The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, will drop the puck on their 13th season in the AHL on Saturday, Oct. 8. The Baby Penguins will open at home against the Hershey Bears, their archrival in the East Division.
Last season, WBS finished with the best record in the AHL but suffered an embarrassing defeat in the East Division Finals of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Players and fans alike are looking forward to putting the disappointment behind them and moving on to a new season.
Let’s take a look at the team the Penguins will ice for the start of the 2011-12 season.
The Penguins scored 261 goals last year, which averaged out to about 3.26 goals per game. Their top three scorers were Brett Sterling (53 points), Ryan Craig (48 points) and Dustin Jeffrey (45 points).
Other key players last year include Ben Street, who was the 2011 ECHL Rookie of the Year. Street had 23 points in 36 games with Wilkes-Barre and will be on the roster right out of the gate.
There is also the much-talked-about Eric Tangradi, who was a surprise cut from Pittsburgh in training camp. Tangradi had 33 points in 42 AHL games last year, down from his 39-point total in 2009-10.
A call-up to Pittsburgh and an injury which left him unable to return to Wilkes-Barre played a part in his decreased production.
Joining WBS this year will be Colin McDonald, who had 42 goals last year to lead the AHL. McDonald spent 2010-11 with the Oklahoma City Barons, the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers.
Another key addition is Cody Chupp, who played his first full AHL season in 2010-2011 with the Texas Stars, Dallas’ AHL team. In 58 games, he had 14 points.
Chupp is undrafted and played for Ferris State University, the same college that produced Pittsburgh star winger Chris Kunitz.
One of the league’s top offenses, if not the best one (the AHL does not track goals per game like the NHL), did lose some stars. Leading scorer Sterling signed with the St. Louis Blues, while Nick Johnson was claimed off waivers by the Minnesota Wild. Tim Wallace, a key part of the offense for the last several seasons, went to the New York Islanders.
Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale, a consistent 20-point scorer, will start the season in Pittsburgh. Nick Petersen, who set a team record with five assists in a game last season, is currently on the injured list with a concussion.
WBS surrendered 2.28 goals per game last year and returns much of the corps that made them so successful in 2010-11.
Carl Sneep played in his first pro season last year and finished with 17 points and a plus-17 rating. Also returning is third-year player Brian Strait, who had 10 points but was third on the Penguins with a plus-22 rating, matching his plus/minus from the 2009-10 season.
Veteran defenseman Joey Mormina, who played his second stint with the Penguins last year, also came back under a new one-year deal.
Two solid defensive prospects will arrive in Wilkes-Barre this year. Simon Despres is probably the Penguins’ top defense prospect right now; he spent the last four years with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. Joining him will be Philip Samuelsson, the son of former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson.
The Penguins also signed veteran defenseman Alexandre Picard (not to be confused with the forward of the same name). Picard last played in the AHL in the 2007-08 season with the now-defunct Philadelphia Phantoms, where he had 38 points in 53 games. He spent last year with the Montreal Canadiens and had eight points and an even rating in 43 games.
Corey Potter, who led WBS defensemen in scoring last year with 37 points and also had a plus-25 rating, signed with the Edmonton Oilers in the offseason. The Pens also lost two-time Calder Cup finalist Andrew Hutchinson to the KHL.
Meanwhile, Robert Bortuzzo, another third-year pro, sustained a knee injury in the rookie tournament and is out for an unknown amount of time. In 2010-11, he improved to 26 points after posting 12 points in 2009-10 and he led the team with a plus-28 rating.
Brad Thiessen, the reigning AHL Goaltender of the Year, signed a new one-year deal in the offseason and will be in Wilkes-Barre once again. Last season, he won 35 games to set a new team record for wins by a goalie in a single season. He was second in the AHL with seven shutouts and a 1.94 GAA while ranking seventh with a .922 save percentage.
Backing up Thiessen this year will be Scott Munroe, a veteran AHL netminder. He last played in the league with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ affiliate, in 2009-10. His record that year was 19-16-3 with a .920 save percentage and 2.52 GAA. He played in the KHL during the 2010-11 season.
John Curry, the Pens’ all-time franchise leader in wins with 103, signed with the Hamburg Freezers in Germany.
The Penguins’ power play was weak last year, as it was 16th in the league with a 17.3 percent success rate. Most of the team’s top power play producers departed via free agency or call-up, but Craig and Tangradi remain. They had four power-play goals apiece last year.
The penalty kill was much better; it was ranked seventh in the AHL at 83.6 percent. Bryan Lerg, who will start the season in WBS, had two shorthanded goals last year.
The WBS coaching staff remains intact for 2011-12. Head coach John Hynes is the reigning AHL Coach of the Year. Last year, his first as a head coach, he guided the Pens to a 58-21-1 record with a .731 win percentage.
Hynes previously worked with the U.S. National Development Program and was also an assistant to Todd Reirden, who was promoted to Pittsburgh last season.
Assisting Hynes will be Alain Nasreddine, a former WBS Penguins defenseman and captain. Nasreddine knows the Penguins’ systems and is a good leader, and he and Hynes appeared to work well together last year.
The Penguins are set on defense, with an experienced core and highly touted prospects joining the team. There will be growing pains, but the defense should again be able to keep opponents’ goal totals down and protect their goaltender.
Thiessen has looked good in the preseason, stopping just about everything that comes his way. The only concern is that he’s peaked too early, which could cause his performance to suffer. Should he get called up or injured, Munroe will be able to handle the load.
However, there are too many question marks on offense and the power play. The addition of McDonald will help, but one player can’t work by himself. The Penguins will need to count on depth players in Bryan Lerg and Geoff Walker—just to name a few—to keep them on the board. If everyone contributes, the Pens can overcome this hurdle. If they can’t, it’s going to be a difficult season.
Pittsburgh’s farm club has a lot of talent, but with uncertainty on the offense and increased competition in a shortened season (the AHL will play 76 games instead of 80), it is hard to believe they can repeat their overwhelmingly successful 2010-11 campaign.
Projection: Second place, AHL East Division
This article also appears on Bottom Line Hockey.