The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins reached the halfway mark of their season on Saturday night when they played their 40th game, a 4-2 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms.
With 39 games left before playoffs, it is time to see how the Baby Penguins are doing and what they can improve on in the second half of the season.
The Penguins will be graded in each category on a scale of 1-10, one meaning the Penguins have no positives in that category, while 10 means they are at the highest level in that category.
32-9-0 (64 points, first place in East Division and first overall in American Hockey League)
The Penguins have scored 135 goals this season, the third most in the East Division.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is led in scoring by Dustin Jeffrey, who has 41 points on the season. Nick Johnson and Brett Sterling are tied for second with 28 points, and Eric Tangradi comes in third with 25 points. Tangradi is the team’s goal scoring leader with 16 goals and is tied for sixth in the AHL.
Jeffrey is seventh in the AHL in points and is also ranked second with five shorthanded goals.
The Pens have put up more than five goals in a game 10 times this season.
After Jeffrey, there is a slight drop-off in the Penguins offense. They have also been held to less than three goals eight times this year, which suggests they are not as deep on offense as they should be for a team that is where they are in the standings.
Steve Wagner and Corey Potter lead Pens defensemen in scoring with 18 points apiece.
Joe Vitale and Robert Bortuzzo lead the team in plus/minus rating with each posting a plus-16. This is good enough for third in the AHL. Nearly every player on the roster has a positive plus/minus rating.
The Penguins have only allowed 94 goals this year, which is the lowest total in both the East Division and the AHL.
The defensive corps has a good mix of veterans such as Joey Mormina (in his second stint with Wilkes-Barre) and Andrew Hutchinson (a 2004 Calder Cup winner and 2010 finalist) and prospects such as Bortuzzo and Brian Strait.
The Penguins are lucky to have two solid goalies for 2010-2011.
Second year pro Brad Thiessen has a record of 18-4-3 with three shutouts. He also has a 2.12 GAA and .918 save percentage.
John Curry is in his fourth year with the Penguins and is coming back from a slump in the 2009-2010 season. He is 14-5 with one shutout and has a 2.31 GAA and .913 save percentage.
Thiessen and Curry are among the AHL’s top goaltenders in many categories. They are in the top 20 in GAA and save percentage. They are also in the top 10 in wins, with Thiessen ranked first and Curry in fifth.
Thiessen is also tied for third in shutouts by goaltenders.
WBS has two solid options in goal, and both are capable of carrying the team far. However, head coach John Hynes must be careful not to use any one goalie too much. If Curry or Thiessen goes down with an injury, it would be hard to trust an ECHL call-up.
The special teams area is probably WBS’ biggest weakness this season.
Their power play is ranked 20th in the AHL and has a low success rate of 15.7 percent.
The penalty kill is 16th, and the Penguins have an 82.5 percent success rate when they are shorthanded.
Jeffrey’s abilities when the Penguins are down shorthanded are amazing. Once he gets going on a breakaway, he is hard to be stopped. He generates the most chances among his teammates when the Penguins are killing penalties.
However, a team like this should not have such poor special teams. The power play has been a weakness for several years now, and there seems to be no rush to fix it.
John Hynes is a definite upgrade over Todd Reirden, who could sometimes be too nice and didn’t seem to push the team hard enough.
Hynes is quiet, but he seems to know how to get the players to respond. He holds them accountable for their mistakes and seems to have a likeable personality. He also led USA developmental teams to medals in tournaments, which gave him a good track record when he first joined the Penguins as an assistant coach in 2009-10.
Former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman Alain Nasreddine has retired from playing to step behind the bench as an assistant coach. He already knows the Penguins organization and the systems they use, so it is hard to argue with the choice.
He also proved to be a leader in the 2005-2006 season when Michel Therrien was called up to Pittsburgh to replace Ed Olczyk. Nasreddine stepped in to lead a practice and kept the team together when Joe Mullen was called in as interim head coach.
Although Hynes and Nasreddine don’t have much experience at the professional level on paper, they have the right mix of a good personality and effective coaching tactics that has gotten the team to where they are.
As of this writing, five players on the Penguins roster have been called up to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jeffrey, Tangradi, Curry and Hutchinson have seen brief call-ups lasting no more than 10 games.
Chris Conner has already played 29 games with the big club, where he has nine points. Conner has stood out for his speed in addition to his scoring abilities.
Furthermore, three players from the 2009-10 squad (Mark Letestu, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland) have earned permanent spots in Pittsburgh.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has also been able to give ice time to four call-ups from the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. Joey Haddad, Jason DeSantis, Ben Street and Ryan Schnell have been with the Penguins at some point this year.
Goaltender Patrick Killeen was also called up, but he was unable to get into a game.
Although the Penguins have been giving many players chances in the AHL and NHL, their productivity has been low. Tangradi disappointed many by not producing immediately in Pittsburgh as expected, while Jeffrey’s future chances at making Pittsburgh are still mixed.
I will give the benefit of the doubt in this category since it has been difficult to make the Pittsburgh roster in the last couple of years. However, there is no one on the current WBS roster that has an almost definite chance of making the big club in 2011-12.
Jesse Boulerice is currently suspended for receiving an abuse of official penalty in a Jan. 5 matchup against the Charlotte Checkers. He shoved referee Francis Charron after losing his stick, and the league ruled he abused an official without intent to injure. He will return to the lineup on Jan. 28 when the Penguins take on the Albany Devils.
Thiessen and Jeffrey were named to the AHL All-Star Game to be held Jan. 31 in Hershey, PA. Thiessen will be the starting netminder for the Eastern Conference team.
Hynes will coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the game. He earned the coaching title by leading the Penguins to the best record in the league.
After a dismal 2009-10 season, the Penguins needed to win back the faith of their fans, and so far, it is working.
The Penguins went out and signed quality free agents such as Brett Sterling and Andrew Hutchinson that have helped put this team in first place. They are exciting to watch and never give up, even when the chips are down.
However, not everything is perfect. The special teams category needs the most improvement if Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is going to go far in the playoffs. The Baby Penguins’ power play woes are much like Pittsburgh’s. With the level of talent on the team, there is no excuse for a 20th ranked power play.
Pittsburgh should also be concerned that some of their prospects are tearing up the AHL, but not doing much when they come up to the NHL.
Final Grade (out of 60, possible 10 in each of six categories): 51
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