As the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins gear up for a first round playoff showdown with the Binghamton Senators, we take a look at the season that was. The Pittsburgh Penguins AHL affiliate has one of the most talented groups of youngsters in the league, and they have enjoyed a solid season which saw them post a 39-27-7-7 record and qualify fourth in the tightly fought East Division. As well as having a core of players with a few years of pro hockey experience, the Penguins also boast a crew of high class rookies.
Eyes were on the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury’s first season as a full-time starter in the professional ranks has been one of undulating fortunes. There have been times where he has been nothing short of brilliant and others where he left Coach Michel Therrien scratching his head. Fleury set a single season record with Wilkes-Barre by posting 26 wins and also set a new mark with five shutouts.
Still only 20 years old, Fleury has plenty of time before he reaches his projected peak. His inconsistencies are a result of inexperience and his raw talent should see him improving over coming seasons. He finished with a 26-19-4-5 record, a goals against of 2.52 and a save percentage of .901. It is expected that Fleury will start in game one of the Penguins opening round playoff match-up with the Senators, and perhaps that will be the biggest test of his mettle. In the 2003-04 season, Fleury was given a start in the Penguins opening playoff round, only to concede five goals and watch Andy Chiodo carry the Pens all the way to the Calder Cup Final.
As for Chiodo, he found himself the extra man at Wilkes-Barre for most of the second half of the season after struggling as Fleury’s backup in early games. Chiodo found himself in the ECHL playing for the Wheeling Nailers as Dany Sabourin was called up. Last season’s playoff hero performed well when sent down, and got valuable minutes and was able to regain some form.
When Sabourin suffered a groin injury in the last week of the regular season, Chiodo was called in and started in the Pens penultimate game against division rivals the Norfolk Admirals. Seeking to prove his demotion was a mistake, Chiodo went on to post his second shutout of the season in front of the home fans, making 24 saves in a 3-0 win which temporarily put the Penguins in third place. It remains to be seen whether he will get a shot at repeating his playoff performance of last year. Chiodo finished with a 5-7-1-2 record and a GAA of 3.27 with the Penguins, and a 9-10-0-2 record and a 2.24 GAA with Wheeling.
Perhaps the Penguins most impressive rookie this season was blueliner Ryan Whitney. The fifth overall pick in 2002, Whitney is an excellent combination of size and skill, providing superb outlet passes as well as developing the physical side to his game. There is no doubt he has the potential to be more of a physical presence as he adds more bulk to his 6’4 frame. The 22-year-old started very slowly this season but like most rookies he got better as the season progressed as he adjusted to the professional game. He was given plenty of opportunity from the Penguins coaching staff, and was used regularly on the power play as well as getting some minutes on the penalty kill.
Despite some inconsistencies, Whitney justified the faith in him by finishing as the Penguins top offensive defenseman by scoring 41 points (six goals, 35 assists).That also made him tenth in the league in scoring amongst all rookies and third amongst rookie defensemen. Whitney was also awarded the team ‘Rookie of the Year’ award at the end of season ceremony. Whitney would benefit from another full season with the Baby Penguins as he continues to work on his defensive game. There is no doubt that he has potent offensive skills and the concentration on his work in his own end will pay dividends for his future NHL career.
On the offensive side, Wilkes-Barre has a number of talented prospects who are expected to make up the core of the NHL roster for years to come in Pittsburgh. One of those who may be ready for the jump to the big league when it returns is third-year forward Colby Armstrong. The 22-year-old has had his best season in 2004-05, posting career best marks in goals and assists and has become one of the Penguins leading players. He spent the majority of the season on what became arguably the Penguins most consistent line, combining with Ramzi Abid and Shane Endicott. Not only did they score on a regular basis, but they were often the line that was used in the high pressure situations due to their strong defensive capabilities. His 55 points (18 goals, 37 assists) put him equal third in team scoring. His improvement was rewarded when he won the team’s ‘Most Improved Player’ award for this season.
Armstrong’s linemate Shane Endicott also had a season to remember. Endicott exploded at the start of the season to lead the Penguins in scoring at a point-per-game pace. He did slow down as the season continued, perhaps unable to get his early season form back after being sidelined for 12 games mid-season with a finger injury. Despite slowing his point production, the 6’4 centerman still managed to find the back of the net 24 times, a personal best and good enough for third in the team. He added 23 assists to total 47 points and finished sixth in team scoring.
The story of the Penguins top forward line this season could be divided into two parts – the World Beaters and the Drought Men periods. Early season goal scoring hero and first team AHL All-Star Michel Ouellet is perhaps the best example of this. After scoring 30 goals before the All-Star break, he only managed one in the last 29 games. That goal came in the Penguins second last game, ending what no doubt was the most frustrating goal drought of his career. During those heady first few months, Ouellet along with linemates Kris Beech and Matt Murley were nothing short of sensational, piling on the points. The ‘MOB’ line was touted as the best in the AHL, and seemed to be unstoppable nearly every night, with all three of them either leading or in the top five in the league of at least one offensive category.
But all good things must come to an end, and the line’s hot form stopped abruptly in February. After they were scoreless for a couple of weeks, center Kris Beech was injured and did not return for nearly four weeks. All things considered though, it was a successful season for Ouellet. He finished as the team’s leading scorer with 31 goals and 32 assists from 80 games and showed, at least for the first part of the season, that he could be destined for the NHL.
Matt Murley also had a strong offensive contribution in the early part of the season, but his role on the MOB line was more of a setup man and forechecker. He was also one of the leading Penguins on the penalty kill, and for a short while led the entire AHL in plus/minus. But like his linemates, Murley all but disappeared from the scoresheet in the latter part of the season. Murley still finished +16 on the year, although that was well down from his earlier numbers in the high 20s. He finished with 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points in 80 games.
Another rookie that is showing great potential is former WHL scoring champion, Erik Christensen. The 69th overall selection in the 2002 draft took some time adjusting to the pace of the AHL, but had improved dramatically by season’s end. Christensen showed plenty of skill with the puck and a devastating turn of speed, and his energy and intensity were evident in most games. Christensen also had the knack of scoring timely goals, evidenced by his three game-winners, one of which came in a vital game against division rivals the Hershey Bears on April 10, when he scored the goal that sealed a playoff berth for the Penguins. The 21-year-old was also excellent in shootout situations, scoring five times from 12 attempts.
By season’s end, Christensen had compiled 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) which put him 11th in team scoring and second to Whitney amongst team rookies. He still has a way to go before he is NHL ready, but Christensen certainly has laid an excellent base for his development.
First-year center Maxime Talbot has shown glimpses of his offensive capability this season but has most impressed with his energy and his work when not in possession of the puck. Used with varying linemates, the 21-year-old showed a lot of the solid role player traits that the Penguins scouts hoped he would bring when he was signed after a very successful junior career in the QMJHL. Talbot finished with seven goals and 12 assists in 75 games.
Fellow rookie center Ben Eaves has adjusted a little more slowly to the AHL, finding himself an occasional healthy scratch this season. It was made more difficult for him after missing the early months of the season while recovering from knee surgery. The 23-year-old played in 43 games and scored ten points (four goals, six assists).
Fourth-year offensive defenseman Ross Lupaschuk certainly didn’t struggle to score this season, finishing second amongst defensemen with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 67 games. The 24-year-old again showed his toughness, dropping the gloves on a number of occasions on the way to a career-high 145 penalty minutes. Defenseman Drew Fata was in and out of the line-up in Wilkes-Barre this season, and his form when with the team was mixed. The 21-year-old played in 32 games and registered one goal and one assist. He spent 22 games with Wheeling and had one assist.
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