As is often the case, the fortunes of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season have been directly linked to those of the parent club in Pittsburgh. The Penguins AHL affiliate has had to regularly ice different lineups because they were ravaged by injuries to many key players. It has been so bad for the team that they had iced the same lineup only twice through October and November.
The Penguins AHL affiliate, like the parent club, plays a style of game that is equal parts grit, skill, and physicality. They are second in the league with 53 fighting majors, but also play a sound, defensive brand of hockey, allowing an average of only 2.6 goals a game, good for sixth-best in the league. The team has struggled to score goals though and its average of 2.73 per game is among the worst in the league. The team’s current record of 14-14-1-1 is tied for sixth-worst in the league. Much of this can be attributed to massive roster turnover, the myriad of injuries, as well as the first full season for coach Todd Reirden and his staff.
Joe Vitale, C/W – A player emblematic of the type of play the Penguins organization is looking for from their forwards, Vitale plays a nasty, physical type of game that is predicated around strong defense and hitting everything that moves. This was known before he even joined the team and has held true almost halfway through his first professional season. The 24-year-old will never be considered offensively gifted, but he has picked up his play in the month of December, posting a goal and six assists in his last nine games. Still, it is the sound defensive play and ability to kill penalties and take faceoffs that make him an appealing prospect. To date, the gritty forward has one goal, 10 assists, and 32 penalty minutes in 27 games.
Luca Caputi, LW/RW – One of the more consistent offensive performers for the Baby Pens, Caputi has improved all facets of his game since last season and at times, has looked dominant. The 21-year-old leads the team with 12 goals, seven of which were picked up with the man-advantage. Contrary to Caputi’s reputation as a player who scores mostly garbage goals, many of the ones he scored this season have shown some pedigree and natural ability. He plays a fairly physical game too. Nothing compared to the hit-anything-that-moves mentality of some of his teammates, but the young forward will battle in the corners and along the boards for the puck. He has also dropped the gloves on two occasions this season, most recently in a bout with John Sigalet (CLB) on December 9th. In 30 games this season, Caputi has posted 12 goals, 12 assists, and 34 penalty minutes.
Dustin Jeffrey, C/W – Like Caputi, Jeffrey is in his second full season of the AHL and looks to have fully adapted to the professional style of game. The 21-year-old plays a fairly understated game. Still, he has managed to amass a lot of points, posting eight goals, 22 assists in 28 games: good for the team lead and 10th in the league. He is also just three goals and four assists shy from matching his totals from the 2008-09 season. The forward has also been among the team’s best defensive forwards and has excelled in the faceoff circle. Recently, Jeffrey has played left wing on a line with Mark Letestu and Nick Johnson. The move paid immediate dividends as he has three goals and 13 shots in his past two games.
Mark Letestu, C – Two years ago, Letestu was splitting duties between the ECHL and AHL and playing on a fourth line with pugilists such as Dennis Bonvie or Paul Bissonette (PHO). After missing training camp and the first half of October because of a knee surgery, the 24-year-old is the Baby Penguins’ top center and has been counted on to distribute the puck on the power play, take timely faceoffs, and center the top scoring line. Because of a slew of injuries to the Penguins NHL club that saw them miss over 80 man games to injury through November, Letestu was given a cup of coffee, first in the middle of November and later in early December. The playmaking center did not look out of place in his three NHL games either, averaging 11:47 of ice time while playing on a line with Ruslan Fedotenko and Pascal Dupuis. He also played some significant minutes with the man-advantage and while he did not register a point, he directly contributed to several key scoring chances for his team. Currently, Letestu has five goals, 16 assists in 21 games.
Eric Tangradi, LW – After a strong training camp, 20-year-old Tangradi played all of three games before sustaining a shoulder injury in mid-October. The young power forward eventually returned to the Baby Pens on November 6th. Since then, the Philadelphia native has gradually rounded into form, posting five goals, four assists in 22 games while playing mostly in even-strength situations, often on a line with Caputi. At 6’4 and around 220 pounds, the big forward has shown the skill and willingness to use his large frame to protect and battle for pucks along the boards and around the net. He is also good at anchoring himself in front of the opposing goaltender, acting as a screen. Expect him to spend the remainder of the 2009-10 season in the AHL as he is still adapting to the professional style of game.
Aaron Boogaard, RW – As the team’s resident heavy-weight fighter, 23-year-old Boogaard has acquitted himself nicely this season, having already been in 12 fights this season, four shy of his 2008-09 total. The enforcer remains a purely one-dimensional player though, having posted only one goal this season and frequently finding himself a healthy scratch.
Nick Johnson, RW – Like teammates Dustin Jeffrey and Caputi, Johnson is in his second full season of professional play and is now among those counted on as the team’s primary offensive contributors. The season started out rocky, however, as the 23-year-old posted a single goal before missing 16 games to an ankle injury. Upon returning, the winger was put on a line with Letestu and Jeffrey. In those seven games he posted five goals, five assists and registered three multi-point outings. Johnson is finally rounding into form, which gives the Baby Penguins two viable scoring lines on any given night and should make them more competitive as the season continues.
Keven Veilleux, C – An intriguing blend of size and skill, the biggest obstacle for Veilleux in the 2009-10 season has been health. First it was a hip flexor that aggravated him through late October and early November and later it was a shoulder injury suffered on November 14th. Scheduled for surgery on December 29th, the 20-year-old Veilleux could very well spend the remainder of the season on the injured reserve list. In nine games this season, he managed two goals and an assist. The young center also had two fights in which he pummeled John McCarthy (SJ) and the next night T.J. Brennan (BUF). For a prospect who seems to have all of the tools to one day be an NHL player, Veilleux’s biggest impediment to his career has been and continues to be his inability to stay healthy.
Joey Haddad, LW/RW – Like Letestu and Jonathan D’Aversa before him, Haddad started his professional career for the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate before he got to taste the AHL. After a rash of injuries occurred to the both the NHL and AHL squads though, Haddad was called up to the AHL in mid-November and has been there since. While playing for the Nailers, Haddad posted five goals, six assists in 12 games. With the Baby Pens, he has yet to score a goal in his 11 appearances. The knock on Haddad is that he is not the most cognitive player in the world and is prone to lazy penalties. When properly motivated though, he can be a physical presence along the boards and has a hard wrist shot.
Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C – Of the three prospects who started the 2009-10 season for the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, Pierro-Zabotel is the only one who has yet to see any action in the AHL. That should not be considered a great indictment to his play, however, as the 21-year-old has posted six goals, 14 assists in 27 games. He has also shown on occasions the deft playmaking ability that made him the 2008-09 top scorer in the WHL. His game is still fairly raw though and his defense and skating could both use an upgrade before being promoted to the AHL.
Alex Grant, D – The same story seems to go on and on. Grant has many great tools, it is just a matter of putting them all together on a consistent basis. Like Haddad, Grant was assigned to the Wheeling Nailers before organization-wide injuries forced him to be called up to the AHL in mid-November. In his first game in the AHL, the 20-year-old Grant dropped the gloves with Dale Weise (NYR). Before being reassigned to the ECHL, the native of Nova Scotia posted one goal and a plus-3 rating in four games. Since returning to the Nailers, Grant has been on fire, posting three goals, seven assists in 10 games for a total of seven goals, nine assists in 22 games.
Robert Bortuzzo, D – Although it is not a surprise that he has been as physical or steady as has in his first professional season, nobody could have expected Bortuzzo to already have five fighting majors, good for third on the team and most among those who play regular minutes. The 20-year-old defenseman is a fairly mobile skater and while he would be considered a defensive defenseman, he has a good first pass and is smart with the puck. In 29 games, Bortuzzo has one goal, three assists and 51 penalty minutes.
Brian Strait, D – Along with Caputi, Strait is the only other player on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins roster who has managed to not yet miss a game this season. Durability is undoubtedly a great asset, but it is Strait’s solid play in his own zone that has been most impressive as a first-year pro. In the month of November, when half the team’s defense was in the NHL because of injuries, Strait was given top-four minutes and responded with a goal and three assists. Of the rookie defensemen on the team, the 21-year-old seems to have adjusted to the professional style of game the smoothest. He still has made some errors and is prone to taking too many stick penalties, including eight hooking calls. In 30 games, Strait has one goal, six assists, and 26 penalty minutes.
Jon D’Aversa, D – After playing mostly as a fourth or fifth defenseman for October and much of November, the 23-year-old suffered a shoulder injury on November 19th that would end up requiring surgery and has been out since. His return is expected to be at least after Christmas. It had been a forgettable season, however, as the defenseman’s game looked to have regressed from what was a strong 2008-09 campaign. Through 14 games, D’Aversa posted one assisted and 23 penalty minutes.
Ben Lovejoy, D – After a strong training camp, Lovejoy suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason. This not only derailed any chance he had at making the NHL roster out of training camp but also caused him to miss the first five games of the AHL season. Since his return on October 23rd, Lovejoy’s presence has been felt up and down the organization. The 25-year-old was the second defenseman promoted to the NHL because of injuries and over an eight-game period, he posted three assists and a plus-5 rating while averaging 17:53 a night in ice time. At 6’2 and 214 pounds he has good size and seemed to fit seamlessly into the Penguins system and the NHL style of play. Lovejoy was eventually re-assigned to the AHL on Nov. 28. In 18 AHL games, he posted four goals, six assists as the team’s top defenseman.
Brad Thiessen, G – Although he spent the first two months of the season with the Penguins AHL affiliate, Thiessen has seen the bulk of his ice time come in practice rather than in starts or relief for starter John Curry. Still, in his four starts, Thiessen looked sharp, managing a 2.5 goals-against-average and a .915 save percentage despite a 1-3 record. The main reason for Thiessen’s limited play was he was filling in for injured minor-league backup Adam Berkhoel, who was hobbled with knee problems for much of the beginning of the season. Once Berkhoel was healthy, Thiessen was assigned to Wheeling where he could see regular action as a starter. In eight games, the 23-year-old has a 4-3 record, a 3.18 goals-against-average and a .911 save percentage.
John Curry, G – In his third season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the second as their undisputed starting goaltender, 25-year-old Curry has started all but six of his team’s games, leading them to a 12-11-1 record when he is in net. His goals-against-average is 2.45 which is slightly higher than the previous two seasons. However, when taken into consideration the carousel of defensemen playing in front of him for the first two months of the season, it is solid. Likewise for his .909 save percentage.