A new-look Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins team will take the ice for the 2006-07 season. They have some new Pittsburgh prospects making their pro debuts and some help from the Edmonton Oilers, who are using the Baby Penguins as one of their farm teams this year.
The Oilers have so far sent left wings Troy Bodie, Liam Reddox and Tim Sestito, and center Kyle Brodziak to the Penguins, who will enhance a team already strong with excellent prospects. The competitiveness that is created with the extra talent on board should be beneficial to all.
As is the case with minor league hockey, many of the team’s top players are hopeful for a call-up to Pittsburgh, but the organization can be satisfied that there is sufficient depth to keep the team in playoff contention.
The Baby Penguins have back most of their most prominent forwards who carried the team throughout the second half of last season, led by Ryan Stone, Jonathan Filewich and Erik Christensen.
Christensen is the biggest surprise to be added to the roster, with a disappointing Pittsburgh camp resulting in his demotion after being one of the favorites to crack the NHL roster this season. He will remain one of the first in line for a call-up if he can lift his play and return to the form he showed at the beginning of the 2005-06 campaign when he played his way to the NHL after just a few weeks in the A.
Stone is still in Pittsburgh, and has a slim chance of getting some game time to fill in while Evgeni Malkin recovers from a dislocated shoulder. In all likelihood, Stone will return to the Baby Penguins as the top line center, renewing acquaintances with Filewich. A second-year pro, Stone will be looking to improve on his rookie season which saw him take over the top pivot job by showing his excellent playmaking skills and hard-nosed work ethic.
Filewich is also a second-year pro who is probably another season away from cracking the NHL line-up. A proven goal scorer, Filewich made significant improvement as the season wore on as he adjusted to the speed of the pro game. By season’s end he was the Baby Penguins’ most deadly forward, leading the team with six postseason goals in 11 games on top of his 22 regular season tallies. At 6’2 and 205 pounds, the right winger is growing into a valuable power forward who should be able to make an impact at the top level after showing he can be a finisher to a talented playmaker.
Also returning is quiet achiever Stephen Dixon. A seventh round draft pick in 2003, Dixon is going about his work without the attention and fanfare of other higher profile prospects. Dixon is an excellent two-way center who is a leader on the penalty kill and in playing against the top line of the opposition. He was the only player to play in all 80 games with the Baby Pens last season, scoring a respectable 12 goals and 17 assists. The fact that a player of Dixon’s caliber cannot get past the third line center role with Wilkes-Barre is an indication of the excellent depth at this position in the organization, with Maxime Talbot and Stone still ahead of him in the chase to be a checking line center in the NHL.
Still with the Pittsburgh camp but another likely returning forward is Daniel Carcillo. The premier agitator is working on his natural skills in order to be a valuable contributor in the new style NHL that is phasing out players that are too one-dimensional. After a fast start last season, his scoring pace dropped off, finishing with 11 goals, 13 assists and a whopping 311 penalty minutes. This season is an important one for Carcillo and will be a big chance at an NHL role in 2007.
The aforementioned players will be joined by some new faces, as Tyler Kennedy, Joe Jensen and Jordan Morrison join the group contending for roles with the team.
Morrison is yet unsigned but is trying to play his way in to a minor league contract, most likely with Wheeling of the ECHL. Kennedy is a good chance for a playmaking role in the AHL, combining those skills with hard work and an excellent faceoff record. Jensen too is a player who uses his work ethic to get him noticed, and could be used on the wing and would be well utilized on the penalty kill.
There is some more young blood entering the pro ranks in the defensive end, along with some returning members. Defensive leader Noah Welch is likely to be gone with a promotion to Pittsburgh awaiting him, meaning others will need to step up alongside veteran captain Alain Nasreddine to lead the blue line patrol after helping take the team to the best goals against record in the AHL last season.
Sophomore pro Ryan Lannon should be able to step into a top pair role this season after impressing with his maturity as a rookie in 2005-06. Lannon won’t do much that will make the highlight reels, but he is certainly more than accomplished in his own end and will fill the important role of stay-at-home defenseman. His performance with the extra responsibility will determine his NHL future.
Two men with something to prove are Paul Bissonnette and Daniel Fernholm. Bissonnette has fallen down the depth chart in recent seasons after having a fantastic camp in 2003. He split time between Wilkes-Barre and Wheeling last season, and needs to improve if he is to have a chance to advance his career. Fernholm has disappointed in camp and desperately needs to improve his speed and skating before being considered at the next level. The big Swede is still young enough to improve however, and may just be the type of player who takes a little longer to reach his potential. This season will be his second in North America he will seek to stay with Wilkes-Barre and not spend too much time with the Nailers in the ECHL.
Michal Sersen is coming off a career year in the QMJHL, compiling 22 goals and 57 assists for the Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts. The Slovakian born big man had a very good camp, and has showed that he should make a reasonably smooth transition to the pros. He is in the same position as Morrison in trying to earn a contract, but should be able to do so.
There is precious little in the goaltending department to back up incumbent Dany Sabourin who will garner the majority of starts after winning the AHL Goaltender of the Year award last season. Newly-acquired German goaltending prospect Patrick Ehelechner failed to stick and returned to Germany, leaving new signee Andrew Penner as the back-up to Sabourin.
The Oilers may find a place for a goaltending prospect in Wilkes-Barre as well.
This season’s Baby Penguins are not quite as strong as the record-breaking team that took the ice at the beginning of 2005-06, going 20-0-3 their first 23 games. What they do have is excellent depth, thanks to the additions from Edmonton and the volume of talented prospects already in the organization.
Center remains the position of the most strength in the team, with Stone, Christensen, Brodziak, Dixon, Jensen and Kennedy all fighting for spots. Sabourin’s presence means goaltending is strong, and Penner is a capable back-up.
Defensively there are a few players who are really in make-or-break seasons as they try to make an impression as pros. Look for Lannon to take on the role as defensive leader and keep an eye on Sersen who could prove the surprise of the season.
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