Former top pick looks to take next step after breakout year

Three years sounds like a long time when a teenager signs his entry-level NHL contract.

For Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Alex Grant, some stretches of those three years seemed very long indeed.

Like when he was riding the buses as a pro rookie in the ECHL in 2009-10, or when he was injured badly in the 2010 pre-season and missed all but 18 games of his sophomore campaign.

Last year, the third and final year of that contract, Grant was still trying to find his form after recovering from the broken wrist and whiplash that cost him most of 2010-11. At times he was even watching from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins press box as a healthy scratch, wondering if he’d have the chance to prove himself in the American League.

Eventually that opportunity came and the former QMJHL star from Antigonish, N.S., made the most of it. Grant ended up leading Baby Penguins defencemen in scoring with 10 goals and 37 points in 61 games. He also showed a tough edge, topping blueliners with 73 penalty minutes, and played in all 12 playoff games, leading rearguards with seven points.

More importantly, it represented the first time in four years that he played the whole season in one place.

“Hockey’s pretty much all about confidence. I finally got some confidence playing and it went a long way. I was a lot more comfortable on the ice and just felt more confidence playing the game,” Grant says. “That helps you play so much better and obviously it showed.”

While the days sometimes felt long those first three seasons, the years flew by, and Grant found himself a restricted free agent this summer, with all the uncertainty that brings. After a breakout season in the AHL, Grant has his second Penguins contract in hand, a one-year, two-way pact. He’s the highest-scoring returnee on the Wilkes-Barre roster, and he’s hoping for his best year yet as a pro – maybe even an NHL debut with the big club.

“Obviously you want to have a good camp right off the start,” Grant says. “I don’t really have any expectations right off the bat. I just want to go in, have a good camp and try to earn a spot. Obviously Pittsburgh has a lot of D and a lot of depth in the organization but I want to go in there and impress and show I can play at the NHL level.”

Grant was highly touted in junior after being the No. 1 pick in the 2005 QMJHL Entry Draft. He played in the Canada-Russia Challenge at age 16, and the Penguins drafted him in the fourth round in 2007. He went to a league semifinal with the Saint John Sea Dogs, and later all the way to Game 7 of the 2009 President’s Cup final with the Shawinigan Cataractes.

He says the QMJHL provided a great foundation for his career, but he’s still found life a lot tougher in the pros.

“When I was playing junior I thought it would come a lot sooner than this, a lot easier than this. That’s where experience comes in,” he says. “It doesn’t happen that easy for most people. Obviously some players it works out that way but a lot of guys play several years in the minor leagues before they get their first crack. I would have liked to play some (NHL) games before this year and even this year nothing’s guaranteed. But I’m just hoping to get better every year and that will help me get to the next level.”

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