Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 2011-12 season preview

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Two-way defenseman

Joe Morrow was impressive for the Penguins in training camp, leading management to give him more preseason games than originally expected. (Photo courtesy of Ian Altenbaugh/HF)

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins enter their 13th year as the AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins and are coming off their ninth consecutive season making the playoffs. The team, very much like the NHL affiliate, experienced a monumental amount of roster turnover, with as many as 12 different players getting NHL call-ups at different times during the season. The roster was in such a constant state of flux because of injuries and call-ups that over the course of the entire season only 12 skaters laced up for 65 games or more. Still, the Baby Penguins persevered, managing a 58-21-1 record en route to the highest point total (117) in franchise history.

Led by goalie Brad Thiessen, the defense allowed an average of only 2.28, far and away the best in the league. Almost as good as the defense was the fourth ranked offense, which averaged 3.26 goals per game despite losing three of their top forwards mid-way through the season.

Forwards

The offense will be led by hulking forward Eric Tangradi. The 22-year-old power forward was expected to compete for an NHL spot in training camp but disappointed with his defensive play and lack of hustle.

Joining Tangradi are prospects Brian Gibbons, Paul Thompson, and Zach Sill. Gibbons and Thompson were both collegiate free agents who signed in the past spring. Thompson, a sniper by trade, already saw a handful of games in the AHL last season. Gibbons meanwhile plays an up-tempo style and could compete for a top-six forward spot.

After signing an entry-level deal in the off-season, Sill returns to the Baby Penguins as their shutdown center.

Sniper Nick Petersen was expected to compete for a top-nine scoring role with the Baby Penguins but was placed on injured reserve October 3rd because of concussion problems.

Heading into his third professional season, Keven Veilleux was slated to compete for the top center spot before going down with an injured knee. He is expected to miss six months.

Minor-league forwards Brandon DeFazio, Bryan Lerg, Geoff Walker, Ben Street, Colin McDonald, Niko Dimitrakos, Devin DiDiomete, and Ryan Craig are expected to fill out the rest of the roster. Craig, Street, Walker, and Lerg will all be returning to pick up where they left off while McDonald, who scored 42 goals in the AHL last season, was brought in to replace the offense lost when Brett Sterling signed elsewhere in the off-season.

Dimitrakos, a 32-year-old veteran of 158 NHL games was brought in to provide veteran stability and secondary scoring.

DiDiomete is a former Flames pick who recorded 303 penalty minutes with the Connecticut Whale in 2010-11.

DeFazio was noticed mostly during training camp for his desire to hit everything that moved. Having played 12 minor league games after graduating from Clarkson University last season, the physical forward will look to prove that he deserves an NHL deal.

Utility center Joe Vitale, a staple with the Baby Pens for the past two years, made the NHL roster out of training camp and will likely stay there for the season.

Sniper Nick Johnson was expected to join Wilkes-Barre but had to pass through waivers and was claimed by the Minnesota Wild.

Jason Williams, a veteran of over 400 NHL games, was brought in to provide veteran offensive depth for the NHL roster but lost out in training camp to the less experienced Vitale. Williams can play all three forward positions and should be a solid mentor to the Penguins numerous young players.

Veteran forwards Steve MacIntyre and Richard Park started the season in the NHL but could very well see time in the AHL if the Penguins ever ice a fully healthy NHL lineup.

Defensemen

The Penguins organization could very easily have 10 players deserving of a spot in the AHL in 2011-12.

Returning is the top pairing of Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo, though Bortuzzo will miss the beginning of the season because of a knee injury. Both defenseman have progressed steadily over the past two years and will be expected to play in all situations for the coming season.

Also returning are puck-moving defensemen Alex Grant and Carl Sneep. Grant is coming off a 2010-11 season which was abbreviated because of a vicious wrist injury suffered in the 2010 off-season. Grant managed to make it back into the lineup at the end of last season and will look to fight for one of the bottom-six roles in Wilkes-Barre for 2011-12.

Sneep is coming off a strong rookie pro campaign with Wilkes-Barre that saw him play up and down the lineup in a variety of different roles. The 23-year-old looks to have settled into the Penguins defensive system and will likely play as a number four or five for the coming season.

Behind those four are two first-year pros in Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson. Despres will most assuredly start the season in the AHL in some capacity likely as a third-pairing defenseman with the opportunity to take on more responsibility as he figures things out. Similar could be said for Samuelsson though he lacks the offensive upside of Despres.

Puck-moving defenseman Alexandre Picard and tough guy Boris Valabik were brought into the fold though Valabik is currently on the IR. Picard figures to replace departed veteran Andrew Hutchinson while Valabik will bring even more toughness to an already hard-nose team.

Also returning is gritty defenseman Joey Mormina.


Goaltending

Brad Thiessen returns as the starter for the Baby Pens and will look to somehow build off a season that saw him post a ridiculous league leading 35-8-1 record and .760 win percentage, seven shutouts, a goals against average of 1.94, and a .922 save percentage. Fortunately for Thiessen, there should be an even more talented group of defensemen in front of him, so an encore shouldn’t be out of the question.

Backing up Thiessen will be free agent signing Scott Munroe. 2008 draft pick Patrick Killeen will likely play the bulk of his starts in the ECHL this coming season but could see a call-up if either goalie falters or is injured.

Coaching

John Hynes returns for his second year as the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and third year in the organization. Joining Hynes will be assistant coach Alain Nasreddine. Entering his second year as an assistant coach, Nasreddine will mainly work with the Baby Penguins’ defensemen.

Prospects

First round pick Joe Morrow looked like he could have made the NHL opening day roster. He was frequently placed on the top powerplay unit opposite Kris Letang and rarely looked out of place. His keen ability to shoot distribute the puck was obvious from the get go but Morrow also showed a steady defensive game, seeming to always be in the right place at the right time and rarely mishandling the puck. He played in the majority of the Penguins exhibition games, two more than they originally planned. Ultimately, Morrow was sent back to the WHL. The reasoning behind the move was he would only see time as a sixth or seventh defensemen in the NHL and would more greatly benefit from playing huge minutes in the WHL.

Second round pick Scott Harrington also was impressive in training camp, showing good mobility, and poise handling the puck. Harrington was praised in camp for being a quick study.