Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins season preview

By Mark Perkins

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season are looking to avenge their loss in the 2004 Calder Cup final. The Milwaukee Admirals swept the Penguins in the best of seven series; it was the second time the Penguins have lost in the Calder Cup finals in their short four-year existence.

With the NHL lockout currently underway the AHL Penguins, even more than most clubs, are benefiting with a number of NHL caliber players arriving in camp. If the entire NHL season is lost due to lockout, few teams will be able to compete with the Penguins depth and added scoring touch. The half dozen players sent down unfortunately limits the opportunity of some of Pittsburgh’s even younger players, however, who will find a home with ECHL affiliate Wheeling Nailers.

Coming and going

Free agency has cost Wilkes-Barre a couple of its veterans. Toby Peterson, third on the team in regular season scoring left for Edmonton, while team leader and captain Tom Kotsopoulos signed with L.A. after a stellar playoff run. Eric Meloche signed with the Philadelphia Flyers and will likely play with their AHL affiliate, taking his consistency with him.

There will be a few familiar faces returning to the team with a number of players coming back down from the NHL Penguins. Left winger Ramzi Abid will be coming back to the AHL to fine-tune his power forward game, and the Wilkes-Barre fans will be used to seeing Tomas Surovy light it up. Guillaume Lefebvre finally cracked the big club last year, and will try to stay at the top of his game to reclaim that position when the NHL season begins.

Not all new players are coming from the parent club, as Ryan Whitney will play his rookie season with Wilkes-Barre after dominating the NCAA ranks. Other rookies joining the team are offensive star Maxim Talbot from the QMJHL, and Memorial Cup champion Cam Paddock from Kelowna of the WHL. Paddock played in a single game with Wilkes-Barre last season notching two penalty minutes.

Offense

Depth at center is a real strength for Wilkes-Barre this season, to the extent that a number of their natural centers will be playing on the wing. The Penguins have decent size up front, with the exception of Ben Eaves and Maxim Talbot. The rest of the group are between 6’1 and 6’2 and 190-210 lbs. Combine that with their speed and skill and opposing defensemen will have their work cut out for them.

Twenty-four-year-old Abid has already lost his prospect status and if there is a season to play will be a regular on the parent club. The same goes for the aforementioned Surovy who put up 23 points in the NHL last year while splitting time with Wilkes-Barre. Lefebvre made his debut in the NHL last year and should provide plenty of aggression on the forecheck.

Center Colby Armstrong may have had an opportunity to make the NHL Penguins this year, mostly due to his physical play, but Wilkes-Barre will welcome him back with open arms. Kris Beech, 23, will also be welcomed back and will hope to finally reach that point per game plateau that has eluded him in previous years. Beech was the key player returned in the Jaromir Jagr deal to Washington and has had a few injury problems preventing him from making the permanent jump to the NHL level; a good start to the season could garner him a call up.

If you’re looking for pure offensive flair keep an eye on rookie Talbot. He lit up the QMJHL level, and will look to round out his game and see if he has what it takes to play in the big leagues. Twenty-two-year-old Michel Ouellet has scored at every level of the game, and hopes to put up another great season for Wilkes-Barre. In his rookie year he led the team in points, goals, power play goals, and game winning goals. He was the highest goal-scoring rookie in the AHL, and was named to the AHL All-Rookie team.

Rookie Eaves will test his abilities and fight for a roster spot. He was the captain of his Boston College team, and although his numbers dropped in his last year of NCAA due to missed time, there are high expectations for this natural leader. Big Shane Endicott has been the model of consistency for the last three seasons, coach Michel Therrien hopes this year will be no different.

The other notable forwards in camp are the inconsistent but potent Erik Christensen. Steve Crampton makes the jump from Wheeling of the ECHL, while Matt Hussey will provide even more depth at center. Paddock will bring his all around game from the WHL and will be looking to continue his winning ways. Matt Murley will try and prove he can finally make that jump to the NHL.

Defense

The Penguins are swimming with offensive talent from the blue line. Newcomer Whitney, one of the top defensive prospects in the game, will be added to the core of good young defensemen. Whitney led the entire Boston University team in points for the 2003-04 season, and he joined Wilkes-Barre in the 2004 playoffs putting up numbers good enough to rank him forth among AHL defenseman in scoring. At 6’4 and a still filling out 200 lbs he’s got NHL size to go with his NHL skill though it’s yet to be determined how he’ll compete against more mature players through a full season. Ross Lupaschuk continues to improve defensively, and his offensive abilities are among the best in the league. He will be a key cog on the Penguins power play.

Big hitting Drew Fata and mammoth David Koci, 6’6 and 230 pounds, will ensure the goaltenders have a clear view of the puck, while veterans Alain Nasreddine and 29-year-old Chris Kelleher will provide strong leadership. The defense will be formidable with decent size and plenty of skill.

The rest of the defensive corps includes Darcy Robinson and Alexandre Rouleau who will look to build on their game and prove that they belong on the team, while Rob Scuderi will provide some much needed maturity and consistency.

Goaltending

Although the Penguins are impressive on offense and defense, goaltending is where they are a cut above the rest of the league. With 19-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury in for what looks to be a full year, and the capable consistency of 21-year-old Andy Chiodo still building on his game, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton appears to have one of the best one-two punches in the league. This may cause some playing problems in finding enough ice time for the both of them, but it’s a problem most teams would love to have.

Chiodo was solid in the playoffs for Wilkes-Barre, and put up decent numbers in the regular season. He may be a victim of circumstance with one of the top goaltending prospects in the game fighting him for playing time.

Fleury was the first pick overall in the 2003 entry draft, and made his NHL start the following season winning rookie of the month honors for October. He helped Canada win silver at the World Juniors and then went back to the minors where he was spectacular posting an 8-1-1 record in 10 games played. He looks to gain some maturity this year with Wilkes-Barre and develop into one of the premier goaltenders in the game.

Outlook

Much of the team’s success could hinge on the CBA getting signed in the NHL as they could lose up to half their roster to the parent club. Right now on paper the Penguins are as good as any other AHL team, and another berth in the Calder Cup finals is not out of the question.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will begin their fifth season on October 13th. The first game of the 2004 season is at home against Manitoba.

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.