Can Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Overcome Roster Woes?

On paper, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins appear to be in good shape to close out 2013. They have a record of 13-5-1-2, good for third place in the Eastern Conference and first in a competitive East Division. They also have plenty of talent up and down the roster and don’t rely on just one player to carry the load.

However, it’s easy to wonder if the Penguins’ recent roster moves could cause some problems. The team has lost forwards Jayson Megna, Zach Sill, Chris Conner and Andrew Ebbett, along with defenseman Simon Despres, to the NHL as the Pittsburgh Penguins deal with injuries to key players such as Beau Bennett and Rob Scuderi.

The injury bug seems to have trickled down to WBS. Per Jonathan Bombulie of The Citizens Voice, forwards Dominik Uher, Adam Payerl and Nick Drazenovic are all out of the lineup with injuries. Uher and Drazenovic may only miss another one or two weeks, and Payerl is out for three to four months.

Some changes are taking place to make up for the losses. Forwards Mike Carman and C.J. Severyn were signed to an AHL contract and tryout, respectively, while Anton Zlobin joins them from the Wheeling Nailers. Harrison Ruopp was also called up from Wheeling to help on defense.

Can the Penguins keep their groove in a tight conference and division?

Mainstays and Newcomers 

WBS’ scoring corps is led by Gibbons, who is having a breakout season with 24 points in 18 games and played five games in Pittsburgh. He may be small (5’8”, 170 pounds), but he possesses great speed and is showing that he can finish scoring chances.

Gibbons is joined by Harry Zolnierczyk, who leads the Penguins with nine goals, and veteran winger Tom Kostopoulos. Kostopoulos has picked up the pace in recent games and currently has 17 points, showing he can still produce even at 34 years old.

Carman will be trying to prove the Pens made the right call in signing him. While with the Hershey Bears last season, he showed himself to be valuable as a third or fourth-line forward and penalty killer. Although a healthy scratch for WBS at times earlier this season, Carman has five points in 13 games.

Fellow newcomer Severyn was an ECHL All-Star in 2013 and was the Solar Bears’ leading scorer before being called up, posting six goals and 17 points in 19 games. He can also provide physical play, which will help to replace Payerl, one of the Pens’ more versatile forwards.

“I had a little sniff of it last year towards the end of the year,” Severyn said when asked about his goals to play in the AHL. “I definitely want to play more games up there this year.”

Solar Bears head coach Vince Williams also had praise for Severyn, telling Bryan Levine of the Orlando Sentinel, “He brings a lot of energy to the team. He also brings a bit of physicality. Any time you can have someone with that much skill and grit, it’s a great addition to the team.”

WBS is not as short on defensemen, as Peter Merth made his return to the lineup after dealing with an undisclosed injury, while Reid McNeill appears close and is skating in a red no-contact jersey. It also has Mikkelson, who is an alternate captain and is not afraid to take shots at the net. In fact, despite not scoring in the Pens’ last three games, he tallied five shots in two of those contests.

Finally, the Pens look to be set in goal, which should help them continue to win games. The only downside is that Jeff Deslauriers has seemed off his game in his previous two starts. However, there is no indication that he is going to lose starts to Hartzell, the undrafted rookie who started the season in Wheeling and has two wins, including one shutout, in his brief AHL time.

Hartzell so far seems to be comfortable in the AHL and is taking the down times in stride.

“I’m not rattled by it,” he told Tom Venesky of The Times Leader. “I feel like I have a good head on my shoulders. Sure, you’re going to get beat sometimes, you’re going to fail and there’s going to be times when things just don’t go your way. That’s just the way hockey is.”

Stumbling Blocks

While the Penguins have a lot of individual talent, there is no denying they struggled in last week’s three-game set. The biggest blow was a 3-1 loss against a poor Adirondack Phantoms team who kept them off the board until the third period.

WBS also got off to a slow start against the Bears, who came out determined to win after going 4-0 against their biggest rivals to start the season. The Pens were having trouble solving Hershey goalie David Leggio, who consistently makes big saves on WBS’ best scorers, and could not convert on power plays.

Although WBS tried to use its third-period magic in that game, tying things at 2-2 to force overtime, the Bears wrapped up the win with 6.6 seconds remaining in the extra frame. The Penguins will have to work harder to play complete games rather than rely on comeback wins on a consistent basis.

While Gibbons and Kostopoulos need to keep working their scoring magic, other players will have to hone their scoring touch and contribute in the absence of guys like Megna and Conner.

Overall, this may be a bumpy ride for the Penguins. Their schedule to start December is not easy. A two-game stop in St. John’s to face the IceCaps and goaltender Eddie Pasquale could go either way, but a December 11 home matchup with the Falcons could prove difficult. The Pens fell behind 3-0 against Springfield back on November 10 and could not recover against another powerful offense and strong goalie in Mike McKenna.

A potential break does not come until the team faces the Utica Comets on December 14. The Comets have been one of the worst teams in the AHL in their first season and don’t have any impressive wins to their credit. However, the Pens cannot take it easy, especially if the first part of the month does not go their way.

Final Thoughts 

There is still plenty of hockey left. The Penguins have the talent to get through this, and coming back from adversity has been a strong point regardless of who is on the team. They need to come to every game ready to play, help the new additions get acclimated and keep their positive attitudes. As long as they do these things, they should still be one of the conference’s best teams as both WBS and Pittsburgh players get healthy.

“This is our team,” head coach John Hynes said. “It’s not so much guys from Wheeling or guys getting sent down. We’re all Penguins. These are the guys we have.”