Chirps from Center Ice

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

Boil Your Water on Two — A 2018-19 Autopsy

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.

Division Opponents

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.

Coaching

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.

Special Teams 

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.

Player Personnel

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.

Management

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.

The Future

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.

On a Winning Note — Pens WIN 5-2

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The goal for any hockey club is to win the last game of the season.

The Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins did that Sunday afternoon, 5-2 over the Binghamton Devils. Sadly, they don’t qualify for a playoff berth and that’s all she wrote on the season.

Clark Donatelli put a lineup out Sunday that looked like this:

Felt like a preseason game with all of the rookies, unheard of kids and Wheeling guys in the lineup, but it was the fourth line of the Penguins that did the most damage Sunday with Cedric Lacroix scoring a pair of goals in the Penguins win. Nice win for 6’6 Matt O’Connor and the ATO guys continue to look promising.

Binghamton jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first when Ryan Schmelzer deflected a Nick Lappiun shot that gave the Devils a 1-0 lead.

Penguins trailed at the end of the first and after a zamboni breakdown in the first intermission that delayed the start of the second period by ten minutes when it was decided to simply skate on the ice from the first period, the Penguins offense roared to life.

Sam Lafferty kept it on a two on one rush and the Penguins tied it at one…

Then Cedric Lacroix stepped in to a Binghamton clear, took it in deep fired and scored his first AHL goal to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead.

Seconds after, Sam Miletic scored to make it 3-1.

To add to a long period, referees Beau Halkidis and Matt Menniti took a long look at a Binghamton would be goal that lasted well over five minutes. After the lengthy review it was deemed to be no goal and play continued.

Penguins scored three times in the span of 3:25 in the second period and capitalized on Binghamtion’s mistakes.

In the third, Jake Lucchini added a power play goal which made it 4-1.

Then Yushi Hirano, the first ever Japanese skater to play in the AHL, put a shot on that Lacroix was there to put the Pens ahead 5-1.

John Ramage added a power play goal for Binghamton that made it 5-2.

And that was all she wrote.

They will end the season in sixth place, a 36-30-7-3 record, good for 82 points. That is five off of Providence for the last playoff spot which was already decided on Friday. Lehigh Valley won five straight games to close out their season and get fifth place.

Video highlights….

It ended a lot sooner than we would have liked, but this concludes yet another season of blogging up this team, my first where playoffs do not occur. It’s been fun, as always and my pleasure to bring you my insights of this team from Northeastern Pennsylvania. Thank you for engaging with me on Twitter, Facebook, in person or e-mail.

I’ll be by Monday with my autopsy of the team and season, then Tuesday I will have the final AHL Power Rankings. Wednesday I will preview the Calder Cup Playoffs all the way to the Finals. Maybe I will come back in June to see how right or wrong I was.

And of course, most important, I will have my thoughts on the lease goings on between the Arena and the Penguins. I joked with a few people today that the main hangup on lease negotiations is who pays for the badly needed two zambonis.

Thanks again for reading, have a great summer and Let’s Go Pens!

RAPID RECAP – Pens WIN 5-2

These kids are alright.

Basically a lineup of ATOs mixed in with regulars from Wbeeling, the Penguins conclude their 2018-19 season with a 5-2 win over the Binghamton Devils Sunday afternoon.

Cedric Lacroix scored a pair of goals. Pens got three quick ones in about 3:25 in the second.

More in a bit.

GAMEDAY: vs. Binghamton 4/14

 

vs.  

Who: Binghamton Devils

 Where: Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza

When: 3:05 p.m.

Last Game: Last night int home vs. Bridgeport, the Pens lost 5-2. Sam Lafferty and Ben Sexton scored goals in the loss. For Binghamton, the Devils hosted the Laval Rocket and lost in overtime 4-3. John Quenneville and Blake Pietila both had a goal and an assist in the loss.

Last Meeting: April 5 in Wilkes-Barre, the Penguins shutout the Devils 4-0. John Muse had a 33 save shutout. Sam Lafferty had a goal and an assist.

Record: For WBS: 35-30-7-3 (80 pts., 6th place Atlantic Division) // For BNG: 28-40-7-0 (63 pts., 8th place North Division)

Referees: Beau Halkidis / Mathieu Menniti

Linesmen: Ryan Knapp / J.P. Waleski

Why You Should Care: Last game of the season for both clubs who won’t make postseason, so it is important to go into the summer on a winning note. Which team will it be?

Listen: Nick Hart on the call on WILK.

Watch: AHLTV is new and improved and a lot cheaper.

Promotion(s): KIDS FREE SUNDAY– It’s the final game of the regular season, as the Penguins host the Devils on Sunday afternoon.  Kids ages 14 and younger can get in for FREE with a paid adult admission.  And stick around after the game to take part in our FREE postgame skating session (bring your own skates).*

* – promo information credit to http://www.wbspenguins.com/promo-schedule/

Young Tigers Lose to Paid Ones — Pens LOSE 5-2

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They dressed a youthful lineup tonight and, but for a :26 span in the the third period, were staying step for step with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers who win tonight 5-2 to secure home ice over the Hershey Bears in their first round playoff series that opens late next week.

Here is how they actually lined up:

Guys like Ryan Haggerty, Adam Johnson and Joseph Cramarossa were given the night off up front. Jeff Taylor and Tim Erixon on defense. Alex D’Orio, who is the future of the franchise in goal, got a start.

Fan Appreciation Night started with some awards.

– Defensive player of the year: Jarrett Burton
– Media Award: Kevin Czuczman
– Rookie of the Year: Sam Lafferty
– Three Stars Award: Ryan Haggerty
– Community Service: Chris Summers
– Ethan Prow picked up his award for being named to the second team all star squad.
– Fan Favorite: Tristan Jarry (absent) Andy Chiodo accepted on his behalf.
– MVP: Tristan Jarry

Can’t argue with Rookie or MVP. Blueger was probably in the mix, but Jarry got the Pens close when Blueger was already up in Pittsburgh.

Wilkes-Barre got the jump 1:07 in when Ben Sexton scored to give the Pens a 1-0 lead.

Steve Bernier was the last to deflect a shot from the point that beat D’Orio on a power play and it was tied.

Patrick McGrath had a dangerous head contact with the elbow on Captain Ben Holmstrom. Holmstorm was clearly disoriented and needed help off the ice and didn’t return. McGrath was ejected and had to fight Kiefer Bellows. Bellows was given an instigating penalty.

A lot of stuff I don’t agree with here but lets start with the instigator. Your captain just got blindsided, is flopping on the ice wondering what year it is, and you expect Bellows to just stand there, top McGrath on the shin pads and say nice hit? Gross over officiating by Peter MacDougall and Carter Sandlak in that regard. They were fine the rest of the game, but that over reach didn’t sit well with me.

Mitch Vande Sompel finished off a one timer low near side on a two man advantage that gave Bridgeport a 2-1 lead.

Jake Lucchini finished off a nice pass by Sam Lafferty on a power play to tie the game at two.

Otto Koivula got lost on transition and scored to give Bridgeport the 3-2 lead.

Alex D’Orio, for what it’s worth, played a good game. Give him a summer working under Andy Chiodo and the Pittsburgh brass and we have another goaltending stud coming through Wilkes-Barre.

Jon Lizotte had three shots as the Pens had the Sound Tigers pinned deep but couldn’t score. That was their best chance to tie it because Oliver Wahlstrom walked three defenders and leaked one past D’Orio to give the Sound Tigers a 4-2 lead. Vande Sompel made it 5-2 :26 later.

Here’s the Wahlstrom goal.

That was it. Bridgeport clinches home ice with Hershey in the first round.

Here are your three stars:

Also this,

I have stayed mum here on the blog regarding ongoing Arena negotiations. They have a confidentiality agreement in place. Anyone who thinks they know anything does not know anything. This is a bit of an empty announcement that doesn’t hold much of anything, but it’s something. Hopefully soon. My season tickets should be paid off for next year already.

Video highlights below.

They are back at it again Sunday afternoon with Binghamton in the regular series finale. Gameday setup is yours Sunday morning at 11.

Let’s Go Pens!

RAPID RECAP – Pens LOSE 5-2

They dressed an inexperienced lineup, started Alex D’Orio in goal and stayed in it late until the Sound Tigers rattled off two goals quick to win this game going away 5-2.

More in a bit.

GAMEDAY: vs. Bridgeport 4/13

 

vs.  

Who: Bridgeport Sound Tigers

 Where: Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza

When: 7:05 p.m.

Last Game: Last night in Utica, the Pens lost 8-1. Jarrett Burton scored the only goal for the Pens in the loss. For Bridgeport, the Sound Tigers were defeated in Springfield 7-2. Travis St. Denis and Sebastian Aho scored the goals for the Sound Tigers in the loss.

Last Meeting: Tuesday April 2 in a kids school day game in Bridgeport, the Penguins won 3-1. Ryan Haggerty had a pair of goals.

Record: For WBS: 35-29-7-3 (80 pts., 6th place Atlantic Division) // For BRI: 42-24-6-3 (93 pts., 2nd place Atlantic Division)

Referees: Carter Sandlak / Peter MacDougall

Linesmen: Tom DellaFranco / Bob Goodman

Why You Should Care: Both teams will be looking for better efforts coming off last nights results so expect a better contested game tonight from both teams.

Listen: Nick Hart on the call on WILK.

Watch: AHLTV is new and improved and a lot cheaper. Also, the game will be televised locally on WBRE-NBC.

Promotion(s): McDONALD’S FAN APPRECIATION NIGHT – We’ll have giveaways galore on McDonald’s Fan Appreciation night, when we host the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.  Everyone through the doors receives a scratch off card, good for prizes or discounts from local merchants.  Arrive early to watch the Penguins pregame awards ceremony.  And stick around afterward for the jersey off the players’ backs presentations.*

Remaining Game: vs. BNG 4/14

* – promo information credit to http://www.wbspenguins.com/promo-schedule/