Zach Sill is a changed man.
Five years in the same organization will do that to a player, and in Sill’s case the changes have been for the better.
Now, as he enters his fifth season with the Penguins, Sill is hoping for one more change - reaching the NHL.
Sill, 25, came to the Penguins in April 2009 when he signed an amateur tryout contract following his final season in juniors. He spent some time practicing with the club during the postseason, but got his first AHL action when he appeared in 54 games as a rookie in 2009-10.
Back then, Sill was known as a gritty, abrasive fourth-liner, and he still is.
Yet times have changed.
Sill still anchors the fourth line and he is still abrasive. But now he is one of the team’s top penalty killers, he’s effective on faceoffs and he can find the back of the net.
“I found my role,” Sill said. “I’ve always known what kind of player I was, but I’ve been able to excel at the things I need to in order to move to the next level. Penalty kill, faceoffs — all the stuff a player like me has to be good at. I managed to pinpoint those and get better at them.”
Sill changed off the ice as well. He’s matured as a person, he said, and pays more attention to his diet and training off the ice.
“You have to view this as a job and there’s a level of maturity needed that gets overlooked by the younger player,” Sill said. “For a fourth liner coming out of juniors, it takes time to get there. The older you get, the more you realize that.”
Aside from maturing as a person, a turning point in Sill’s development came late in the 2011 season when call-ups to Pittsburgh depleted the Penguins’ roster. Head coach John Hynes was forced to use players in different situations, and that included playing Sill on the penalty kill.
It’s a role he’s filled ever since, and it may be the final element to his game that will get Sill to the NHL.
“When you can play the penalty kill, that’s when your ice time goes up substantially,” he said. “Being a fourth line guy, getting three shifts a period, when you include the penalty kill you’re getting seen and you’re getting the opportunity to show the organization what kind of player you are.”
And your teammates.
This season Sill was chosen as one of the Penguins’ assistant captains, indicating that he has also added leadership to his now well-rounded game.
“Zach has been here for quite a while and he epitomizes how we want to play,” Hynes said. “He’s worked up from an AHL deal to an NHL contract and he’s at the point in his career where he’s ready to be in a leadership role.”
And maybe, after spending each of the last four seasons in the AHL, Sill is at the point where a call-up to Pittsburgh will become a reality.
After an extended stay in Pittsburgh’s training camp this fall, Sill knows he is on the parent club’s radar.
And while changes both on and off the ice have allowed Sill’s career to progress, there is one thing he won’t alter no matter where he plays.
“My game doesn’t change. Play hard, penalty kill, block shots, hit guys, fight guys — it’s what I’ve always done,” Sill said. “But this is the year that I hope I’m not here. I’m playing for that first game up there.”