AHL affiliate for Pittsburgh Penguins providing steady supply of young players

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Brad Thiessen was among the top goaltenders in the AHL this season. (Photo courtesy of Ian Altenbaugh/HF)

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the AHL affiliate for the Pittsburgh Penguins, finished the 2010-11 season with a league-leading 117 points and 58 wins. While solid two-way players like Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi elevated the team to elite status, it was a team-wide commitment to defense and perfect execution of their system that buoyed the team through injuries and call-ups.

Forward

Eric Tangradi, LW, 22

It was an up and down season for Tangradi but it ended on a positive note. He made the team out of training camp, and appeared in nine games, finishing with a goal, an assist, and 12 shots on net playing primarily in the bottom six while seeing time on the powerplay. He was not producing at the pace the Penguins would have liked though so the organization returned him to the AHL to see more ice time and round out his overall game. The results did not pay immediate dividends but the power forward eventually found his groove in late November, potting 30 points in 30 games from November 25th to January 29th.

Tangradi was eventually recalled to the NHL in Feburary when injuries ravaged the Penguins lineup. In five games he did not register any points and posted only five shots but he was relegated primarily to a fourth-line energy role. He displayed immense physicality and strong discipline, skating through opposing defensemen for the puck, providing a solid net-front presence, and not succumbing to bad penalties.

On February 11th, in what was his strongest NHL game to date, Tangradi was punched in the back of the head by Trevor Gillies and taunted by the Islanders pugilist as he lay helplessly on the ground. The event would spark a great deal of controversy and resulted in Tangradi missing two full months of hockey to a concussion.

Upon returning, Tangradi looked as determined as ever. He saw 13:44 in ice time in the last regular season game of the season, registering a plus-one and an assist. He also appeared in one playoff game. Through it all Tangradi has shown that he is capable of providing a solid net-front presence and is big and strong enough to be difficult to move out of the crease. Power forwards can take awhile to round out their games so expect him to likely start the 2011-12 season in the NHL as an energy forward, seeing spot duties in the top-nine. He could however see considerable time on the powerplay as few other players in the organization bring his combination of size and net-front presence.

Dustin Jeffrey, C/W, 23

Like Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey split the season between the AHL and NHL, and missed significant time to injury. He started the season on fire in the AHL, posting 33 points in 30 games and saw several cups of coffee in mid-December. In late January though, with the Penguins completely depleted at center, Jeffrey was called up for an extended stay in the NHL. While averaging over 13 minutes a game, he saw time on both special teams and was used frequently in the faceoff circle. Like with so many of the Penguins other forwards this season, Jeffrey suffered a season-ending injury just as he was hitting his groove, in this case a series of torn knee ligaments in late March. He finished the season with relatively modest totals, seven goals, five assists, a plus-five through 25 games. His faceoff percentage, 44 percent, left a lot to be desired though that is normally a facet of a player’s game that can simply improve with practice and experience.

Jeffrey should not be expected to duplicate his point-per-game totals at the NHL level. He plays with a fair amount of skill but his gaudy totals in the AHL are more a result of determined puck-pursuit and generally outworking opponents. Against bigger, faster, and stronger competition, he will likely not be able to create as many offensive opportunities. Regardless, he should be able to carve out a niche in the NHL as a third-line player who can chip in offensively, play special teams, and take key faceoffs.

Because of the extent of Jeffrey’s knee injury and the subsequent rehab following the surgery, Jeffrey will not likely be ready for 2011-12 training camp and possibly all of October. He is also a restricted free agent this summer although it is likely the Penguins will offer him a new contract, likely for one season.

Nick Johnson, 26, RW

Like the aforementioned players, Johnson played very well this season in the AHL before earning an NHL call-up. Aside from a cold streak in November he never went more than two games without a point and was playing top-line minutes for the Baby Penguins, often on a line with Dustin Jeffrey. He was the trigger man on the Baby Pens powerplay, potting 10 of his 20 goals on the man-advantage, and in general was shooting the puck as often and from anywhere he could. With an injury ravaged NHL roster, Johnson was called up in mid-February with the hope he could provide a spark to an anemic Penguins offense and powerplay.

It was too early to tell what kind of influence Johnson had on the Penguins offense because in his fourth game, a February 16th bout against the Colorado Avalanche, Johnson sustained a concussion and was put on the IR for the rest of the season. In his four NHL games, he posted one goal, two assists, and ten shots while averaging almost 17 minutes of ice time. In his 48 games in the AHL, Johnson registered 20 goals, 19 assists, 140 shots, and was a plus-12.

Johnson was recently re-signed for another year by the Penguins and considering their limited cap space and roster needs, will likely play the bulk of the 2011-12 season in the NHL. Like most Penguins wingers, he will likely get a look on one a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin but is better suited for a bottom-six role.

Joe Vitale, C, 25

One player who is almost sure to begin next season in the NHL is Joe Vitale. In his second full season of professional play, Vitale proved to be one of the Penguins most valuable forwards, particularly with the rash of injuries and ensuing call-ups that afflicted the Penguins and their affiliates this season. He registered nine goals and 21 assists in 60 games for the Baby Penguins, logging top-nine minutes and seeing time on both special teams.

He saw nine games of NHL play this season, mostly playing in the bottom-six, and registered a goal, an assist, and won 56.2 percent of his faceoffs. What was impressive was how he coupled sound positional play with a grating agitating streak.

The Penguins organization tends to favor feisty, defensively sound forwards and with little left to prove at the AHL level, expect Vitale next year to get a realistic shot to stick in the NHL.

Keven Veilleux, RW/C, 21

Going into the 2010-11 season, Veilleux had already established himself as an immense albeit brittle talent. Aside from staying healthy, he needed to establish himself as a hockey player at the professional level. With a thick, 6’5 frame and pterodactyl like wingspan Veilleux had the assets to develop into a power forward. The greatest hurdle he faced was developing a warrior mentality on the ice.

Over 120 penalty minutes and 12 fighting majors later, that hurdle is now a distant image in the rear view mirror. The forward established himself as one of the top two-way forwards for the Baby Penguins, posting fair offensive totals, 12 goals and 24 assists, but more importantly was relatively healthy, playing in 66 of the Penguins 80 games. A value that was accentuated when the Penguins called up many their top AHL players, leaving Veilleux to regularly play top-six duties and see considerable time on both special teams.

He played a lot of wing in the first half of the season but saw time at every forward position in the second half when injuries and call-ups often meant the team was icing a different lineup every night.

Veilleux has instinctive offensive ability and is a talented puck-distributor but how much of that he will be able to properly utilize is debatable. He has a fairly powerful stride but is neither a fast nor dynamic skater, which can limit his ability to distribute the puck on the rush or create odd-man breaks. He still needs likely one or two years of AHL seasoning before making it to the show. At this point in his development he is still raw and could just as easily develop into a fourth-line energy player as he could a top-six power forward.

Zack Sill, C, 23

Recently signed to an NHL entry-level deal by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zack Sill took a non-traditional route to professional hockey, first playing in the MJAHL, then for the University of Maine, then finally as an overager in the QMJHL. He eventually signed a two-year AHL deal with the Penguins in 2009. Upon completing the 2010-11 season, and the final year in his AHL contract, the Penguins rewarded Sill with an two-year entry-level deal.

Posting a modest 11 goals and 19 assists through 80 AHL games (and never more than 18 goals in his hockey career) Sill is not expected to be a regular offensive contributor. He is however expected to bring toughness and sandpaper to the lineup and is more than capable of shutting down opposing forwards. As far as his ceiling in the NHL is concerned, he projects as an energy guy who can chip in on the penalty-kill as well as drop the gloves on occasion.

Joey Haddad, LW, 22

After splitting the 2009-10 season between the ECHL and AHL, Haddad was expected to compete for a regular spot in the AHL in 2010-11. Instead he spent the bulk of the season in the ECHL, only seeing a call-up to the AHL when injuries forced the organization to shuffle players. In 16 AHL games, he posted a goal, three assists, 15 penalty minutes, and a minus-one. With Wheeling in the ECHL, he managed 21 goals, 22 assists, and 93 penalty minutes.

Hadad has a clearly defined role as an agitating two-way forward. He plays the game with an edge, and on occasion carelessly takes penalties. Aside from discipline he needs to work on his skating and continue to get in the greasy areas of the ice. At this point it is difficult to project him as an NHL forward.


Nick Petersen, RW, 22

After spending the bulk of the season in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers, where he managed 24 goals, 33 assists and a plus-17 in 40 games, Petersen was brought up to the AHL on a fulltime basis in late February. It took him awhile to acclimate to the faster, more structured style of play of the AHL but by April, Petersen was among the Baby Penguins best forwards.

He finished the season in the AHL posting five goals and nine assists through 23 games. More notably however was that ten of those points came in his final six games.

Petersen projects similarly to teammate Nick Johnson. He doesn’t have any standout qualities, but seems to instinctively find open scoring areas on the ice. He also is following a similar development track Johnson as well as current Penguin Mark Letestu, plying his trade in the ECHL before earning a fulltime spot in the AHL. Expect him to continue refining his game at the AHL level next season with the hope of competing for an NHL roster spot in 2012-13.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C/W, 22

While many Penguins ECHL players were called up to the AHL because of injuries at the NHL level, Casey Pierro-Zabotel was not one of them. Part of it could be due to his plodding style of skating, physical passiveness, or poor hockey IQ. It could also be due to criticisms leveled towards the Penguins organization by his wife via Twitter. Regardless, it will be a season that Pierro-Zabotel will want to forget.

After posting 14 goals and 34 assists in 42 games with the Wheeling Nailers, the 22-year-old forward was loaned to the Cincinnati Cyclones for ECHL forwards Sam D’Agostino and Chris Minella. Playing for the Cyclones he posted four goals and 16 assists in 25 games. He also appeared in four playoff games for them where he went pointless.

While he was considered a raw prospect with some promise two years ago, it is safe to say the big forward is quickly seeing his value as a hockey prospect diminish. If he doesn’t come roaring out of the training camp gates for 2011-12, then his career could be relegated to playing AA minor-league hockey.

Paul Thompson, W, 22

One of the more sought after college free agents, Paul Thompson signed an entry-level deal with the Penguins on March 28th and debuted in the AHL several days later. In six games he posted a goal, two assists, and a plus-four while almost exclusively seeing time on a scoring line and on the powerplay.

In the NCAA, Thompson was able to find open scoring lanes and cash in on those opportunities seemingly at will. With the tighter style of play in the AHL, those opportunities were farther between although the 22-yeasr-old forward still managed to find open ice with frequency. He creates most of his offense away from the puck, finding open scoring lanes in the crease and slot but is a proficient passer and is comfortable starting and joining offensive rushes. He is an above average skater and at 6’1 and over 200 pounds, is strong and solidly built.

He projects as a scoring winger and while he will get to skate with one of the Penguins’ star centers in training camp, he will likely start the 2011-12 season in the AHL.


Defense

Carl Sneep, D, 23

In his first professional season, former second-round pick and Boston College grad Carl Sneep demonstrated a great level of versatility from the blue line. He started the season as a depth defenseman, playing primarily in the third pairing but as the season wore on and players were called up to the NHL as injury replacements, Sneep saw increased responsibilities.

By late February, Sneep appeared comfortable and was playing his best hockey of the season. Through 53 games in the AHL he had four goals, 11 assists and was a plus-18. Then, like so many of the other Penguins players, Sneep went down with an upper-body injury and missed almost the entire month of March. When he returned he looked a step behind and was not the same reliable two-way player before the injury. He finished the season with four goals, 13 assists, and a plus-17 through 61 games.

Sneep has all the tools to one day develop into an NHL caliber defenseman. He is an above average skater, has decent size at 6’3, 212 pounds, can shoot the puck with some authority, and is not afraid to sacrifice his body. Three of the Baby Penguins top defensemen in Cory Potter, Steve Wagner, and Andrew Hutchinson will be unrestricted free agents this summer opening the door for Sneep to take on a top four role with the team. Provided he continues to grow and excel, he could compete for a spot in the NHL as early as 2012-13.

Brian Strait, D, 23

Brian Strait was half of one of the most effective defensive pairings in the AHL this season. Strait plays a fairly simple style of game predicated around positioning, gap control, and moving the puck up ice.

Typically partnered with Robert Bortuzzo, the two would routinely be deployed to shut down opposing top forwards. Strait even managed to appear in three NHL games in late February where he averaged almost 14 minutes a game of ice time. In his 75 regular season games in the AHL, he finished with a plus-22, tied for ninth in the league, 10 points, and 49 penalty minutes. In the playoffs, he played a key role for the Baby Pens on defense and in their transition game, posting four points and a plus-three in 12 games.

There are currently seven defensemen in the Penguins organization who are signed to NHL deals so unless a trade occurs in the off-season expect Strait to start next year in the AHL.

Robert Bortuzzo, D, 22

The other part of the Baby Penguins’ top defensive pairing, Robert Bortuzzo may not have seen any NHL action this season but was still among the top defenseman in the AHL. The more offensively inclined member of the duo, Bortuzzo is not a specialist at any one aspect of the game but instead an all-around solid two-way defenseman. He uses his 6’4 200 pound frame to his advantage, never hesitating to play physically or drop the gloves with another opponent. He is also good at playing the strong side of the puck and creating offense from the back end.

In 79 regular season games, Bortuzzo finished with a plus-28, good for second in the league, four goals, 22 assists, and 111 penalty minutes. He was not at his best for the playoffs though, registering only one assist in 12 games and often looking lost on the ice. Some of this can be attributed to the tighter style of play in the post-season but it will be something that needs to be addressed this off-season.

Given the glut of NHL quality defensemen in the Penguins system, it would seem logical to expect Bortuzzo to start next season in the AHL.

Alex Grant, D, 22

Because of a devastating wrist injury sustained in September during a prospects game, Alex Grant spent the bulk of the 2010-11 season in the IR. He did eventually get into some games in the spring, first 14 games with the Penguins ECHL affiliate the Wheeling Nailers, where he posted three goals and two assists, and later four games with the Baby Pens in the AHL.

After spending the bulk of last season in the ECHL, Grant was expected to make the AHL roster on a fulltime basis in 2010-11. While that did not occur because of the wrist injury, Grant has physically matured a great deal and will be once again expected to compete for a fulltime spot on the Baby Penguins for 2011-12.

He brings a nice blend of size (6’3 200 pounds), reach, skill, and skating ability to the ice but the sum of his abilities are not as great as the individual parts. Some of the blame can be placed on a collection of bad habits he developed playing lots of minutes in the QMJHL, but he also seems to lack that keen hockey sense the best players in the world normally possess. While that does not necessarily relegate him to being a career AHLer, it does mean he will have to emphasize positioning and smart zone play if he hopes to become an NHL caliber defenseman.

Goaltending

Brad Thiessen, G, 25

Thiessen established himself as one of the top goaltenders not playing in the NHL this season when he posted a 35-8-1 record (the best winning percentage and most wins by any goaltending in the AHL), a goals against average of 1.94, seven shutouts, and a .922 save percentage. The numbers aside Thiessen demonstrated a calm and collected demeanor, making difficult saves look routine and never getting distracted after a bad goal. In the playoffs, Thiessen managed to ratchet his game up further, allowing a paltry 20 goals in 12 games for a 1.67 goals against average, posting a league-leading .940 save percentage, and two shutouts. It ended up not being enough as the Baby Penguins were eventually beaten by the Charlotte Checkers in the second round. Much of the blame though for the early playoff exit can be traced to a depleted offense.

At the end of the season, Thiessen was awarded the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Award, which goes to the top goaltending in the AHL, and the Harry "Hap" Holmes Memorial Award which goes to the goaltender(s) on the team with the lowest goals against average.

Unless injuries strike the Penguins NHL roster in 2011-12, Thiessen will be expected to spend next season once again in the AHL, although this time as the uncontested starter for the Baby Penguins.

Patrick Killeen, G, 21

In his first professional season, Killeen established himself as the second best goaltending prospect in the Penguins organization. He was assigned to the Wheeling Nailers in order for him to get as many starts as possible and through 40 games he managed a 19-16-2 record, a 2.87 goals against average, and a .901 save percentage. While the numbers don’t stand out, particularly when compared to Thiessen, they are solid for a first-year pro who, over three full years in the OHL, only once started more than 35 games.

At 6’4 and 204 pounds, Killeen is a large presence in the net. He does a fairly good job of getting square to shooters and cutting off angles but does not move particularly fast in net. His stick work could use some improvement as well.

Depending, the Penguins could assign him next year to the AHL, where he would see between 15-35 games as Brad Thiessen‘s backup, or send him back to the ECHL where he could see 50-60 starts. Either way expect him to continue plying his trade in the minor leagues.

Mattias Modig, G, 24

A trade that did not make many waves last year, Mattias Modig was brought in last summer to provide organizational depth in net. A year later, Modig did indeed provide a warm body for the end of the bench, but that is about all. In nine starts with the Wheeling Nailers Modig posted a 3-6 record, a 3.27 goals against average, and a .891 save percentage. He played sporadically, seeing three starts in October, four in November, and two in December before eventually suffering an injury and being placed on the 21-day IR. He didn’t make a start for the team afterwards and was not on included in their lineup for the Kelly Cup playoffs.

Modig is signed through another season though it is difficult to tell where he will be playing or what kind of role. His performance in training camp will go a long way in determining whether he has a future as a starting goaltender in North America.