Chirps from Center Ice

A fan blog about the AHL's Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins

2014 Free Agency Recap: Day 1

Like piranhas on a piece of flesh in a pond, NHL Free Agency began at 12 noon today. The moves and press releases were coming in virtually non-stop with who signed where. Here’s the lowdown surrounding the Penguins organization as a whole and the rest of the AHL East Division:

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Wilkes-Barre / Pittsburgh

Nick Drazenovic re-signed. Certainly a case of unfinished business for Drazenovic, who could have easily gone elsewhere.

Goaltender Thomas Griess signed. He and Jeff Zatkoff will battle for the backup spot behind Marc Andre-Fleury with the loser most likely ticketed to Wilkes-Barre. Waivers being what they are, since both Greiss and Zatkoff need to pass through them, is something which will need to be dealt with at that time.

Pittsburgh also signed Blake Comeau and Christian Ehrhoff. Comeau is a solid bottom six addition, which could mean that a tweener would be shipped to Wilkes-Barre as a victim of numbers.

Defenseman Taylor Chorney, 65 on the Bombulie big board, 74 points over the last 3 AHL seasons. Chorney captained the Chicago Wolves this past season.

Marcel Goc has re-signed with Pittsburgh as well.

Not a bad day for new General Manager Jim Rutherford. I was worried that with the change in the regime in Pittsburgh that this would come as a detriment to Wilkes-Barre. That does not appear to be the case on Day 1.

Here’s Pittsburgh’s nice recap on the departures and additions.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t win a Calder Cup in July.

Michael Cignoli had an update on Bombulie’s blog. Also, across town, Tom Venesky spoke with John Hynes, who expects less turnover than past years. System wise, it’ll be similar with slight changes, but the style will pretty much remain the same.

Here’s what everyone else in the division did, plus the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who will be in the division next season:

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Hershey / Washington

Michael Latta re-signs. He gave Wilkes-Barre problems last year.

Goaltender Justin Peters signs. He will back up Braden Holtby in Washington while Philipp Grubauer and Eddie Pasquale (provided he signs his qualifying offer) tend the nets in Chocolatetown.

Jon Landry and Mike Moore. Landry, late of the AHL’s Iowa Wild, is described by Bombulie as a “puck mover with size.” Moore is a leader, has worn a “C” pretty much everywhere he’s been, most recently with the Providence Bruins.

Chris Conner. Needs no introduction. If he gets squeezed out by the Caps, Conner could give teams including Wilkes-Barre, problems in the East Division.

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Norfolk / Anaheim

Re-signed G Igor Bobkov and signed Jason Labarbera. Labarbera, 47 on the big board, is a veteran netminder, underrated and should help stabilize things for Norfolk in net.

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Syracuse / Tampa Bay

Re-signed Mike Angelidis. Angelidis has been the heart and soul of the Crunch now for a few years.

Mike Blunden. A bit of a homecoming for Blunden, as he had previously played with the Crunch. Blunden, late of Hamilton, is a power forward coming off 18 goals this year with the Bulldogs.

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Binghamton / Ottawa

Ottawa shipped Jason Spezza to Dallas for prospects. Those prospects are Nick Paul and Alex Guptill.

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Lehigh Valley / Philadelphia

Goaltender Rob Zepp. It was erroneously reported on Twitter that Zepp was headed to Pittsburgh. Zepp comes over from Germany, and has won five titles for his Berlin club. I am more disappointed at all the fun I could have had with the Zepp, if he was heading here, with his name and playing that into punny headlines for the blog.

Blair Jones. A depth forward, 55 on the Big Board, which was a point-a-gamer with Abbotsford last season.

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Departures:

I didn’t link off here. Trust me on these.

Harry Zolnierczyk joined the New York Islanders. The Islanders / Sound Tigers look like the real winners from an AHL perspective because they also picked up ex-Bears goaltender David Leggio and highly ranked Jack Skille as well as top AHL Free Agent TJ Brennan. With pending realignment on the horizon for the AHL, better hope that the Sound Tigers aren’t in the same division as the Penguins this upcoming year.

Penguins to sign elsewhere include Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to Washington, Joe Vitale to Phoenix, Deryk Engelland to Calgary, Jussi Jokinen to Florida, Tanner Glass to the New York Rangers.

Of note, Shavertown product Patrick McGrath re-signed with the Wheeling Nailers.

Oh, also, the 2014 Offseason Moves List has been updated.

Live blog will be back up tomorrow at 8 am Wednesday, and will probably be up all day, as I am traveling to New York City to spend the Fourth of July with my brother and his wife. Depending on travel and relevant moves, I’ll do my best to update the blog at that time. If not, definitely Thursday morning. Latest on Twitter, as always.

Mailing it In; Draft Recap

I wasn’t around Twitter much this weekend, which happened to be the weekend of the NHL Draft in Philadelphia, because family was in and we all went to the local Knoebel’s Amusement park Saturday and spent time together grilling and in the pool Sunday. So my coverage of the NHL Draft this year was nil to non-existent.

Not like I can say with certainty the winners and losers of the draft or even tell you who the players are after the first five picks. The NHL Draft is like the baseball draft, you never know the real winners and losers for another three or more years.

Pittsburgh did a great job of providing a tidy place to go as a one stop shop on all the picks selected. You can have a look here.

Attention turns this week to Free Agency, beginning Tuesday. What we do know is that all pending Unrestricted Free Agents will be allowed to test the open market. For Wilkes-Barre, that’s Brian Gibbons. All restricted guys (Jayson Megna, Bobby Farnham, Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson) are getting offers, But if another, better one comes along, they can walk if Pittsburgh doesn’t match it.

Jonathan’s Big Board is out. It lists the Top 100 and alphabetizes the best of the rest. It’s a must have list for anyone tracking the free agent frenzy with an eye on the AHL.

One other move to note from our friends an hour south on I-81, Washington acquired the rights to goaltender Eddie Pasquale as what could be assumed a backup to Philip Grubauer in Hershey next season. Pasquale was with St. John’s this past year but had season ending surgery in January. He’s also a Restricted Free Agent, so he’ll need to be signed by the Capitals.

I’ll be back Tuesday morning with a live blog of sorts for the start of NHL Free Agency. My plan is a Twitter list of all 5 AHL East Division teams, their NHL parents along with the media that covers the AHL clubs plus bloggers. Also included this year will be Lehigh Valley, the old Adirondack Phantoms. Nothing has been announced with regards to realignment in the AHL yet, but it’s a foregone conclusion that the Phantoms will be in the Division next year.

Short of anyone taking a late jump to Europe, talk to you Tuesday.

The Pick is In

From the great Jesse Marshall, who does a tremendous job ranking these guys I’ve never heard of…

(click to enlarge)

kapanen

Here are other tweets on the kid….

So we will see what develops with this kid. I am always skeptical of kids coming in to play against men at the AHL level. I’m even more skeptical of European players coming over to play in the AHL. Janne Pesonen anyone?

Oh, one more thing. James Neal was traded to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Hornqvist and Spaling were two forwards that played in the NHL last year. So no initial impact on Wilkes-Barre initially. If anything, it’s two roster spaces filled in Pittsburgh meaning that a bubble guy would get bumped back to Wilkes-Barre. A net gain for WBS as we sit here in late June, but we are three months away from action so way too early to tell.

I’ll be back at some point this weekend wrapping up Pittsburgh’s haul here on the blog late Saturday or Sunday.

Preview of Coming Attractions…

So here is what I expect to happen this week…

I blog now about the lack of news on Coal Street (the end of June isn’t exactly the best time for blog clicks) and how there hasn’t been a single Penguin to bolt for overseas and a bunch of other AHL news and comings and goings.

Watch, this week, we will have our first defection. Or not, who knows.

Anyway, there isn’t much out there, but while you are here….

– Pittsburgh still doesn’t have a coach and it doesn’t look like John Hynes will get the job.

– Norfolk needs a new bench boss as Trent Yawney was promoted to Anaheim. This leaves Norfolk and Hershey both looking for head coaches for the Fall in the East Division as it stands now. Lehigh Valley is a lock to join the East come November, but nothing has been finalized on that front yet.

I advocated strongly for Hynes to get the Pittsburgh job, but now want him to stay.

– The following is week old news, but Pittsburgh does plan to qualify restricted Free Agents Bobby Farnham, Brandon Sutter, Jayson Megna, Philip Samuelsson and Simon Despres. Whether one or all re-sign with Pittsburgh remains to be seen.

– It cost the St. John’s IceCaps a ton to lose in five games to the Texas Stars in the Calder Cup Finals. No, literally.

– Developing Penguin Killer Dustin Gazley re-upped with Hershey.

– Wheeling and Pittsburgh already have their schedules for next year. On Wheeling, and the ECHL, they announced divisional realignment and a bunch of other things including hybrid icing Tuesday.

– NHL Draft is this weekend from Philadelphia and Free Agency starts July 1.

On the draft, I’ll have a recap of who Pittsburgh drafted probably this weekend. My “recap” is basically links to those who have heard of the players selected. On Free Agency, I haven’t decided what I am going to do for that, probably a live blog of sorts like I have in years past along with blog updates as long as long as the situation warrants.

See you tomorrow when the first Penguin bolts overseas to Yikhalvisk Nihmkahbortchalfski of the Borat League because I jinxed it.

West is Best, Again

They have been the Category Five Hurricane since January.

The Texas Stars are the Calder Cup Champions, knocking out the St. John’s IceCaps in five games. The Stars won three games in overtime with Travis Morin netting the two game winning goals in Games 3 and 4 and Patrick Nemeth clinching the title for the Stars in Game 5.

Morin was named MVP.

Ex-Penguins Dustin Jeffrey and Toby Petersen will have their names etched on the Calder Cup this Summer.

Debated, had Wilkes-Barre made it to the Finals, how I would pick the series had it been Wilkes-Barre and Texas. Initial thought was Texas in 5. Heart said Pens in seven. Sadly, I never got to write that preview.

We’ll have our day.

Anyway, Jonathan had his Season in Review broken into parts: Highlights / Graduates / Quotable / Stock Up / Stock Down / Rookies – really worth your time to read.

Hasn’t been much else. WBS has been running a Top 10 Goals of the Year all over their social media platforms. The Gibbons Drop Pass to Conner early in the season, the Gibbons Goal in Game 7 vs. Providence, the Kobasew Goal from “The Shift” and the Zach Sill goal with 15.8 seconds left in Game 5 vs. St. John’s all got my vote.

Nothing on the Europe wire yet. Expect the first shoe to drop any day and then the domino effect to follow after that.

John Hynes interviewed for the Pittsburgh job Monday, according to Mark Divver. I’d expect an announcement from Pittsburgh within days.

That’ll probably be my next blog update. My money is on Hynes. We’ll see.

Keep cool.

An Offseason of Change?

By now you’ve heard of the changes in Pittsburgh. Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma are out, Jim Rutherford is in, leaving a vacancy at the head coaching position.

Rutherford rode into Pittsburgh this past Friday and immediately terminated Bylsma. “Change” was a word that was tossed around. Rutherford has a short list of head coaching candidates that he was going to interview and wants to have someone installed by the end of the month, ideally.

One of those names, is the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins, John Hynes.

It is a matter of time before John Hynes will be a head coach in the NHL. He’s too good of a coach at the AHL level not to be.

For those scoffing at the idea of Hynes getting the keys to the Pittsburgh Penguins, citing him unproven, I offer this: Using the inference that the AHL is a breeding ground for players, coaches and staff, Hynes has proven himself more than capable. He’s piloted the AHL Penguins to the Eastern Conference Finals amid roster turnover and juggling a lineup eviscerated by injuries at the NHL level at a non-stop pace for two straight seasons.

Hynes expects a lot from his players. He holds his players accountable. Worried that Hynes would be Dan Bylsma Lite? Ask ex-Penguin Joe Morrow. Morrow, as you’ll recall, was traded to Dallas last year. He said on his way out the door that he was “nit picked.” Now here is Morrow, a high profile name out of the WHL, given no preferential treatment at the next level and broken down and built back up by Hynes and his staff.

Telling a rookie out of the Western Hockey League what to do in his own zone and holding him accountable is a bit different than telling Sidney Crosby what to do and how to do it, but if Pittsburgh wants a new direction, why not Hynes?

By no means am I forcing John Hynes out the door. Hell, selfishly, I hope Hynes stays the coach in Wilkes-Barre for years to come.

But that’s not how things operate in the AHL, it’s not just a developmental league for the players.

2013-14 Year in Review

Let’s pretend for a second that we pass each other on the street in Rockford, Illinois on a late September afternoon. You are a diehard fan of the Rockford IceHogs, the proud AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks. What would you say if I told you, right there in the streets of Rockford, that the IceHogs would make the playoffs and that they would be one of the four best teams left in the playoffs in late May / early June.

To add to that, let’s say that I guarantee that not one, but two IceHogs goaltenders would win the AHL Goaltender of the Month Award and that two virtual unknown players would go on to the Blackhawks and have an immediate impact at the next level.

Do you take it?

Of course you do. You would be considered irrational otherwise.

For the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins, that fantasy was a reality played out in the 2013-14 season. Not just this season, but last season too.

This years version of the Penguins amassed 92 points and a record of 42-26-3-5 and finished second in the East Division, four points behind the champion Binghamton Senators and was a six seed, getting passed by the Albany Devils in the final days of the season.

The campaign kicked off in Bridgeport on October 5, a 5-2 Wilkes-Barre win. A guy by the name of Chris Conner scored two goals in that contest, one where the Penguins scored two goals in :11 to cruise to victory. Scoring goals in the third period would become a theme early in the season.

Early on, the Penguins goaltending carousel started to spin. Peter Mannino was sent to Wheeling. Then he was recalled again all within the span of days.

The Penguins opened up their home campaign against their biggest rival, the Hershey Bears, and won that contest 3-1, using another third period where they scored multiple goals.

The Penguins jumped out of the gate in October winning their first six games and were off to a fantastic start.

November would begin with a home and home sweep of the Hershey Bears, then three straight losses to Syracuse, Albany and Springfield.

We saw the first NHL call up of Brian Gibbons’ career. It was also Eric Hartzell’s time to shine as well, as he would go on to endear himself to Penguins fans with a 5-2 win in his debut against the St. John’s IceCaps, then later with a 25 save shutout against the B-Sens.

With the Hartzell recall, that Wilkes-Barre goaltending carousel that I mentioned earlier was fully spinning. Peter Mannino was assigned to Wheeling and fails to report, which results in his suspension from the team.

Despite the personnel turnovers and turmoil, the Penguins manage a 6-4-1-1 record.

The organizational injury bug was alive in the month of December. The Pens managed a 5-4-1 record. It was an up and down month.

My first 2014 entry here on the blog would involve the end of Chris Conner’s tenure with the Penguins.

The Binghamton Senators were a streaky team this season. The Penguins ended their seven game winning streak with an “all hands on deck” performance. Brian Gibbons would get nominated to the All-Star team. Just when you thought that bodies were healing, they weren’t. More call-ups.

Philip Samuelsson would be named AHL Player of the Week after a Providence-Portland-Providence weekend New England trip.

Back on the ice, Jeff Deslauriers and John Gibson would fight at center ice in Norfolk. The very next night, the Penguins would earn a shootout win over ex-Penguin Brad Thiessen. This night would also see a scary incident involving Norfolk defenseman Nolan Yonkman’s skate and Zach Sill’s wrist, which would sideline Sill for the immediate future.

For as great as January was for the Penguins, capped off with Eric Hartzell winning Goaltender of the Month, February was the exact opposite.

We’d begin by saying goodbye to Paul Thompson and say hello to Spencer Machacek. Brian Gibbons would assist twice in the All-Star Classic as the AHL All-Stars would romp Farjestad BK by a score of 7-2.

February was a really forgettable month for the Penguins, as injuries would finally start catching up to them. There was a span there that the Pens would lose six straight games; to Hershey three times, Binghamton twice and Providence once. We were scoreboard watching one Sunday Evening, as the Penguins were a point out of the playoffs. They finally broke the six game losing streak by scoring six goals against the Hershey Bears. The fifteenth season would also have Wilkes-Barre induct a trio into its first ever Hall of Fame.

March came, and that is what the Penguins did; straight into solid playoff contention.

It started with the NHL trade deadline and the arrival of a guy by the name of Chuck Kobasew. Binghamton walked away winners in the deadline day dealings which solidified their pursuit of an East Division Championship.

The AHL trade deadline followed shortly afterwards and the news that the Penguins had signed an undrafted kid by the name of Conor Sheary.

I doubted at the time the effect that Kobasew and Sheary would have on the Penguins organization. I could not have been more wrong in my assumptions as Kobasew scored at nearly a point a game and Sheary emerged as a diamond in the rough that became a household name.

On the ice, the Pens went 9-2-1, with a five game winning streak and a sweep of the Norfolk Admirals in Virginia.

Peter Mannino, the prodigal son of the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins, had a huge hand in the big month for the organization, and he was rewarded for his efforts by being named AHL Goaltender of the Month on April 1.

The Penguins, seemingly firing on all cylinders but for a 6-2 whooping the Binghamton Senators put on them on April 6, quickly sewed up their twelfth consecutive trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 win over those same Senators a week later.

It would be Binghamton, surprisingly, that the Penguins would face in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. After dressing a lineup of the future, with all of the veteran big name players given the night off in the final game of the season in Utica, the Penguins were on to face the East Division Champion B-Sens.

Same song, different verse. Like last year, the Penguins dismissed the Senators in the first round. Unlike last year Binghamton got a victory, in overtime, to avoid the sweep. But the Penguins used the newly found home ice to their advantage and won Games 3 and 4 at home.

Same song again, different verse…again. Up next were the Providence Bruins. After splitting a pair of games at home, the Pens took control of the series with Simon Despres’ double overtime game winning goal in Game 3. Oh, but the Bruins battled to the bitter end, literally. Scoring with .6 left in regulation to tie Game 4 and going on and winning in overtime, the Pens would battle back to win Game 5 and a wild and crazy Game 7, which almost ended up a disaster for Wilkes-Barre, who were up 5-0 at one point only to scrape by and eliminate the Bruins for the second straight year by a score of 5-4.

It was on to St. John’s for the Conference Championship. Splitting a pair on the Rock, then losing two straight at home, Zach Sill’s goal with 15.8 seconds left in Game 5 would hold up as the game winner as the Penguins would force a Game 6, only to be shutout by St. John’s 5-0 to see their season and quest for their first ever Calder Cup Championship come to an end.

So closes the chapter of the 15th season of Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins hockey. Soon, a new chapter will have begun to be written. Some of the outline has already been completed, with team captain Tom Kostopoulos already signing a contract for the 2014-15 campaign.

Familiar names will most likely either graduate to the NHL full time, either with Pittsburgh or some other team. Others may find work with another AHL team or in Europe.

There will be a refresh of talent headed to Coal Street in the Fall. We’ve gotten a taste of the talent of Conor Sheary, guys like Josh Archibald and Matt Murray can bring. Regular names like Tom Kuhnhackl, Eric Hartzell and Anton Zlobin will be back next year, better than ever. Couple this with additions during the offseason who will view Wilkes-Barre as a premier destination for their hockey playing career and the future is once again bright for the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins.

If you knock on the door of success enough times, someone is bound to answer. The Penguins have been knocking for twelve years now. The knocking became louder in the past two seasons with consecutive trips to the Conference Finals. As long as they keep knocking and continue to go all the right things, someone will answer, someday.

Let’s Go Pens!!!

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