didn't make sense for Di Pauli to take the risk of playing again that season.
"I pushed it," he said of his rehab last season. "It was something where you have to be really careful with how hard I pushed it, you have to be really smart with it, even though I wanted to play and felt ready. It was one of those things where you don't push it if it doesn't have to be. So, I was ready to play. At that point I think it was more mentally than physically. Physically I felt 100 percent, then mentally you have to be like, 'I am feeling good, and I'm ready to play.' It didn't work out that way, unfortunately we lost, and then we came here for Black Aces and even worse that we lost here too."
After nine months away from the game, Di Pauli is just ready to get started again and show what he's capable of.
"It was a long summer," he said. "I'm definitely excited to be here and show that I've got what it takes to play here. Because I know I do, and I know a lot of guys feel that way as well."
Di Pauli draws confidence from the fact that the Penguins opted to re-sign him this summer. With his history, they could have passed on him, especially with the number of forwards joining Wilkes-Barre this season. Management saw enough in those 108 games to believe that Di Pauli was still worth another chance.
"There's obviously a reason. They don't just hand out contracts," he said. "So I guess I showed them enough with how I played that they see me as an NHL prospect. It's nice to have that confidence, in them showing me that, even though the hard times that I've had. I'm coming into this camp with the most confidence."
"I'm excited. Tenacious. I'm ready to play. It'll be a fun camp, and today was a good start, good practice, good intensity. I feel fantastic."
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