Penguins AHL/ECHL prospects 2009-10 review

By Ian Altenbaugh

For the Penguins minor-league system, the focus has gradually shifted from building competitive minor-league teams to player development. The organization would obviously still like to see the players on their AHL and ECHL affiliates to win, but their development into NHL-caliber players has taken prominence.

The Penguins AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins made the playoffs for the eighth time in a row, bowing out in the first round to the Albany River Rats. Not as much was expected from this squad than in the past, however, as the team struggled all season long on the defensive side of the puck as well as on special teams. It also did not help that the organization was ravaged by injuries, so much so that the Baby Penguins iced the same lineup only twice through October and November. 


Forwards

Joe Vitale, C/W

The Penguins organization prides itself on being defensively responsible and hard to play against. No player better represents that philosophy than agitator extraordinaire Joe Vitale.

In his first full professional season, Vitale posted six goals and 26 assists while appearing in 74 games. He primarily centered the team’s third line, often with Eric Tangradi and Tim Wallace on his wings.

In late January, the Penguins re-signed Vitale to a two-year contract extension. While it is a vote of confidence for the 24-year-old and what he has done since joining the organization, it is also a sign that Vitale will likely move into an expanded role next season.

Dustin Jeffrey, C/W

Although he started the season playing center and posted three goals and 19 assists in his first 20 games, it was not until Jeffrey shifted to left wing that he became a goal-scoring threat for the Penguins. The biggest change was he started shooting the puck more. So much more that Jeffrey finished the season 10th in the league in shots on goal with 236. In 77 regular-season games, Jeffrey posted 24 goals, 47 assists, a plus-16 rating and registered only 16 penalty minutes. The 6’1 forward was also one of the top contributors on special teams, posting four goals and 15 assists on the power play and three goals and assists on the penalty kill. He is also among the team’s best penalty killers.

In four playoffs games, however, Jeffrey did not fare so well. Often matched against opponents’ top lines, the forward finished with only one assist and a minus-five rating.

The switch to wing not only paid dividends for the 22-year-old forward but also for the Penguins organization, as it made parting with winger Luca Caputi at the NHL trade deadline less painful.

Jeffrey’s ability to play on the penalty kill as well as fill a variety of different roles at forward will increase the odds that he will eventually be an NHL contributor.

Mark Letestu, C 

It has been a breakout season for the 25-year-old center from Elk Point, Alberta. Despite missing training camp and the first couple games of the season due to arthroscopic knee surgery, Letestu started strong out the gates and at no point slowed, let alone faltered. His consistently strong play earned him multiple call-ups to the NHL, the first being on November 14th and the most recent being against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As a member of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Letestu was the team’s No. 1 center and a key offensive contributor, finishing fourth on the team with goals (21) and assists (34) through 63 games. He was also second on the team with a plus-21 rating. In Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s four playoff losses to Albany, Letestu posted three assists and registered 19 shots. 

Eric Tangradi, LW
 
Although he started his rookie professional season slowly, dislocating his shoulder in only his third game and missing a month of play, Tangradi has emerged as the Penguins prospect with the greatest NHL potential. He started out the season on a checking line with Joe Vitale and Tim Wallace. This allowed the 6’4 225-pound winger to develop his physical game and assimilate to the professional style of play without the added pressure of being depended on for offense. As his game matured and he learned to use his large frame to his advantage, the points started coming with regularity. By the beginning of January, Tangradi was one of the Penguins key contributors and started seeing regular time as a top-six forward and on the power play.

Tangradi would finish out the AHL regular season with 17 goals, including eight on the man-advantage, and 22 assists through 65 games. In his team’s four playoff appearances, Tangradi registered one goal and assist and a plus-two rating.

Aaron Boogaard, RW

The team’s resident enforcer, Aaron Boogaard has one role: fighting. He handled that role with some success as he registered 13 fighting majors in only 21 games. The 23-year-old spent the majority of the season as a healthy scratch, however, and by early February, was reassigned to the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. In Wheeling, Boogaard registered two more fighting majors.

The bruising enforcer posted modest point totals, scoring one goal in the AHL and two assists in the ECHL.

Nick Johnson, RW

At 6’2 and 202 pounds, Johnson has a prototypical hockey build. He is not afraid to battle in corners for loose pucks nor is he afraid to create havoc around the net. Johnson is also a competent defensive player, able to create turnovers in the neutral zone and has shown a willingness to block shots. He is also considered a calming locker-room presence.

Playing alongside Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey on the Baby Pens top scoring line, Johnson posted 16 goals, 27 assists, a plus-19 rating, and two fights. He also saw regular duty on the man-advantage where he posted four power-play goals.

The 24-year-old’s package of skill, grit, and character make him a versatile forward who should not have any trouble one day finding work in the NHL.

Keven Veilleux, C

Before his season was lost to injury, Veilleux played in and out of the lineup, appearing in nine games and registering two goals and one assist. On November 14th, Veilleux aggravated his shoulder during a game and subsequently placed on injured reserve. On December 29th, the 20-year-old underwent shoulder surgery and was lost for the season.

There is no question about the package of skills Veilleux brings to the Penguins organization. He has a hulking 6’5 218-pound frame. Combined with his sublime puck-moving abilities, the big forward can be a difficult force for opponents to deal with. He just has to stay healthy.

Joey Haddad, LW/RW

Like teammates Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Alex Grant, forward Joey Haddad was assigned to the ECHL out of training camp. All would split the 2009-10 season between the Penguins ECHL and AHL affiliates.

In 34 ECHL matches where Haddad played a top-six role, the forward posted seven goals, 13 assists, and 52 penalty minutes. In the AHL, where he was mostly a depth forward, he posted one goal, five assists, and two fights in 29 games.

Although a physical player, the 21-year-old plays too much along the perimeter, limiting his offensive opportunities. He is also prone to dumb, untimely penalties.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C

Still considered a project, Pierro-Zabotel saw his stock gradually rise as the season went along. Assigned to the ECHL out of training camp, Pierro-Zabotel posted 12 goals and 29 assists in 49 games before being recalled to the AHL. In his nine AHL appearances, he registered one assist. 

Pierro-Zabotel still has a long way to go before he can be considered an NHL commodity. While the 21-year-old does possess good passing ability and a hard shot, he lacks great hockey instincts and is a sub-par skater. The 2010-11 season will be a key year for his development as he will likely be given an expanded role with the organization.

Defensemen

Alex Grant, D

A gifted defenseman in the offensive zone, Grant spent most of the 2009-10 season in the ECHL, where in 40 games, he posted seven goals and 20 assists. Grant did, however, see some time in the AHL as the season wore on, getting initially called up for several games in November and once again on permanent basis, in mid-February. In 14 AHL games, Grant posted two goals, one assist, and registered two fights.

Expect Grant to compete for a regular spot with the Penguins AHL affiliate next season. His defensive game is still a big liability but his offensive game should bolster a team that finished in the bottom 10 with the man-advantage.

Robert Bortuzzo, D

A tough, two-way defenseman for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, it was unknown what kind of role the 6’4 212-pound defenseman would fill in his first professional season. It was established that he was a rugged, shot-blocking defenseman who had enough stick-handling ability to not only move the puck up-ice but to create offense. What was unknown was that Bortuzzo would be so willing to drop the gloves. Through 75 games, Bortuzzo logged nine fighting majors, fourth on the team and tied for the most among players who took a regular shift.

Paired with Brian Strait, another rookie, for most of the season, Bortuzzo established himself as one of the team’s top penalty-killers and shutdown defensemen. Through the regular season he finished with two goals, 10 assists, and a plus-13 rating.

Brian Strait, D

The second member of the Baby Penguins shutdown defensive pairing, Strait posted a team-leading plus-22 rating to go along with two goals and 12 assists through 78 games. Like frequent defensive partner Robert Bortuzzo, Strait is known for blocking shots, shutting down passing lanes, and all-around sound defensive play. He is also a strong skater and a steady calming presence who rarely makes mistakes.

Along with increased ice time and responsibilities, expect the 22-year-old Strait to take on a greater leadership role with the team.

Jon D’Aversa, D

Two-way defenseman D’Aversa has gradually seen his stock fall over the 2009-10 season. After playing as a second or third-pairing defenseman for most of October and November, D’Aversa suffered a shoulder injury and was forced out of action for over a month.

Once he returned, the defenseman spent the remainder of the season split between the ECHL and AHL. In his 21 total AHL appearances, the blueliner registered one assist and one fight. In 22 ECHL appearances, he posted six goals and 11 assists.

A restricted free agent going into the offseason, a decision will be have to be made regarding the 24-year-old’s future with the team. His development has stagnated and character issues have come up on multiple occasions.

Ben Lovejoy, D

A player with size (6’2, 214 lbs), skill, and good on-ice awareness, Lovejoy has shown in his third season with the Penguins organization that he has little left to prove at the AHL level. Through 65 games, Lovejoy posted nine goals, 20 assists, and 92 penalty minutes including two fighting majors. More importantly, he started asserting himself physically in his own zone while still playing a steady defensive game.

After a 12-game stint in 2009-10 in which he at no point looked out of place, the 26-year-old defenseman will be expected to compete for a full-time spot for next season.

Goaltending

Brad Thiessen, G

After spending the first two months of the 2009-10 season backing up John Curry, Brad Thiessen was assigned to the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling. The concern from the organization’s standpoint was to assure Thiessen was given plenty of starts. This arrangement lasted only five weeks, however, as Thiessen was recalled in mid-January to the AHL where he would stay.

A steady goaltender with sound fundamentals and lateral movement, Thiessen showed great poise in his time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, even outplaying Curry for stretches.

In 30 AHL appearances, the 24-year-old posted a 14-14-1-1 record, 2.45 goals-against average, .914 save percentage, and four shutouts. In the ECHL, he posted an 8-3 record, 2.67 goals-against average, and a .919 save percentage.

John Curry, G

After signing a two-year contract before training camp, Curry was expected to compete for the backup spot behind Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury. Instead, Curry found himself reassigned to the AHL and three months into the season, splitting starts with Thiessen.

Curry saw his numbers gradually decline as the season went on. In his final 15 starts, he allowed more than four goals on eight different occasions, and posted 4.04 goals-against average over that span. He did not fare much better in his three playoff appearances, posting three losses, 3.07 goals-against average, and a .908 save percentage.

In his 46 AHL starts, Curry posted a 23-19-3-2 record, 2.87 goals-against average, and a .891 save percentage.

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