Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins chugging along despite constant roster turnover

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: In his rookie pro season, defenseman Simon Despres has been so impressive, he has even seen top-four minutes at the NHL level. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins organization has been ravaged my injuries, with well over 200 man-games already lost in just the first half the season. As a consequence, the organization depth has been frequently tested and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have had to perpetually ice a patchwork defense, having played 17 different blueliners by the end of 2011. The AHL affiliate has prevailed nonetheless and currently sits fifth in a tight Eastern Conference.

AHL

Simon Despres, D, 20

Following a relatively disappointing training camp, Despres was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The hope was he would use whatever frustration or angst he was feeling towards not making the big squad and parlay it into success at the minor-league level. It took him several games to adjust, but he looked solid within the Penguins defensive system, providing a steady, mobile presence along the blue line.

Despres was called up right around when NHL star defenseman Kris Letang went down with a severe concussion. Injuries continued to mount on the blue line and in mid-December, Despres was a fixture in the top four. Not just out of necessity either, but merit. Often paired alongside Zbynik Michalek, he was used in all situations and contributed consistently at both ends of the ice. He also showed a physical flare, occasionally even using his large posterior to lay a hip check. In his most recent NHL call up, Despres sustained a severe knee injury while trying to make a hit and was subsequently placed on the IR.

Eric Tangradi, LW/RW, 22

A disappointing NHL training camp led to Tangradi opening the season in the AHL.

Offensively, he has figured it out at the AHL level. However, in his early NHL cups of coffee, he often appeared to be trying to do too much. Often choosing to play the stick than the body, and generally not providing the intimidating presence on the forecheck expected of him. He returned to the AHL, and continued to be the top forward for the baby Penguins.

Recently, with several Penguin forwards on the IR, Tangradi was recalled for a more extended cup of coffee. During that time, he showed a simplified game, battling hard along the boards, and trying to provide a good net-front presence. He has also dropped the gloves and increased his overall physical presence on the ice. Assuming he continues to play a simple, power forward game, the offense should start to come.

Tangradi’s contract will be up at the end of the season and while it is more than likely the Penguins will re-sign him, it will likely be on a one-year deal. Until he learns to consistently play to his potential, he will remain on a short leash.

Brian Strait, D, 23

Before getting sidelined with an elbow injury that caused him to miss two months of hockey, Brian Strait was putting together a career year. In his third season as a professional, Straight was on almost a point-per-game pace in the AHL before being called up to the NHL to fill in for a suspended Kris Letang. He left in the second period however and remained on Injured Reserve until mid-December.

Since his return, Strait has been one of the top defensemen for the Baby Penguins. He plays a steady, gritty game, epitomizing what the Penguins look for in their defensemen. Strait is not quite as close to full-time duties in the NHL as Simon Despres is, but there is every reason to think both him and frequent defensive partner Robert Bortuzzo could be fulltime NHLers in the very near future.

Robert Bortuzzo, D, 21

The injury misfortunes have mounted quickly for defenseman Robert Bortuzzo. First, he missed most of training camp and the pre-season to injury, and started the regular season on the IR. When he was finally healthy, he was returned to the AHL, played two games, and was promptly recalled to fill in for a banged up Matt Niskanen. He was then returned to the AHL where he played nine more games. As injuries started to mount at the NHL level, Bortuzzo was once again recalled and played in five NHL games before sustaining a concussion. He was recently returned back to the AHL.

Like Strait, Bortuzzo has proved to be an all-situation defenseman at the AHL level. He provides a steady, physical presence along the blue line and is able to start the play up ice. Also like Strait, Bortuzzo is very close to proving himself capable of regular NHL duties. Expect the Penguins to take a similarly gradual approach with him and Strait as they did with defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland.

Dustin Jeffrey, C, 23

Like seemingly every other Penguins forward, Dustin Jeffrey has seen injuries, in this case swelling and inflammation stemming from off-season knee surgery, derail what was supposed to be a promising season. After missing training camp, he played a conditioning stint in the AHL and several games in the NHL before experiencing flair ups from his off-season knee-surgery. He was subsequently shutdown until mid-January.

Jeffrey recently returned to action, playing at the NHL level as a second or third line center. He has been playing primarily with hard-working forwards Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis and has shown some chemistry early on. Jeffrey will likely spend the remainder of the season in the NHL, but in the unlikely circumstance the Penguins ice an entirely healthy group of forwards, he could see time in the AHL.

Philip Samuelsson, D, 20

Headed into the season, there was concern over whether Philip Samuelsson would get enough ice time at the AHL level. Mid-way through the season, the concern was no longer over ice time and more about whether or not the organization would be forced to recall him to the NHL because of mounting injuries.

Philip Samuelsson will forever be associated with his dad Ulf, one of the most ferocious players to ever play for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It is an understandable yet unfair comparison, because while Philip may resemble his dad, his game bears little semblance. Instead, his play relies on steady, if at times unspectacular play in his own zone as well as keeping good gaps between opposing players. Expect the Penguins to take a very patient approach to developing Samuelsson, similar to Strait and Bortuzzo.


Carl Sneep, D, 23

Headed into his second professional season, Carl Sneep was looking to establish himself as a top four defender in the AHL and hopefully take on more special teams responsibilities. While he did accomplish all of that so far through the season, he also saw an NHL cup of coffee on December 17th, not looking out of place while playing third-pairing minutes.

Sneep remains behind Despres, Straight, and Bortuzzo on the depth chart but is nonetheless a solid prospect with NHL potential. He will likely remain in AHL the rest of the season. Expect the Penguins to bring him along slowly, similar to how they are developing Strait and Bortuzzo, with the idea he can be a regular NHL contributor two or three years from now.


Nick Petersen, RW, 22

Now in his second professional season, Petersen has displayed slow but steady progress as a solid AHL forward. Playing primarily on the second or third line, alongside a plethora of different linemates, Petersen has been a consistent two-way presence, regularly getting shots on net while also playing solid in his own zone. He remains a long-term project, so unless injuries in the organization reach epic proportions, he is likely to spend the entire year in the AHL.

Brad Thiessen, G, 25

Last year Thiessen was the top goaltender in the AHL and arguably the best goaltender not playing in the NHL. He posted a .922 save percentage and a 1.94 goals against average not to mention his league leading 35-8-1 record. Only 26 games into the 2011-12 season, he is allowing almost a full goal a game more, has a sub .900 save percentage, and a record of 13-10-2.

He actually had a 1.94 goals against average through his first 12 starts and was well on his way to another career year. Then injuries on defense hit. At various points in the season, the Penguins NHL club was icing three AHL defensemen, leaving the AHL affiliate to creative means to fill out blue line roster, often times on the fly. That is not an excuse however, as Thiessen has recently lost games in epic fashions, with losses where he would allow five or six goals in less than 20 shots faced. Still, playing behind a shaky, inconsistent defense has to affect the confidence of a goaltender.

Paul Thompson, RW, 23

Another player entering their rookie pro season, Thompson was brought in by the Penguins to provide offense for the organization. A former teammate of Ottawa forward Bobby Butler, Thompson projects as a similar type of player, someone who is strong on their skates, good at finding open scoring lanes, and not afraid to shoot the puck.

He has spent the bulk of the season on the third or fourth line, though as recently seen more time in better offensive situations, either on the powerplay or in the top-six. Through late December to of late, he has started to provide a more consistent offensive presence, even if it has not always shown up on the scoresheet. As he becomes more accustomed to the professional style of game, his offensive totals should continue to climb as the season goes on.

Brian Gibbons, LW/C, 23

In his rookie pro season, Brian Gibbons has been a steady presence, playing mostly third-line left-wing, though seeing some time as a second line center as well. He started off the season very strong, with nine points through nine games in October, but cooled off quickly, registering only seven points over the next 26. His game is comparable in many regards to Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy, though perhaps not quite as skilled. Gibbons is an undersized forward who battles hard for the puck and possesses strong skating ability and good hands. Like Petersen and Thompson, Gibbons has some work to do before he can be considered an NHL caliber forward. The biggest issue is adapting to the time and space of the pro game, but other impediments, such as his size and ability to contribute offense on a consistent basis.


Zach Sill, C, 23

In his first year of an entry-level contract, Zach Sill has shown to be an effective two-way center at the AHL level. He is solid on the forecheck and plays physically enough along the boards and when battling pucks, but will never be expected to be a prolific offensive force for the Penguins organization. He should however be good to produce between 15 and 20 goals a season in the AHL, which is what he is on pace for right now. His NHL upside is fairly limited, though with some continued development he could fill a similar role as current Penguin center Joe Vitale.


Keven Veilleux, RW/C, 22

Keven Veilleux has not yet played a game this season. Seeing as how he has combined for a total of 75 games in two and a half seasons, his development as a viable NHL prospect has to be a legitimate concern. This most recent injury stems from a preseason game where he took and hurt his knee. His knee was initially so swollen doctors were unable to perform X-rays or MRIs but once the swelling subsided it was determined he would need surgery and will miss around six months, meaning he could return sometime in late March, early April.


Alex Grant, D, 22

In his third season with the Penguins organization, Alex Grant has finally started to look comfortable playing his game at the AHL level. Grant started out the season playing primarly as a third-pairing guy, often paired alongside Simon Despres. As the season wore on though, and injuries on defense quickly started to mount, Grant has found himself frequently in the top-four, often playing a fair amount of time on the powerplay.

The increase in ice-time, particularly on the powerplay has been an obvious benefit to Grant as he has picked up 12 of his 13 points in his past 16 games. Aside from the offensive presence he has provided for the blue line, Grant has shown a chippy, physical side to his game.


ECHL

Patrick Killeen, G, 21

A big, positional goaltender, Patrick Killeen is having a strong season in his second year with the Penguins organization. Playing for the Wheeling Nailers, he currently has a 2.87 goals against average, while gaudy at first glance is actually 14th best in the league.

In terms of development, the most important thing for Killeen right now is to get as many starts as he can handle. He has been plagued with an occasional bad game but has for the most part played a consistent, positionally oriented game. A testament to that consistency is that even in losses, he tends to not let up too many goals, allowing five or more goals on only three different occasions.