Despite considerable personnel turnover during the offseason, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have picked up where they left off in 2005-06, losing just four times in regulation through their first 25 games. Team depth has been helped by an agreement with the Edmonton Oilers to send some of their best prospects to the team, but there are a few Penguins draft choices that are making a real impact. One of the most impressive starts belongs to second-year pro Jonathan Filewich.
The Penguins third-round choice in 2003 has burst out of the gates this season, leading the Baby Penguins in scoring at an impressive point-per-game pace. He has been helped by an excellent prospect in Rob Schremp (EDM) as his center, but Filewich’s improvement has also been due to hard work and his continuing adjustment to the pro game.
Filewich has taken the role as offensive leader in his stride, and is using his solid frame to keep him on pace for 40 goals as an AHL sophomore. Will that be enough to earn him a call-up this season? That remains to be seen, but he will surely be in the running for a cameo appearance later in the year before coming into full-time NHL calculations in the 2007-08 season. The 22-year-old has been a big asset on the power play, slotting home six man-advantage tallies to help the Baby Pens to the overall league lead in that category, and has a team-leading 13 goals and 12 assists from 25 games.
Another player who is quietly compiling a very good season is AHL rookie Tyler Kennedy. Arriving with the Baby Pens after his junior career with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL, Kennedy has made a surprisingly quick adjustment to the pro game and is already clicking at an excellent pace. A tireless worker and playmaker, Kennedy is also excellent on faceoffs and has good vision. Only Filewich and Alain Nasreddine can show a better plus/minus stat than Kennedy’s +7, and with 15 points in 22 games, Kennedy has really impressed thus far.
Despite his notable start, it is unlikely that we will see Kennedy in a Pittsburgh uniform any time soon, as he will have to complete his apprenticeship in the AHL for at least another season.
Fellow center Stephen Dixon is another player on the rise and he has become one of the most valuable assets on the Baby Penguins team with his skill and versatility. Though normally used as a checking line center and on the PK, a hand injury to Ryan Stone has forced coach Todd Richards to expand Dixon’s role to include some power-play time and he’s taken the responsibility in stride. A high scorer in junior, Dixon already has the skill set to be successful in that role when given the opportunity.
Dixon sits 10th on the team in scoring with 11 points and has now played 105 consecutive games in the pros after playing every game and scoring 29 points as a rookie in 2005-06. Lately he has formed a good combination with Daniel Carcillo who is one of the hottest scorers on the Penguins team at the moment.
Carcillo takes a five-game goal streak into this weekend’s games, and is one of the closest on the team to getting a shot with the big boys in Pittsburgh. Asked to show improved discipline during training camp in the fall, Carcillo almost played his way into a job but was one of the final cuts made by coach Michel Therrien. The confidence gained from that has translated to another improved season from the serial pest, whose maturity level is growing and with it his chances of being an NHL player.
The Penguins organization is hoping that Carcillo can become a player similar to Darcy Tucker, a hard-nosed forward who gets under the skin of the opposition, doesn’t mind dropping the gloves and can contribute on the scoreboard too.
So far he seems to be doing exactly what the organization wants from him, compiling 11 goals, six assists and 57 penalty minutes in 25 games. His improved discipline is the final piece of the puzzle which should complete his game into something that could make an impact in the NHL as soon as the 2007-08 season.
Rounding out the forwards are diminutive center Connor James and hard-working speedy forward Joe Jensen. James, who came over as a free agent from the LA Kings organization over the summer, hasn’t quite hit his stride just yet as he works to get a more prominent role with the Baby Pens. The 5’10 former University of Denver star got two games of NHL experience with the injury-ravaged Kings last season, and also scored 42 points (17 goals, 25 assists) with the Manchester Monarchs. He is one of the quickest players on the team and in time should be a heavier contributor than the nine points he has accumulated so far.
After missing the start of the season for undisclosed personal reasons, Jensen has been battling his way up the depth chart after starting his pro career in Wheeling of the ECHL. The St. Cloud State graduate is fast and works hard, and tallied his first career AHL goal in just his second game on Saturday against the Chicago Wolves. Jensen earned his call-up after a dominant display with the Nailers, putting up 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in just 17 games.
On the blue line the Baby Penguins have two prospects who have trekked remarkably similar paths to pro hockey – former Harvard teammates Ryan Lannon and Noah Welch.
Welch of course has spent most of this season with Pittsburgh after originally being sent to Wilkes-Barre to give Kristopher Letang his shot in the NHL. Welch played well after his call-up but a recent drop in form has meant that he has returned to the minors. The move is designed to get Welch back to top pair minutes and to regain his confidence that had taken a couple of shots in recent NHL games.
There is no doubting Welch’s talent and he is sure to return to the NHL in the near future. One of his finer traits is his excellent attitude and hockey smarts and he knows that the best thing to do when sent down is show your dominance again at that level. He was a shining light as a rookie last season, fast becoming the No. 1 blueliner for the Baby Penguins and earned himself an AHL All-Star starting team selection.
Long-time teammate Lannon had taken Welch’s place as the top blueliner with the Baby Penguins during Welch’s absence, and has been doing all that could be asked of a defenseman so far. A stay-at-home type by nature, Lannon has made sure the back end is secure by blocking shots and getting in good positions to neutralize the offense of the opposition. He is very disciplined, taking just 11 penalty minutes in the process and contributing seven assists. Lannon, who turned 24 this week, is sure to get his NHL chance soon, but remains in the AHL until he climbs a couple more rungs on the ladder. He can be prone to the occasional error though, and needs to work a little on his outlet passing.
Paul Bissonnette, who famously almost made what became the woeful 2003-04 Penguins, is fighting to keep a high status within the organization. Unable to crack the top six with the Baby Pens, the 121st overall selection in 2003 has been battling away with the Wheeling Nailers where he has 13 points in 20 games…Ryan Stone will miss extended time after receiving surgery for damage to his hand.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise dupicate without permission of the editorial staff.