The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins finished the 2008-09 season with 49 wins and 104 points before bowing out in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs against the Hershey Bears. They will begin the 2009-10 season with a radically different roster – one infused with a greater level of talent.
The WBS Penguins opened their season with nine prospects starting their first full professional season.
Starting last season and through training camp, the Penguins have systematically added talented prospects to their AHL roster. The forwards who will be starting their first season in a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton uniform are Keven Veilleux, Eric Tangradi, Casey Pierro-Zabotel, Joey Haddad, and Joe Vitale. Those players will be joining 2008-09 carryovers Luca Caputi, Nick Johnson, and Dustin Jeffrey. Veilleux, Haddad, and Pierro-Zabotel were among those cut in the first wave of NHL training camp cuts while Caputi, Tangradi, Johnson, Jeffrey, and Vitale were among the second wave of cuts.
Tangradi, a power forward, was the most impressive prospect in Pittsburgh’s training camp. At first he seemed tentative, but after playing on a line with Sidney Crosby in a preseason game and not looking out of place, he grew confident and was visible every time he stepped on the ice. Still, the Penguins appear content to not rush Tangradi’s development and he will start the season in the AHL. The big forward will remain the likely candidate to get the first call-up.
Another forward who impressed through camp and should have an impact in the AHL for the 2009-10 season is Nick Johnson. The graduate of Dartmouth showed deft puck-handling, strong skating, and a wicked wrist shot while playing alongside a handful of different centers during camp. Johnson, like Tangradi, should be among the best forwards on the 2009-10 Penguins’ AHL squad and a likely candidate to get a cup of coffee this season.
Also gone among the forwards were popular veterans Jeff Taffe, Bill Thomas, Connor James, Paul Bissonnette, Chris Minard, and Janne Pesonen. Replacing them are free agents Konstantin Pushkarev, Wyatt Smith, Ryan Bayda, Wade Brookbank, and Chris Connor.
Prospect Mark Letestu will start the season on the injured reserve list after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on Sept. 18.
Nick Petersen, a 2009 pick, impressed enough in training camp to be assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s training camp before he was eventually reassigned to his junior team, Saint John of the QMJHL. Nathan Moon, a fourth-round pick from 2008, was also present for the beginning of training camp before being returned to Kingston of the OHL. Both are likely candidates to join the Penguins AHL affiliate this spring when their junior teams finish their seasons.
Three defensive prospects, Alex Grant, Robert Bortuzzo, and Brian Strait join Jon D’Aversa and Ben Lovejoy to create a diverse group of minor-league prospects. Grant arrives as a smooth-skating, puck-moving blue line presence who is still considered a little raw while fellow 2007 draft pick Bortuzzo brings a more polished, two-way presence. Strait, a third-round pick from 2006, forwent his senior year at Boston University to start cutting his teeth with the Penguins. Strait brings a fairly simple, defensive style of game to the Penguins AHL affiliate and is among the most polished of the Penguins defensive prospects.
Bortuzzo and Lovejoy were among those who had the strongest outings. Bortuzzo impressed with his heavy, accurate point shot and gritty play along the boards. Lovejoy showed great poise and on-ice communication before injuring his shoulder in the preseason. Both were given extended looks in camp, with Bortuzzo being assigned to the AHL in the second round of picks while Lovejoy remains on injured reserve.
Joining the Penguins defensive prospects are veterans Deryk Engelland and Chris Lee, Lane Caffaro, and Pittsburgh native Nate Guenin.
It was goaltender Brad Thiessen’s first training camp as a Penguins prospect and prospect John Curry’s third. Throughout the summer it seemed a lock for Curry to be the backup NHL goaltender to Marc-Andre Fleury but the Penguins signed journeyman Brent Johnson to an NHL contract, all but assuring Curry would start in the AHL for the 2009-10 season. Thiessen was assigned to the AHL in the Penguins’ second wave of cuts while Curry was assigned four days later.
Curry is the starter, however, Thiessen will likely get over 30 starts this season as well. Neither should be expected to see much duty in the NHL this season unless the Penguins are ravaged by injuries this season.
Although the Penguins minor-league system has seen three different AHL coaches in three years, the level of play and style employed remain consistent.
New head coach Todd Reirden signed a multi-year deal in May after taking over for now NHL coach Dan Bylsma on Feb. 19. Reirden finished the 2008-09 season with a record of 14-11-1 and led the Baby Penguins to an upset victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the East Division Semifinals.
In August, the Penguins added former coach of the US Under-18 National Team Development Program John Hynes as an assistant coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Hynes comes to the Penguins organization with a 216-113-19-9 record in six years with the U-18 squad. Last year, Hynes coached the U-17 squad and posted a record of 42-17-6. During his tenure, Hynes left the development team to a gold medal in 2006, a silver in 2004, and a bronze in 2008. The native of Warwick, RI was brought in at least in part, to work on developing the Penguins defensive prospects.