Mark Eaton didn’t have a contract after last season, when he played 62 games with the New York Islanders and was a minus-17. He didn’t find any takers during the summer free-agent frenzy. Then the lockout arrived, and was settled four months later – and Eaton still didn’t have a contract for 2012-13.
So he did what many people do when their prospects have dried up: He went home again.
Eaton signed a professional tryout agreement with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, with whom he played four seasons between 2006-10. There were no guarantees he’d return to the big club – just the chance for the then-35-year-old defenseman to play pro hockey.
"Making the Penguins team was my ultimate goal, but I just tried to keep it short-sighted and short-term, going to Wilkes-Barre to try and get my game going, but, obviously, the lockout and everything else didn't allow that to happen," said Eaton to the Post Gazette back in March.
"I just tried to work hard, keep getting better every day, and eventually end up here. And fortunately that's what happened."
He played in six AHL games before his call-up to the Penguins, and hasn’t looked back. He averaged 17:58 time on ice per game during 23 regular-season games, including some on the penalty kill.
In the playoffs, Eaton is averaging 17:38 in seven games. He’s been a scratch here and there, bit has been effective when paired with Norris Trophy nominee and offensive dynamo Kris Letang. In Pittsburgh’s emphatic Game 5 win over the Ottawa Senators, Eater played 16:37, had an assist and was a plus-2.
He’s been paired with Letang in practice, as the team readies for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins on Saturday. What’s the key to beating the B’s? Said Eaton on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan:
“They like to get pucks behind the defense and grind them down in their offensive zone. As ‘D,’ we want to spend as little time in our zone as possible and get the pucks up to our forwards and let them do their thing.”
Eaton won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, but he doesn’t see himself as a role model for the team’s younger players. “Our D-men are world class as it is. I don’t think they need to look at me to learn how to play, that’s for sure,” he said.
Maybe they should simply take inspiration from his long road back to Pittsburgh and the playoffs.