A lot of people came up to me in the past few days asking me what went wrong with the 2018-19 Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins season. Best explanation I could give each person that came up to me was imagine trying to boil a pot of water on your stove on a setting of two. The water will get warm, borderline hot, you may see a few bubbles here and there but it will never come to a boil.
That’s the best inference I could give you in an attempt to break the season down. The 2018-19 Penguins got warm, in stretches, but never came to a full boil.
What follows below is an autopsy of the 2018-19 Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins season, which will be the first in seventeen years without a postseason appearance.
So let’s dive in, shall we? First, let’s take a look at the teams that were in the Penguins division in order of finishing order.
1) Charlotte Checkers – class of the league all season long, will be odds on favorites for the Calder Cup. They had the division, conference and pretty much the entire league on lockdown for months and anything less than a championship in June will be a disappointment.
2) Bridgeport Sound Tigers – An above average team after the housecleaning in the front office on Long Island last summer. Look at the success that the parent team is experiencing now and how it’s trickling down to the Sound Tigers.
3) Hershey Bears – Started out poorly, reversed course around Christmas, went on a long winning streak in early 2019 and rode that momentum to a playoff berth.
4) Providence Bruins – Consistently good team that is well coached and deep.
5) Lehigh Valley Phantoms – Probably the AHL’s most inconsistent team. They build a lead, and blow it. They go on a winning streak then drop like a stone.
6) Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins – see below
7) Springfield Thunderbirds – started hot, but never changed course and other teams adjusted and moved past the Thunderbirds. I expected them to compete yet after Thanksgiving they were an afterthought.
8) Hartford Wolf Pack – The Rangers are rebuilding and that’s trickled down to their primary affiliate in Hartford. They had flashes, but just couldn’t compete in this division.
Sorry to break it to you, but Clark Donatelli isn’t getting fired. He guided this team through tumult of a season that never really got out of the gates the right way with the way the team was constructed from the start of the season. The Pens played competitive, yet inconsistent hockey and came up short on their bid for a playoff berth for the seventeenth straight season two weeks before the end of the regular season. Donatelli’s faith in and Tristan Jarry’s play in the weeks leading up to the end of the season are to be lauded, not met with a one way ticket out the door to unemployment.
The Penguins finished in the bottom third in power play and penalty kill this season and a lot of those times it was these areas that cost the Penguins points. This all will funnel into my next, most salient point.
Hindsight is a funny thing. Garrett Wilson was the de facto captain in waiting when Tom Kostopoulos announced his retirement late last season. Wilson only played in 18 games for the Penguins this season before getting the call to Pittsburgh where he has been ever since. Thing is, he should have never been named captain or, when the brass on Coal Street knew he was going to be up for the duration a new captain should have been named because this team lacked leadership and in the same breath an identity. Ryan Haggerty would have been my choice to succeed Wilson as the player to wear the “C”
Zach Aston-Reese was a rental player. Pittsburgh wanted him to start the season in Wilkes-Barre to find his game, get his wind back and then they would re-assess. In 11 games he had nine points including a hat trick in his swan song game in a throttling the Sound Tigers laid on the Penguins on November 4.
The same could be said about Teddy Blueger, the Penguins best overall player this season and someone who over ripened on the vine in the AHL and was long overdue for a recall when his came about a month ago.
Players involved in trades in some form or another like J-S Dea, Stefan Elliott, Will O’Neill, Tobias Lindberg, Derek Grant, Troy Josephs and Ryan Horvat were all pretty much dime a dozen fillers that, but for Dea and Grant in a small sample size, never made much of an impact on the team.
Rookies were Sam Lafferty, Sam Miletic, Anthony Angello, Linus Ölund, Matt Abt, Ryan Scarfo, and Cam Brown. Lafferty was head and shoulders the best out of this group in his freshman year. Miletic and Ölund were too inconsistent to be regulars in the lineup and Angello hit a rookie wall and stopped producing in the second half of the season before getting injured. Abt was a guy that made the team out of camp on a tryout and Scarfo and Brown had flashes but never had enough consistency to get excited about.
On regular players, Ethan Prow will be in the NHL soon, possibly as soon as next season. He was named to the AHL’s second all-star team last week. Ryan Haggerty earned himself an NHL contract at the start of the season and was good, Joseph Blandisi came in on a trade for Derek Grant to try and help the offensive punch here in Wilkes-Barre with flashy numbers and had just that, flashy times of brilliance with little or no support staff to take the offensive burden off of him. Adam Johnson will take the path of Teddy Blueger, a guy who got a taste of NHL action but will probably start in the AHL next year, before going up full time at some point during.
Jimmy Hayes and Joseph Cramarossa were veteran hands that didn’t really, but for a push from Hayes late in the season, have much of an impact for the Penguins in the offensive category. Hayes was a painstakingly slow skater and Cramarossa somehow managed to get an NHL contract late in the year by scoring fewer than 20 points in the AHL this season. Gritty heart and soul type players on a team that lacked an identity or anything resembling an offensive punch.
Kevin Czuczman and Chris Summers were OK defensively, Jarrett Burton had another OK year just like Jeff Taylor, Tim Erixon and Macoy Erkamps. Extremely average. Consistent, everyday players, but nothing more than just average. Zach Trotman was higher on the defensive depth chart at the start of the season over Prow but injuries limited his time before healing up and getting the call up to Pittsburgh late in the season.
Thomas DiPauli was injured for pretty much the entire season and only appeared in 29 games. The Penguins were a better team with him in the lineup. Other guys came and went on the injury list, but DiPauli’s absence was the most missed as he was an integral part of the team when he was on the ice.
Everyone else were pretty much fillers, support guys who either came in on trades or were here up from Wheeling. Blake Siebenaler, Chris Wideman, and a bunch of other guys that made little to no impact. Patrick McGrath is a local favorite who played in 24 contests, but is a one trick pony who fights. With the league cracking down on players like McGrath, what is his future, really?
The Anthony Peters experiment was a disaster this season. He had a good season for the Penguins last year, but due to the fact that Wilkes-Barre basically plucked him from ECHL Cincinnati last year when the team was dealing with injuries to goaltenders, the Penguins could not send Peters back to the ECHL because he would have went to the Cyclones, not Wilkes-Barre’s ECHL affiliate in Wheeling. The Nailers and Cyclones play in the same division. After starting out this season OK, Peters would start getting shelled in games and hasn’t appeared in net for the Pens since February 9, with his last win coming December 8 against the Sound Tigers. All the while John Muse, signed to an NHL deal in July, ended up the odd man out going to the Nailers and got shelled in games down there before the Pens decided to uncharacteristically carry three goaltenders in the final two months of the season.
Tristan Jarry was this teams MVP, just on the sheer fact that in 47 games played this season he got the Penguins to within two weeks of possibly making playoffs before being recalled in the final week of the regular season. John Muse played in just ten games. Muse was a guy that came off of an excellent season prior with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and ended up getting the shaft because the Pens had to keep Peters around like an unwanted house guest. If I am Muse this week after breakup day, I drive as far away as I can from Wilkes-Barre and never return.
All of the above leads me into my next point.
Bill Guerin built this team. It was a disaster. To be fair, he was handcuffed because the Pittsburgh Penguins won two Stanley Cups in the past three seasons and there wasn’t anything that General Manager Jim Rutherford left for him. Guerin’s gambles with guys like Jimmy Hayes, Joseph Cramarossa and his disaster trades like J-S Dea for Chris Wideman where Dea caught fire and was the Thunderbirds best player down the stretch while Wideman played in just three games for the Pens before suffering a mystery injury was just a long line of decisions made that failed. He will get the benefit of the doubt this season, but he clearly needs to improve this team for 2019-20. Not naming a captain after Wilson departed, Will O’Neill even being considered as a reclamation project from his disaster season with Lehigh Valley last year, Troy Josephs quitting for Europe after getting passed over for lineup fillers were just a few of the many terrible decisions that Guerin made in building and maintaining this team.
You can’t blame Clark Donatelli for this. He can’t get blood from a stone. He tried and got close, but he was handed a clunker of a team that he got maximum miles out of before running out of gas before the finish line. That’s the fault of the general manager, not the head coach.
You got a glimpse of it late in the season with names like Chase Berger, Jake Lucchini, Brandon Hawkins and others. Jordy Bellerive should be here next season. Alex D’Orio will be the real deal based off of what I have seen / what I have read on him. It’s a really good group of rookies coming in who, with solid, sound veteran leadership, can take the Penguins to much better things in 2019-2020.
I do have the faith in the braintrust that they will regroup, finally with the pressure of maintaining one of the longest playoff streaks in North America out the window, and the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins will be back and better than ever in the Fall set to compete for the teams first ever Calder Cup Championship.
Tomorrow I will be here with the AHL Power Rankings.