The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will open their 15th season on Saturday, October 5 on the road against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. They will be looking to get back to the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since 2008 and keep their playoff streak of 11 consecutive seasons alive.
While the team lost some key players over the summer, there is still plenty to be excited about. Like every season, the Pens will have many talented prospects suit up in Wilkes-Barre and some new veterans ready to mentor the younger players. There are also several dates on the schedule featuring division rivals and teams that the Pens do not play frequently.
Here is a complete preview of the Penguins’ 2013-14 season.
2012-13 Record: 42-30-2-2 (88 points, fifth in Eastern Conference, third in East Division)
Playoffs: Lost to the Syracuse Crunch in the Eastern Conference finals
Chris Conner, Right Wing
Nick Drazenovic, Center
Tom Kostopoulos, Right Wing
Peter Mannino, Goaltender
Alex Grant, Defenseman (traded to Anaheim Ducks)
Joey Mormina, Defenseman (to Syracuse)
Trevor Smith, Center (to Toronto Maple Leafs)
Brad Thiessen, Goaltender (to Finland)
Last season, the Pens averaged about 2.43 goals per game. However, heading into the 2013-14 campaign, they will be without almost all of their top five scorers from last season. Former Calder Cup champion Trevor Smith will be playing in the Leafs organization, while midseason acquisition Chad Kolarik and Riley Holzapfel have gone overseas.
Among the returning scorers is third-year pro Brian Gibbons, who matched his rookie total of 30 points in 2013. He will be joined by Paul Thompson, who had 29 points in 58 games last year. Thompson improved from the 25 points he had in his rookie campaign in 2012, and he even did it playing less games. (He participated in 67 contests two years ago.)
The scoring unit will be helped by new arrivals Chris Conner and Nick Drazenovic. Conner played in Wilkes-Barre from 2009 through 2011 and had 56 points in 2010. He also set a franchise record that year by scoring six points in one game, including a hat trick. He had 40 points last year while playing for the Portland Pirates, the AHL affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Drazenvoic, meanwhile, joins the Penguins after spending the last two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. He had 53 points in 62 games and has scored at least 40 points in four of his six years in the AHL.
Tom Kostopoulos, a fan favorite in Wilkes-Barre, returned to the team in the summer after a brief stint with the New Jersey Devils, as he was claimed on waivers by them last season. He was productive while playing for the Baby Pens last year, scoring seven points in 17 games, including his 100th AHL career goal. Kostopoulos is also one of the most veteran members of the team’s offense.
Last year, the Pens allowed roughly 2.34 goals per game. This season, what was one of their stronger suits in 2013 could be a weak spot.
Veteran defensemen Joey Mormina, Alex Grant and Dylan Reese have all departed, which means young players such as Philip Samuelsson and Brian Dumoulin will be key parts of the blue line.
Samuelsson is entering his third professional season, but is still experiencing growing pains. He is prone to turnovers and taking bad penalties. In fact, in 2013, he had 70 penalty minutes, which was more than double his total of 26 in 2012.
Dumoulin, however, is one of the team’s top defensive prospects. In his rookie year, he had 24 points in 73 games to rank second among defensemen in scoring. He also had eight points in 15 games.
There is also highly touted prospect Scott Harrington, who got some looks in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s postseason run last year. A scouting report on The Hockey News says he plays “mistake-free” and is dependable. He is also noted as being “good with puck movement” and has “good size.” However, he is “not physical,” which could hurt his long-term potential.
Veteran Brendan Mikkelson was signed over the summer to help the youngsters develop. He has played in 131 NHL games, mostly with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks, and is an option if Pittsburgh wants to call up an experienced blueliner. Last season, he played in Sweden during the lockout and then played 17 games between Tampa and Syracuse.
He was also with the Crunch for their playoff run and had two points in 13 games. Furthermore, he was a member of the 2008 Pirates club that challenged the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. The Pens won the series in seven games.
Former AHL Goalie of the Year Brad Thiessen signed with a team in Finland after struggling since winning the award in 2011. It was assumed Jeff Zatkoff would take over starting duties this season, but after Tomas Vokoun had a blood clot removed, Zatkoff was called to Pittsburgh to back up Marc-Andre Fleury.
That leaves rookie goalie Eric Hartzell as one of the contenders for the starting spot. Hartzell was undrafted out of Quinnipac University and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and an AHCA All-American. In his senior season, he had a record of 30-7-5 with a .933 save percentage and 1.57 GAA in 42 games. He also got some playing time in a Pittsburgh Penguins preseason game against the Ottawa Senators.
Hartzell has two veterans behind him in Peter Mannino and Jeff Deslauriers. Mannino, who was also undrafted, has journeyed around the AHL, even playing with two different teams in 2012. Last season, he was a backup with the Manchester Monarchs, where he went 10-7 with a 2.47 GAA and .919 save percentage in 20 games.
Deslauriers previously played in Wilkes-Barre during the 2006-07 season, when the Pens had a split affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers. His record in 2007 was 22-12-3 to go with a .908 save percentage and 2.47 GAA. Prior to signing a tryout deal with the Penguins, he played in the NHL with Edmonton and in the AHL with Springfield and the Oklahoma City Barons, among others.
John Hynes and Alain Nasreddine will work together for the fourth year in a row. Seeing as the Penguins have captured a regular-season AHL championship and made the playoffs every year under their watch, it’s safe to say the duo is a success. Even with a high amount of team turnover each summer, they have found ways to make sure the Pens are contenders in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.
Hynes was also named the winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Award in 2011, which goes to the AHL’s most outstanding coach.
Winger Tom Kuhnhackl will be looking to bounce back from a shoulder injury that limited him to 11 games as a rookie. He got injured early in the season and was unable to return.
On the Penguins website, player development coach Bill Guerin described Kuhnhackl as a player “who has a big frame” and “is a good athlete” who can “shoot the puck a ton.”
Assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald added, via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, that Kuhnhackl is a solid talent who needs to gain some strength. But despite this, he could still contribute to the big club one day.
Jayson Megna, like some of his teammates, was also undrafted. He came to the Penguins last year from University of Nebraska-Omaha and had 12 points in 56 games, but lost some playing time due to a foot injury. Megna has potential to be a solid contributor on offense, but seems invisible at times on the ice and still has to refine his scoring touch.
Bobby Farnham played his first full AHL season last year after spending time with the Wheeling Nailers. He racked up 274 penalty minutes and showed no fear of fighting opponents or playing physical. Farnham brings energy to the team that has arguably not been seen since Dennis Bonvie retired in 2008.
Featured Game Dates
October 12, 2013: The Penguins open the home portion of their season against the Hershey Bears. The Bears are a frequent opening night opponent of the Pens, and there is never a dull moment when the two get together. Notably, the Pens and Bears played each other in last year’s AHL Outdoor Classic.
October 13, 2013: The Pens travel to Syracuse to take on the Crunch for the first time since last year’s Eastern Conference Final. The Crunch took the series in five games after the Penguins won the first game in Syracuse.
December 14, 2013: The Utica Comets, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, make their first trip to Wilkes-Barre. Two of the Comets’ key players include Zac Dalpe, who was acquired in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes and had 42 points with the Charlotte Checkers last year, and Zach Hamill, who the Pens remember from his 40-game stint with Hershey in 2012-13.
January 17, 2014: The Penguins and Providence Bruins will meet in a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals. Providence took the first three games of the series, but Wilkes-Barre fought back to win the next four and clinch the series. The two teams also engaged in a line brawl in Game 5.
March 1, 2014: This is the first of two games the Pens will play against the Albany Devils at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. The Pens have been going to AC for the last three seasons and won last year’s meeting in a shootout.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
It can be hard to find team chemistry with constant turnover from free agency and trades. The Pens traditionally have a hard time in October and early November before turning on the jets, and expect the same thing to happen this year.
Offense looks to be shored up for the season, but the Pens will have a slower start on defense with only one true experienced blueliner to help. Things could look up if players such as Simon Despres or Robert Bortuzzo get time in Wilkes-Barre, but both seem to be sticking with the NHL club for good.
Furthermore, there is no clear starter in goal. Hynes may not want to give the share of time to rookie Hartzell, but neither Mannino nor Deslauriers have stood above the pack. Look for a goaltending rotation early in the season, but Hartzell or Mannino will end up playing in the ECHL. As Jonathan Bombulie pointed out in his Penguins Insider blog, it’s hard to send Deslauriers to Wheeling when he signed on an AHL deal and has plenty of experience.
The Pens should once again make the playoffs; however, it’s too early to tell how far they will go.
Prediction: Third in East Division, sixth in Eastern Conference
Alison is currently covering the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL for The Hockey Writers after writing about the NHL’s New Jersey Devils from 2011-2012. She is currently employed for the fast growing sports website Bleacher Report as a quality editor and hopes to one day have a media relations career with a professional hockey team. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonM_110.