The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are coming off a 2009-10 season where they finished with a 41-34-2-3 record and made the playoffs for the eighth year in a row, albeit bowing out in the first round against the Albany River Rats. The team struggled to find an identity as it was burdened with massive roster turnover the entire season, punctuated by a span which they only twice iced the same lineup through October and November.
There is a hope that would not be the case for the upcoming season but early signs are this upcoming season could be similar. Todd Reirden the Baby Pens head coach last year was promoted to assistant coach in the NHL in wake of former AHL and NHL assistant Mike Yeo leaving for a head coaching job with the Houston Aeros. Minor-league assistant coach John Hynes was then promoted as the WBS Penguins head coach.
To compound matters, the Pittsburgh Penguins entered training camp with three open roster spots, two on defense and one at forward because of an injury to center Jordan Staal. The opportunity to make the NHL squad was not lost on the players either as many went to great lengths to impress Penguins brass. “I trained differently this summer.” said Ben Lovejoy, “I spent the month of August here in Pittsburgh skating four days a week and training six days a week to be ready. My goal was to come into camp in midseason shape and hopefully being playing my best hockey from the drop of the puck.”
While some like Lovejoy are locks to make the NHL, the competition remains fairly wide open among several AHL seasoned players and could remain that way through the regular season.
The Penguins AHL affiliate boasts a deep and diverse group of forwards. Although he’s currently still in the NHL, pivot Mark Letestu will likely center the top line for the Baby Pens, while forwards Dustin Jeffrey, Nick Johnson, Chris Connor, Brett Sterling, Keven Veilleux, and Ryan Craig, will compete for the remaining spots in the top-six. All of the aforementioned players with the exception of Veilleux will be expected to compete for at least part-time duties in the NHL for the upcoming season as well.
Several forwards such as Nick Petersen, Casey Pierro-Zabotel, and Joey Haddad are still finding their comfort zone at the professional level, with this being the first professional season for Petersen and the second for Haddad and Pierro-Zabotel.
Among some of the other players competing for a spot in the AHL but likely to spend the bulk of the season with the Penguins ECHL affiliate the Wheeling Nailers are Ryan Schnell, Andrew Oprik, Mikael Bedard, Chris Collins, Andrew Lord, David Marshall, Pascal Morency, Marc Rechlicz, Ben Street, and Alex Smigelski.
The defense could have a considerably different look to it with Ben Lovejoy and possibly Derek Engelland spending the entire season in the NHL. The team’s shutdown pairing of Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo will return though and will be accompanied by Carl Sneep, who after winning the Frozen Four with Boston College, will officially start his professional career.
Steve Wagner, acquired around the 2009-10 trade deadline, along with new additions Corry Potter, Andrew Hutchinson will round out the top six. Players on minor-league contracts such as Nick Tuzzolino, Kyle Bushee, Jason DeSantis, Drew Dobson, and Peter Merth will vie for the seventh and eighth defenseman spots, likely spending most of the upcoming season in the ECHL. Alex Grant, a puck-moving defenseman who broke his wrist in a brutal collision during the Kitchener prospects tournament, will figure to have a spot in the Baby Pens top-six once he returns to health.
Hutchinson, an AHL journeyman for most of his career, has ties to GM Ray Shero from when he was in the Predators minor-league system and more importantly, is a competent puck-mover and powerplay quarterback. Along with Potter and Wagner, the trio will provide a veteran presence for prospects Grant, Sneep, Strait, and Bortuzzo.
Brad Thiessen won the starting job from Jon Curry last season and should start the season as the team’s starter. Curry is still very much part of the team however and should see around 30 starts.
Patrick Killeen, a massive goaltender who is entering his first professional season, and Mattias Modig, a Swedish goaltender brought in via trade with Anaheim over the off-season will likely see some AHL duties during the regular season but are almost assured to spend the bulk of the season splitting starts with the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling.
Assistant coach John Hynes will be the Penguins head coach for 2010-11. Because of his six seasons coaching USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Hynes comes with brilliant player development credentials, having worked with a plethora of young players from the Blackhawks Patrick Kane to current Baby Penguin Brian Strait.
As far as coaching philosophies are concerned, the Penguins will continue to play a system in which both the language and style of play are nearly identical to the system the organization employs at the NHL level.
Former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman Alain Nasreddine was promoted to the assistant coach spot vacated when Hynes was promoted. As a player, Nasreddine had a reputation of being a great locker room presence as well as a simple, yet smart and methodical defenseman. He’ll bring those sensibilities to the his new coaching position and will likely be asked to specifically work with the defensemen and special teams.
While the Penguins expressed over the off-season their desire for one of their forwards on their AHL squad to step up during training camp, there was no real chance for any of the prospects to make the NHL roster until Jordan Staal underwent a mid-September debridement to remove infected tissue from his foot. With the big center out of the picture until late October, the door cracked open for several prospects.
Eric Tangradi played extensively on a line with Mike Comrie and Evgeni Malkin in preseason and at times, the trio looked like a perfect fit. At 6’4 and over 220 pounds, he provides a physical net-front presence the Penguins have lacked for a long time. His blend of size and skill also created matchup problems for opposing defensemen. Tangradi was about 24 hours away from making the opening day roster for the Penguins before he was assigned to the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling. The next day however, he was recalled and made his NHL 2010-11 season debut against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Dustin Jeffrey was another prospect who made a case for himself during camp. The versatile forward played a lot of center in camp and the pre-season, but showed last season he can play wing if asked too. The Penguins like forwards who can play multiple positions which gives Jeffrey an advantage over some of his peers. Still, what he showed was not enough as he was re-assigned to the AHL on October 4th.
Defenseman Simon Despres is not yet eligible to play in the AHL but had such an outstanding camp, the Penguins toyed with the idea of keeping him on the NHL roster for a brief stretch before re-assigning him to the St. John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. On October 6th however, Despres was re-assigned to the QMJHL. During the announcement, the team admitted that while Despres was likely ready for the NHL, playing another season in major junior would be more beneficial to his development.