Having already lost over 90 man-games to injury, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had to call upon their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre for reinforcements. Prospects John Curry, Tim Wallace, Paul Bissonnette, and Ben Lovejoy have all made their NHL debuts this season, while Pittsburgh native Bill Thomas was given an opportunity to suit up for the team he grew up idolizing. Former Finnish league standout Janne Pesonen, another new face to the organization, made his North American debut, first in the AHL, and later the NHL. Throughout all of this, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins have remained an offensive and physical force in the league.
The team affectionately referred to as the Baby Penguins has been a tough team to face – losing only five games by more than two goals. They are second in the league with a 87.2 percent penalty kill, second in fighting majors, and average 21.4 penalty minutes a game, ranking them seventh in the league.
However, it has not been across the board success this season. Like their parent club, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has had difficulty with the man-advantage. At home, they have a respectable .206 conversion rating, good for 11th in the league. But at home, the Penguins are third worst in the AHL with a .108 rating. Regardless of their woes with the man-advantage, the offense has remained potent and ranks sixth in the league with an average of 3.41 goals per game.
Ben Lovejoy, D
The 24-year-old defenseman currently leads the Penguins AHL affiliate in plus/minus and points among defensemen. On top of his team-leading statistics, Lovejoy has played in all situations and is looked to for leadership on and off the ice. Because of the Penguins injury woes, Lovejoy was given an NHL cup of coffee in December. In his two-game stint with the big club, Lovejoy was paired with his former roommate Alex Goligoski. He played in even-strength situations and on the man-advantage, getting off one shot and throwing several body checks. He showed great poise in several five-on-five situations. However, with several Penguins defensemen returning to the lineup, the New Hampshire native was returned to Wilkes-Barre.
Dustin Jeffrey, C
Although he has been centering a checking line with Luca Caputi and what has appeared to be a rotating spot on his right wing, Jeffrey has seen moderate success in his first professional season, posting 16 points in 29 games. More importantly, he has played responsibly at both ends of the ice.
John Curry, G
Although Curry made his first his NHL start in a 9-2 romp against the New York Islanders, his play in the AHL has been less than stellar, posting a 2.97 GAA to go along with a .904 save percentage, and a 4-5 record. Curry’s NHL call-up was more out of necessity than reward as he has been vastly outplayed by minor-league netminder Adam Berkhoel. However, since Curry is signed to an NHL contract and Berkhoel a minor league contract, the former Hobey Baker candidate received the call-up. With Fleury now healthy, Curry was returned to Wilkes-Barre and has since made two appearances, going 1-1 with a 1.52 GAA and a .939 save percentage.
Luca Caputi, LW
Whether it was due to a minor injury sustained in the pre-season or simply difficulty adjusting to the speed of the professional game, Caputi’s entry into the AHL started slowly. In his first 15 games, the 20-year-old posted only 4 points in a checking line role. Following that relative cold stretch however, he posted 12 points in 13 games and has steadily improved his quality of play. In addition to his offensive production, the winger has dropped the gloves twice, and has seen spot duty on the power play. The Penguins have shown reluctance in rushing the former OHL standout and so far their patience has paid dividends. As the season goes on, Caputi should become an increasingly integral part of the Baby Penguins offense.
Tim Wallace, RW
A winning team requires players of all variety. Realizing this, the Penguins have stockpiled hard -working forwards who are good on the forecheck, hit with regularity, and generally get their noses dirty. Wallace is the latest to get recognition for his rough style of no-questions-asked play in an early December call-up and has not disappointed in his NHL debut. While the Alaska native is not going to put the puck in the net with any regularity, as demonstrated by his 21 goals in 127 AHL games, his physical and tenacious play replaces some of the sandpaper lost after Tyler Kennedy was placed on IR with a sprained knee.
Paul Bissonnette, LW
The man whom teammates refer to as “Biz Nasty” found that when the Pittsburgh Penguins were finished making their training camp cuts, he was going to have to travel east. Not to Wilkes-Barre however, but to Sweden for the Penguins NHL season opener. While his stay in the NHL was not extended beyond a few games, the 23-year-old firmly established himself as a player not afraid to drop the gloves or finish a body check. Since being returned to the AHL, the roving winger has continued to be a physical presence, finishing checks, dropping the gloves, and getting in the face of any opposition who dare cross the path of one of his teammates. So far this season, Bissonnette is fifth in the AHL in fighting majors with 11 in 15 games.
Bill Thomas, F
The 2008-09 season has been a series of high and low points for Pittsburgh native Bill Thomas. After surviving training camp cuts, Thomas headed with the Pittsburgh Penguins to Stockholm for their season opener against Ottawa. After being a healthy scratch for most of his stay in Western Pennsylvania, Thomas was reassigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. His debut for WBS was slightly better as Thomas posted five points in his first 10 games playing on the second or third line. Since December though, Thomas has been ice cold, posting only 1 assist in 7 games.
Mark Letestu, F
Playing mostly in a third line role, Letestu opened the season flat, posting only four points in his first 15 games. After top scorers Chris Minard, Jeff Taffe, and Janne Pesonen started getting called into NHL duty, Letestu’s role was expanded and he has been an offensively productive member of the team since. The Alberta native is never going to be an offensive force in professional hockey but he is starting to turn into a reliable contributor at both ends of the ice. Letestu’s greatest asset is his smart play. He is sound defensively and has yet to take a penalty this season.
Ryan Stone, F
The Calgary native was vocal with his disatisfaction about not making the Penguins NHL team out of training camp. Whatever dissapointment Stone was experiencing though is not apparent as Stone has been among the Baby Penguins grittiest forwards this season. He has dropped the gloves five times and is fourth on the team with 47 penalty minutes but the stats do not tell the true story of the 23-year-old’s play. His best work, from an offensive standpoint and as an agitator, is done around the net and along the boards. Stone has shown remarkable consistency this season, going no more than three games without a point and sits fourth on the team in scoring. As a result of his play this season, Stone was called up to the NHL on Dec. 17. Although he has not been producing offensively in the NHL, the forward has thrown his 6’2 frame around with gusto and not looked out of place.
The 22-year-old Ontario native has had a season of hot and cold streaks. After posting six points in his seven appearances, D’Aversa had four in his next 20. Regardless of his streaky production, the blue-liner progressed a great deal from last season. His defensive play has continued to get better as the season has gone along and has only eight penalty minutes in 27 appearances this season.
An enforcer in the classic form, Boogaard has struggled this season as a heavyweight fighter. The bulky winger has dropped the gloves six times this season, his most recent fight, against Jeremy Yablonski, ending with Boogaard injuring his right arm. The native of Regina, Saskatchewan has since been cleared for full-contact practice although he will likely wait a while longer to assure his arm is strong enough for fighting.
The season has been difficult for 24-year-old Jon Filewich. He was a -7 in his first four games and even after picking up his defensive play, the Kelowna native found himself a healthy scratch on several occasions. Even after recovering from the injury sustained on Nov. 29, Filewich was unable to crack the Baby Penguins roster. Eventually, the struggling winger was traded the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 19 for a sixth-round pick in 2010.
The Penguins ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, currently sit atop the ECHL with 15-3-1-4 record and a .761 win percentage. The potent Nailers offense scores an average of 4.17 goals per game and possesses the league’s third-best power play. Initially much of the success may have been attributed to the dynamic Nick Johnson, who scored 14 goals in 18 games before being called up. However, since Johnson’s call-up, the Nailers have continued to fire on all cylinders, scoring 24 goals in their last six games.
Only two of the Penguins prospects have made appearances this season in the ECHL.
Nick Johnson, F
After scoring 14 goals in 18 games in the ECHL, Johnson received an AHL promotion. While he was initially called up to supplant the enormous amount of turnover on the Penguins AHL roster, he is staying in the AHL because of his consistent and high level of play. The Dartmouth graduate scored in his first AHL appearance and has chipped in 3 assists playing mostly on a second or third line scoring role. The biggest asset in Johnson’s skill package is not his innate ability to find the back of the net but his ability to be coached. Johnson has the skill and willingness to excel in whatever role is asked of him.
David Brown, G
Because of the injury to Marc-Andre Fleury, and Curry’s NHL call-up, Brown was promoted to the AHL to back up starter Adam Berkhoel. In his brief in the AHL, the former Notre Dame star posted a gaudy 3.94 GAA and .841 save percentage. He won only one of his four starts before returning to Wheeling in early December. Brown’s play has not been all doom and gloom, however. In Wheeling he has posted a 5-0-1-1 record, has a 2.61 GAA and .918 save percentage, all solid numbers. For Brown, it has not been a matter of skill but confidence. Brown needs to work further on his positioning and rebound control before he can have the confidence required of a starting goaltender. Too often this season he has let one behind him and looked shaky for the rest of the game.