When C.J. Yakimowicz was making drives from his home in Kingston to skate at the old Ice Box rink in Pittston, he had dreams of playing the game he loved for a living.
He crept closer to pro hockey when he was selected by the St. Louis Blues in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. However, his dreams were put on hold when St. Louis chose not to sign Yakimowicz to an entry level deal before June 24, thus exposing him to the draft process one again and subsequently free agency.
Enter the Pittsburgh Penguins, who extended an invite to one of Wilkes-Barre’s native sons to attend their development camp this week. After one day on the ice, Yakimowicz is not taking this opportunity for granted.
“I’m coming here to leave a mark,” Yakimowicz said. “I want everyone to know who I am.”
Yakimowicz, who just won the Memorial Cup with the London Knights a month ago, isn’t just determined to work his way to a contract. He now has the added motivation to earn a spot with the organization that he grew up idolizing.
“I’ve been a Pittsburgh Penguins fan my whole life. You know, to be here and to be from Wilkes-Barre, it’s pretty special,” Yakimowicz said. “I talked to my agent, and he said a couple teams were interested. Pittsburgh was the first one, and I said yes right away. There were no questions about it. I wanted to be a Penguin my whole life. This is my opportunity, and I’m going to run with it.”
This opportunity didn’t come by accident, either. Even though Yakimowicz is among a throng of prospects hand-picked by Pittsburgh scouts as draft selections over the past few years, an invitation to development camp doesn’t just go to anyone. They go to players who the Penguins feel can potentially be a part of plan moving forward.
“A guy could definitely earn his spot here,” said Penguins Development Coach Mark Recchi. “[Free agents] could open our eyes, and that’s what we want.”
“We don’t take it lightly,” added Assistant GM Bill Guerin when speaking to the Citizens’ Voice. “We’re picky.”
Yakimowicz has no intention of taking his time at development camp lightly, either. He plays a physical brand of hockey that isn’t necessarily appropriate in a relatively relaxed atmosphere such as a mid-summer prospect gathering, but that isn’t going to stop him from finding ways to stand out.
“It’s a development camp. There’s not a lot of hitting,” Yakimowicz said. “But I can show my game in other aspects and still physically… I’m a big body. I like to go to the net and be a power forward. I like to be a presence, and that’s what I’m going to bring here.”
And don’t think Yakimowicz hasn’t tracked the career trajectory of Shavertown native Patrick McGrath, who carved himself a roster spot with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second half of the season. He never attended Pittsburgh development camp, but he was a participant in rookie tournaments where Penguins brass got a good hard look at the hard-nosed McGrath.
“[McGrath] paved the way for guys from Wilkes-Barre, for sure,” Yakimowicz said. “Hopefully, I can follow in his footsteps.”
Austin Ortega skated with both Josh Archibald and Jake Guentzel at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. In fact, Ortega slid into Archibald’s slot on a line with Guentzel in 2014-15 after “The Buzzsaw” left school for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The speedy, free agent forward and fellow Maverick gave his thoughts on his first day at development camp and career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.