Penguins 2008-09 AHL/ECHL review

By Ian Altenbaugh

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, finished their regular season tied for first among wins with 49 and fifth in points with 104. Their 3.42 goals-per-game during the regular season was second in the AHL. The team was also strong defensively, allowing the fifth lowest amount of goals with 2.65. The WBS Penguins have also engaged in 98 fights this season, fourth most in the AHL.

For defensive anchor Ben Lovejoy, the Penguins reason for the Penguins’ success this season is simple, "We are a dangerous team when we want to play an aggressive style of hockey. Very few teams can play with us when we decide to simply chip pucks in and make smart plays.” Like the parent club in Pittsburgh, the WBS Penguins play an up-tempo, aggressive, tight-checking game predicated around puck-control and sustained pressure in the opponents end. “We are at our best when we are playing behind the other teams defensemen, and when we make a conscience effort to get there we are a really tough team to handle."

Their success this season is all the more sweet as the team dealt with a rotating group of personal due to NHL call-ups, a coaching change two-thirds of the way through the season, and some off-ice incidents involving star players.

Dustin Jeffrey, C

The 21-year-old pivot was called up in December and although he only posted one goal, two assists, he did not look out of place playing a checking role in the NHL. Upon being returned to the AHL, Jeffrey went on a tear, posting 7 goals, 13 assists in 33 games – finishing his rookie season with 11 goals, 26 assists in 63 games. A tenacious checker, Jeffrey gradually developed into a top faceoff man and special team performer.
As the Penguins entered the playoffs, the young center elevated his play once more and was among the top players for the Penguins in their first round match against Bridgeport, posting 4 goals, 1 assist in 5 games. In the 12 playoff games, Jeffrey posted 5 goals, 5 assists.

Luca Caputi, LW

A winger by trade, Caputi was a scoring dynamo in the OHL who did his best work in front of the net. After a remarkable 25-game stretch over December and January in which the young forward posted 9 goals, 18 assists, the Penguins decided to see how Caputi would fair in the NHL. Although he scored a goal on his first shift of his NHL debut, Caputi was decidedly not ready for the speed of the NHL game. Upon returning to the AHL on February 14th, Caputi continued scoring at a respectable clip, finishing the season with 18 goals, 27 assists, in 66 games.

Caputi showed a knack for scoring timely goals in the post-season with all three of his goals being game winners, two of which were also with the man-advantage.

Ben Lovejoy, D

The 25-year-old defenseman led the NHL and by extension his team with a +42. A calming presence along the Penguins blue line for most of the season, Lovejoy was called up to the NHL for a two-game cup of coffee in mid-December because of injuries sustained to the Penguins defensive corps.

The New Hampshire native is up for arbitration at the end of the season and it remains to be seen whether that option will be exercised or not. With the Penguins expected to lose a great deal of players in the offseason, Lovejoy seems all but guaranteed to get a long look in training camp next fall.

Jon D’Aversa, D

The 23-year-old defenseman saw himself cast in a decidedly different position this season than last when Alex Goligoski made the NHL out of training camp. During a 44-game span from October to late January, the blueliner posted 1 goals, 19 assists. Once Goligoski was returned to the AHL however, D’Aversa adopted a more blue-collar role on the team and virtually disappeared off the scoresheet.

Joe Vitale, F

After a successful senior year in which he helped his team to an appearance in the Frozen Four, Vitale signed an entry-level deal with the Penguins and immediately reported to their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. Vitale appeared to have seamlessly adapted to the professional style of game but tapered off as the season wound down and the playoffs started.

Vitale brings a physical, two-way style of game to the Penguins. His low center of gravity and wide base allow him to excel along the boards and around the net. Although his play dropped off considerably as the season and playoffs wore on, Vitale showed enough that he should be a strong contributor to the Penguins organization down the road.

Mark Letestu, C

A player who has emerged as an offensive force for the Baby Penguins, Letestu turned it on offensively mid way through December and did not look back, posting 23 goals, 33 assists in his last 55 games. Letestu developed more consistency as the season wore on too, going no more than two games without a point since the beginning of January. He also posted only three minor penalty infractions over the course of 73 games. As a reward for his hard work, the 24-year-old pivot was signed to a two-way deal that keeps him a Penguin through the 2010-11 season.

Letestu continued his high level of play in the post-season with a team leading eight assists to go along with two goals and 28 shots on net in 12 games.

Alex Goligoski, D

Goligoski made the NHL out of training camp because of injuries to Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar. Once the aforementioned defensemen were healthy, Goligoski was returned the AHL where he posted two goals, 16 assists in 26 games. The Minnesota native anchors the Baby Penguins’ power play and is one of their top defensemen at even strength. Despite being called up between games to fill in for an injured Sergei Gonchar, Goligoski was among Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s top performers in the playoffs, posting one goal, five assists in nine games.

Called up because of another injury to Gonchar.

Goligoski has little left to prove at the AHL level and is expected to compete for a full-time NHL position next spring.

Brad Thiessen, G

It has been an exciting year for Thiessen. First the undrafted goaltender finished fourth among NCAA goaltenders with a .931 save percentage and was nominated for the Hobey Baker trophy. He then performed at a high level for the Northeastern University Huskies, posting a 25-12-4 record and a 2.11 GAA. After Northeastern finished their season, Thiessen was signed to an entry-level contract by the Pittsburgh Penguins and immediately assigned to their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The 23-year-old has yet to see any actual game time with the Penguins as he is behind John Curry and Adam Berkhoel on the depth chart.

John Curry, G

Curry may have proved this season that he has proved everything he can at the AHL level of professional hockey. The 25-year-old finished the regular season with a 2.38 GAA (8th in the AHL), a .916 save percentage (13th in the AHL), four shutouts, and a record of 33-15-1. His 33 wins were second among goaltenders in the AHL.

In November and December when Penguins starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was sidelined with a groin injury, Curry was called up to the NHL to backup Dany Sabourin. Although his NHL appearance was brief, as he only had two starts, Curry showed enough poise and athleticism that he should be a capable NHL backup next season.

Curry had a strong playoff performance before being felled with an injury against Hershey in game two of the second round.

Nick Johnson, RW

After scoring 14 goals, 10 assists, in just 18 games in the ECHL, Johnson was recalled to the AHL for added scoring depth and has not looked back. The 23-year-old winger finished the season with 14 goals, 17 assists in 56 games. Johnson’s style of game can best be described as a mix of grit and skill. He finishes all of his checks and has dropped the gloves twice this past season but has also shown enough panache with the puck to suggest he possesses natural goal-scoring ability.

Johnson was among the top players for the Penguins during the playoffs. He started off slow in the first round against Bridgeport, posting only two assists in five games. In the second round match against Hershey however, Johnson exploded with four goals and four assists in seven games.

Bill Thomas, F

Pittsburgh native Thomas realized a lifelong dream when he made the Penguins squad out of training camp and opened the season on the Penguins NHL roster. The talented forward proceeded to spend the bulk of October in the NHL, albeit as a healthy scratch until finally be returned to the AHL on October 24th.

Thomas was never really able to settle into a role in the AHL because he was recalled with great frequency. Nonetheless, he managed 8 goals, 10 assists, in 38 games and was a strong special teams performer. Thomas also discovered that he is adept at faceoffs and became one of the stronger contributors in the circle for both the Penguins NHL and AHL teams.

With a great deal of turnover expected this offseason, Thomas could very well find himself once again suiting up in the NHL next season.

Aaron Boogaard, RW

After an arm injury that sidelined him for much of December, Boogaard returned to the AHL on December 26th and three minutes into the first period, dropped the gloves with Philadelphia Phantoms forward Garrett Klotz. The 6’3, 243-pound enforcer would go on to drop the gloves nine more times over the next 29 games, finishing the season with 16 fighting majors in just 41 games.

As a pure enforcer, Boogaard is limited in his contributions to the WBS Penguins as he posted only two goals, one assist this season. Still, Boogaard provides an important service as a deterrent to opposing players.

Tim Wallace, RW

The native of Anchorage, Alaska was initially called up to the NHL squad in December to add some grit to the roster – which he did in full. Once returned to the AHL in mid-January, Wallace picked up where he left off – crashing the net and creating chaos in the opposition’s end.

Wallace is not an offensive dynamo as evidenced by his 11 goals, 8 assists in 58 games. Nonetheless, his strong forechecking ability, solid defensive play, and abrasive style make him a key contributor to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s success.  

Paul Bissonnette, F

Bissonnette played the first chunk of the 2008-09 season in the NHL. Upon returning to the AHL in mid-November Bissonnette dropped the gloves 10 times in his first 10 games including a two-fight bout on December 3rd. He has finished the AHL regular season with 28 fighting majors, good for fourth most in the AHL.

Despite his high fight count, the native of Welland, Ontario is not an enforcer. He skates a regular fourth-line shift, chips in offensively, and is capable of sustaining a forecheck. Still, his willingness to drop the gloves is what makes him valuable to his team.

David Brown, G

The 2008-09 season has been a struggle for the former eighth-round pick by the Penguins. He started the season strong, posting a 9-2-1-1 record in his first 15 starts for the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. In a January 10th match against the Dayton Bombers, Brown sustained an injury and did not see any game time until February 28th. Since returning from the injury, Brown looked shaky, allowing more than four goals in five of his nine starts since returning from injury.

With prospect Brad Thiessen now in the organization, Brown’s days in the Penguin organization could be numbered.