Grit and skill aplenty for minor-league affiliate of Pittsburgh Penguins

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Brian Strait and defensive partner Robert Bortuzzo make up one of the most reliable defensive pairings in the entire AHL. (Photo Courtesy of

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the AHL affiliate for the Pittsburgh Penguins, are easily the top team in the league this year, boasting a record of 30-8-0-0 (a pace that would give them over sixty wins) and a winning percentage of .789. The team has allowed only 2.26 goals per game while scoring 3.31 and boasts a league-leading plus-forty. Despite the high level of success the team has seen so far, they boast middling special-teams units with a 20th ranked powerplay and a 16th ranked penalty kill.

Eric Tangradi, LW, 21

Starting the season as a second-line forward alongside Evgeni Malkin has to seem like ages ago for the 6’4 power forward. Upon being returned to Wilkes-Barre in late October, Tangradi seemed to struggle offensively, producing three goals and one assist in his first 15 games. When the month of December began however, things started to come together for the Philadelphia native. Over the next ten games, he’d post nine goals and 13 points including four multipoint efforts. He was even named the Reebok/AHL player of the week for the week ending on December 12th.

With the Baby Pens, Tangradi has played mostly on a second line with center Joe Vitale and Nick Johnson. Through 32 games he has 16 goals and seven assists.

While his confidence was clearly shaken upon being returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Tangradi remains one of the Penguins top prospects. His style of play is reminiscent of current Penguin forward Chris Kunitz albeit far less refined. His blend of size, skill, and physicality however make him a unique player in the Penguins organization. Whether it is later this season or the next, Tangradi will be an NHL contributor.

Dustin Jeffrey, C/W, 22

In his third season playing AHL level hockey, Dustin Jeffrey has easily been the best player for the Baby Pens night in and out. He plays in all situations, takes key faceoffs, and leads the team in points with 15 goals and 22 assists through 35 games.

His consistent two-way play has been a big reason the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have a league leading record and won their first nine games in a row. In early December, the Penguins rewarded Jeffrey with an NHL callup and he didn’t disappoint, posting a goal and assist in his NHL season debut and averaged nine minutes through three games, mostly playing on a fourth-line. He was recalled once more on January tenth and despite going pointless in 6:35 of playing time, he acquitted himself well for a team that imploded upon itself in the third period.

Over the past three seasons, Jeffrey has progressed from depth forward in the AHL to one of the best all-around players in the league. He is at the point in his career where he can still learn a great deal at the AHL level, but could just as easily be a regular depth forward at the NHL level.

Currently, the Penguins organization retains the rights to only seven of their NHL forwards for next season. While the team will assuredly re-sign several of the forwards and augment the roster through free agency, Jeffrey is all but guaranteed an opportunity to compete for a regular NHL roster spot.

Robert Bortuzzo, D, 21

Bortuzzo and defensive partner Brian Strait make up the top defensive pairing for one of the best defensive teams in the entire AHL. No easy task for players in only their second year of professional-level play.

At the NHL level, the Penguins like to employ active defensemen, having one almost always on the strong side of the puck. Their AHL affiliate is no different and Bortuzzo plays the more active defensive position in the pairing. The rangy defenseman has a booming slapshot from the point and is not afraid to step up physically. And although he is not a particularly skilled pugilist, he is never afraid to drop the gloves and stick up for teammates, totaling four fighting majors this season.

A right-handed shot, Bortuzzo projects as an all-situation second or third pairing defenseman who can contribute on both special teams and chip in offensively. Through 37 games this season he has two goals and 13 assists.

Brian Strait, D, 22

The more conservative side of the Penguins top defensive pairing, Strait has made his career on playing smart, simple hockey. Not that Strait isn’t a capable puck-mover, he nearly fits the Penguin prototype of a tough, mobile, puck-moving defenseman, just that his greatest assets, strong lateral movement and good ability to read opposing forwards, are better served playing as the man back.

Along with his good lateral and backward skating ability, Strait is good at turning in mid-stride on the ice, an important skill in winning races to the puck.

Like Bortuzzo, Strait has made leaps and bounds in his second AHL season from his first. Still, he has a lot to learn about his position before he can crack the NHL. The up-tempo style of defense the Penguins employ requires nearly flawless execution to work properly and that is only achieved through experience. Besides, the Penguins have six defensemen on NHL contracts through 2013 meaning unless the team is hit hard by injuries or makes a handful of trades, Strait and his defensive partner will be gaining experience in the AHL.

Carl Sneep, D, 23

Like Strait, Carl Sneep went pro after winning the Frozen Four. The right-shooting defenseman brings a relatively mobile 6’3 frame to the ice and is a capable puck-mover. In his first professional season, Sneep started off slow, posting only one goal and one assist in his first twenty games. When puck-moving veteran defenseman Andrew Hutchinson went down with a lower body injury December first, the door opened up for Sneep to see more time in a puck-moving role and he took advantage of it, posting six assists in fifteen games.

Sneep is still learning the ups and downs of the professional game but has a great deal of experience in terms of ice-time at the collegiate level, which has served him well in filling a variety of different roles with the Baby Pens.

Nick Petersen, RW, 21

Drafted as a 20-year-old out of the QMJHL, Petersen is still very much a raw offensive package. The Penguins felt it was best for his development to see as much ice-time as possible as he has spent the vast majority of his first professional season playing for the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. Through 29 games with the Nailers, he has posted a team leading 16 goals and 18 assists while playing in all situations.

He did make a cameo in the AHL when the team was hit by injuries but didn’t make a particularly large impact, going pointless and registering a minus-one in three games.

Petersen remains a promising, albeit long-term prospect for the Penguins organization. Expect him to follow a similar career path as current AHLer Nick Johnson, who played most of his first season in the ECHL before transitioning to a top-six role in the AHL.

Nick Johnson, RW, 25

Now in his third professional season, forward Nick Johnson may have the most to prove this season out of all of the Penguins minor-league prospects. At 25, he is older and more experienced than many of his peers but more importantly, he is in a contract year.

Playing mostly on a line with Joe Vitale and Eric Tangradi, Johnson seems to have found a level of offensive comfort and consistency he previously hadn’t seen at the AHL level. Through 34 games, he has 13 goals and 13 assists, almost surpassing his previous year’s total in half the amount of games. His totals would be even higher if he wasn’t dogged by an injury through a chunk of November.

With the current success the Penguins are having at the NHL level, they’d be hard-pressed to tinker with their roster. Still, Johnson has done everything he can to put himself on the shortlist of NHL call-ups.

Joe Vitale, C, 25

The Penguins like to play a grinding, up-tempo, in-your-face type of hockey which means lots of hitting, winning battles for the puck, and players driving to the net to create offense. In forward Joe Vitale, that is exactly what the team gets. The second-year pro is a prototypical Penguins forward prospect in the same sense Strait is to the defensive prospects. He combines smart physical play with an exceptional work-ethic all the while providing secondary scoring.

Currently centering the second line alongside Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson, Vitale has eight goals and 14 assists through 36 games. More notably though, he has played phenomenal defensive hockey and is currently among the team leaders in plus/minus.

Unlike Jeffrey or Tangradi, there are no real expectations for the 25-year-old Vitale to develop into a top-six forward at the NHL level. That said, like Jeffrey and Tangradi, Vitale has proven himself a more than capable performer at the AHL level and should get a look in the NHL if not sometime this season, in 2011-12.

Brad Thiessen, G, 24

In his second professional season, Brad Thiessen has unequivocally been the Penguins best goaltending prospect. Thiessen currently leads the AHL with 17 wins despite only starting 21 games, sits tenth in the league with a .921 save percentage, and his 2.06 goals against average (two tenths of a goal better than the team’s average) ranks sixth in the league and fourth among goaltenders with 20 or more starts.

Thiessen is a calm presence in net. He is good at positioning himself against shooters and is rarely frazzled after allowing a goal. Expect him to continue playing in a rotation with veteran AHLer John Curry.

Patrick Killeen, G, 20

Although he had a solid training camp, there was little doubt Killeen would be starting in the ECHL this season. The Penguins have done their best however to give the young goaltender as wide array of experiences as possible including a call-up early in the season for him to work with Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche and several call-ups to the AHL. All of the traveling aside, Killeen has played exclusively in the ECHL, where he has a 14-7-1 record, a 2.63 goals against average and a .907 save percentage. In recognition of his strong play, Killeen was nominated to play in the ECHL All-Star Game on January 26th in Bakersfield.

A standup hybrid goaltender, Killeen is naturally gifted not only in his great size and ability to take up a large portion of the net, but in his poise, and ability to take over games.

Keven Veilleux, C/W, 21

Plagued by nagging injuries since he was drafted in 2007, Veilleux is looking to put together his first relatively healthy season as a professional.

Drafted as a center, the rangy large rangy forward more often plays right-wing on the third line alongside center Ryan Craig.

He started the season rough, only posting five points in his first 18 games but since saw an offensive emergence posting two goals and two assists in his last eight games. He also showed strength and skill on the forecheck. Veilleux has also been aggressive on the puck, and not afraid to play in traffic.

Currently sidelined with a minor knee injury, Veilleux has shown a soft touch with his passes and is able to skate backward and laterally with the puck. He does however lack a particularly potent shot, something he will have to work on to become an effective offensive-minded forward.

Mattias Modig, G, 23

In his first season of North American hockey, Modig saw plenty of ups and downs, including a stretch when was 1-6 and allowed four goals or more on three different occasions. Through nine games, he has a 3.27 goals against average, a .891 save percentage and a 3-6 record. On December 15th, Modig suffered a knee injury and was placed on the 21-day IR the next day. He has yet to suit up for the organization since then.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C/W, 22

Winning the WHL scoring title in 2008-09 must feel like a long time ago for second-year ECHL forward Casey Pierro-Zabotel.

The craft center was considered a long-term project when he was originally drafted in 2007 and while he still has a ways to go in learning the game, he has made considerable progress in his second season of professional hockey. At 6’2 and over 200 pounds, Pierro-Zabotel brings good size along with solid ability to distribute the puck. The problem for the talented fo
rward though was never his skills with the puck but his mental makeup.

Through 29 games, Pierro-Zabotel has nine goals and 20 assists. More importantly, he has shown a greater willingness to play in high-traffic areas. His skating still requires a great deal of work though as the 22-year-old often looks sluggish on the ice.

Joey Haddad, LW/RW, 22

Another Penguins forward prospect who has plied his trade in the ECHL over the past two years, Haddad, like Pierro-Zabotel has made great strides in his second professional season, already surpassing last year’s goal totals, posting nine goals and ten assists through 22 games.

More importantly, Haddad has developed more of a warrior personality in the offensive zone, and has not limited himself to mostly playing on the perimeter. Haddad was recently suspended for an altercation on December 28th where he punched a player in the nose after the refs had already intervened. For a player who frequently drew the wrath of opposing teams during his junior career and this should not be much of a surprise. Still, he will need to learn to exercise better judgment and not put his team at a disadvantage.

Alex Grant, D, 21

Grant has made progress since knocked out with a monstrous hit by David Dziurzynski (OTT). He is expected to play this season although there is not yet a precise timetable.