WBS Penguins Finalize Coaching Staff

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have hired Tim Army as an assistant coach for the 2017-2018 season, finalizing their coaching staff for the season.

The 54 year old coach brings a wealth of experience, with 15 years as an NHL assistant. Most recently serving an assistant coach for the past 6 seasons at the Colorado Avalanche, Army has been coaching since 1987, serving as an assistant and head coach at Providence College as well as spending 3 years as the head coach of the Portland Pirates from 2002 to 2005.

Some WBS fans may recognize the surname Army for other reasons, as Tim’s son, Derek appeared in 13 games for the Baby Penguins in 2015-16 on loan from the Wheeling Nailers, where he was contracted for the last 3 years before earning an AHL contract with Milwaukee.

The hiring of Tim Army completes the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coaching staff with Clark Donatelli returning as head coach fresh off an AHL best 51-20-5 record last year in his first full year coaching the team. This success led to Donatelli being selected to coach the USA U18 National Team in the Ivan Hlinka tournament for the second consecutive year this August.

This year, he got to bring along his WBS assistant JD Forrest, who also returns as an assistant for the 2017-2018 season. Plucked out of the relative obscurity of head coaching an Austrian based junior all-star team funded by Red Bull, Forrest took the lead on the development of some of the younger guys in WBS and was one of the coaches relied upon for development instruction at the Penguins Development Camp that took place in late June/early July.

The vacancy Army filled was created by Chris Taylor returning to head coach the Rochester Americans after spending one year in WBS as an assistant. Replacing Taylor’s experience as an assistant AHL coach with Army’s great breadth of experiences as an NHL, NCAA and AHL coach will only stand to create a stronger AHL coach staff.

Offseason Player Grades: Justin Schultz

2016-17 Regular Season

78 GP, 12 G, 39 A, 51 PTS, +27, 34 PIM

2016-17 Playoffs

21 GP, 4 G, 9 A, 13 PTS, +3, 4 PIM

Player Grade (A+)

Justin Schultz was the hero we needed this season in the absence of Kris Letang. The team needed someone to step up and he was the one to do it. Every game Schultz played smart and hard to keep our zone clear. On top of being a good defender, Schultz also wasn’t afraid to take opportunities up top to create plays and score goals. He is ranked 10th in goals, 4th in assists, and 5th in points for the Penguins’ regular season. He showed up every game and never ceased to amaze everyone.

Season Review/Preview

Schultz continued to step his game up this season and improved greatly from the last. This season was an all time high for games played, goals, assists, points, +/-, and shots. One of Schultz’s biggest highlights was the game tying goal, with a few minutes left, in the third period of game three in the Washington series. Although the game was lost in OT the goal caused a huge decrease in Washington’s morale as the Penguins already had a 2 game lead in the series. Next season, I expect Schultz to be treated with the respect he deserves and see him continuing to average 20 minutes or more of ice time, even with Letang’s return.

Offseason Player Grades: Olli Maatta

Regular Season Stats

GP:55  G:1  A:6  PTS:7  +/-:17  PIM:12

Playoff Stats

GP: 25  G:2  A:6  PTS: 8 +/-:8  PIM:12

Player Grade (B-)

I gave Olli Maatta a B- mainly because his play from game to game was that of a rollercoaster. During the beginning of the year he did not look good, but after his injury he looked a little better. Once the playoffs rolled around was when his rollercoaster effect came into play, but in the playoffs the majority of the games he actually played well in. He showed some great signs of progression and only a few minor lapses in his game. He is only 22 years old and will develop for a few more years.

Review

Maatta became a key factor around the tail end of the playoffs, and more specifically against Ottawa. He scored the opening goal in back to back games and provided the Pens with a much needed spark. Another notable accolade for him would be him taking social media by storm when a picture emerged of how Maatta handled the after effects of the parade.

Preview

I think this next season could very easily be Maatta’s best. His skating has already improved a ton and even though he may not have the speed of Kris Letang, he is still a good skater. I also believe that Sergei Gonchar will be able to fix the little lapses in his game during the offseason, and in turn lead to Olli being a key part of this next season.

Odd Men Out

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a log-jam on defense. As of July 26, just over two months until the 2017-2018 season begins, the Penguins currently have 9 defensemen that could possibly make the roster come October. This begs the question, which defensemen will be left off the team and which will be the odd men out?

The Keepers

To me, there are four defensemen that are absolute locks to be here and playing at the start of the season; Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Ian Cole. Leaving Olli Maatta off this list is somewhat controversial sure but we’ll get to him later. Besides Maatta, this leaves Frank Corrado, Matt Hunwick, Chad Ruhwedel, and Derrick Pouliot all fighting for the remaining three spots.

The Unlikely

It would seem as though that the struggling Corrado and journeyman Chad Ruhwedel are destined to start in the AHL next season. Despite General Manager Jim Rutherford‘s high praise for Ruhwedel at the beginning of free agency, it seems as though the signing of Matt Hunwick has made him more of a depth defensemen than a top 6 guy. Hunwick is known to struggle, though, and has been driving Toronto fans nuts for years; so if he does start to flounder, or the inevitable injury to a defensemen happens, expect Ruhwedel to be the first guy up. Corrado on the other hand…well, who really knows. It seems as if he’s been forgotten over the past few months as free agency continues. Unless he stuns the coaching staff and GM in the preseason, Corrado will probably be heading to Wilkes-Barre for a majority of the season.

Three Men, Two Spots

This leaves us with Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Matt Hunwick, all fighting for the two spots that remain. As I’ve said about Hunwick, I do expect to see him on opening night, that may be in the press box or on the ice, but I just think that Rutherford would not give a three-year deal with an AAV of $2.25 million to someone just to be banished to the minors. Now, if Olli Maatta is still a Penguin by October, then there is absolutely no doubt that he will be starting. Maatta’s game went from amazing to disastrous after a slew of injuries stunted his development. Maatta’s mistakes stand out due to his lack of speed. However, when he’s not getting burned, he is still an outstanding defensemen. Maatta really has transformed his game to become a more complete NHL defensemen since his rookie season, but his speed is still something that plagues him. I personally do not want the Penguins to trade Olli Maatta. He is a great defensemen with a bright future ahead of him. That being said, when looking at the void at third line center and the excess that the Pens have on D…if Rutherford wanted to make a splash and trade for a big name, (which he does not have to), Maatta would almost have to be going the other way.  Finally there is the never-ending conundrum that is Derrick Pouliot. The Pen’s best defensive prospect has struggled ever since he stunned Pittsburgh by scoring his first goal on his first shot. Reported attitude problems and losing the ability to quickly move the puck seemingly overnight have made Pouliot spend a majority of his career in the AHL, despite his overwhelming potential. However, in an interview with The Trib, Rutherford said, “Pouliot finished the season real strong.  We feel he’s going to come in and play,” However, if the Pens were to keep Maatta, then the top 6 would include Letang, Schultz, Dumoulin, Maatta, Cole, and Hunwick. I don’t see where Pouliot fits in. I think the kid deserves a shot and also think that he is probably better than Matt Hunwick is, but again Hunwick’s contract makes it hard for me to think that he’ll be sitting many games. To be quite frank, I do not know what the Pens will do with Pouliot if this same roster is intact. Maybe he’s traded, maybe he spends time at practice and in the press box, maybe he takes Hunwick’s spot, or maybe he’s forced to spend yet another season in Wilkes-Barre.

Only time can tell what will happen to the Penguins Defense come October. No matter what does happen, a healthy Kris Letang makes the Pens defense one to reckon with next year.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Roster Preview: Center

For the second instalment of this series, we’re turning our attention to the center position. I’m going to include JS Dea in this, even though he hasn’t technically been re-signed yet. He has been qualified as an RFA and has no arbitration rights, so he will either be signed or face a year of not playing any hockey whatsoever. We also encounter our first players on AHL only contracts.

Greg McKegg, AHL Experience : 4 Years

McKegg_Panthers_2017

A free agent signing from Tampa Bay who had picked him up on waivers from Florida around the 2017 trade deadline, Greg McKegg, brings a good amount of AHL experience to the Baby Penguins as well as an understanding of what it entails to be a call-up option for the big club. Following the path of many AHL players, McKegg plays a bottom-6 role in the NHL, but when it comes to the AHL, he plays in a scoring role more often than not. He also has some untapped offensive potential, as shown by his junior scoring totals and that he has only just turned 25. Surrounded by the offensive talent in the WBS top-6, McKegg is my pick to surprise a lot of people with his AHL play and may genuinely bring some competition to the 4th line C spot in the NHL. If he spends the entire year in the AHL, I expect him to pot 20 goals, with 25-30 assists.

Teddy Blueger, AHL Experience : 1 Year


Teddy Blugers

We have previously discussed my expectations for Teddy Blueger here, and I cannot state how much of a solid prospect I believe he is. His offensive production was a significant sign of a player who is growing rapidly, and I wouldn’t get too comfortable seeing Blueger in WBS long term. I predict Bluger will pot 10 goals with 35-40 assists while playing as the 2nd line center for much of the year when he is in the AHL.

JS Dea, AHL Experience: 3 Years

Jean-Sebastien-Dea.jpg

Currently an unsigned RFA, Jean-Sébastien Dea has no arbitration rights so he will return to the Penguins. Although he is waiver eligible, I do not expect teams to be queueing up to try and pluck Dea off waivers. While age is on his side at the age of 23, Dea has shown little progress on his offense and has been molded by the Penguins into more of a defensively conscious player than he was coming in from juniors. What Dea does have to his advantage is that he has experience playing on the right wing, so expect to see him get plenty of time out there throughout the season. I expect 20 goals, 20 assists for a full year of AHL play from Dea, but he may see some spot call-up duty depending on how injured the NHL Penguins get up front.

Colin Smith, AHL Experience : 4 Years

AHL: FEB 20 San Antonio Rampage at Lake Erie Monsters

A small but speedy center, Colin Smith is the first of the AHL only signings that we have come across. Previously playing for San Antonio, Toronto, and Lake Erie, Smith has a massive amount of AHL experience for having only just turned 24. His role on WBS is yet to be decided, with McKegg, Blugers, and Dea likely to be ahead of him on the depth chart. While Smith is likely more suited to a scoring role based on his passing ability and his size, he also has a strong enough two-way game in order to play in a bottom-six role. With call-ups, rotations, and form taken into account, I expect to see Smith appear in about 60 games, potting about 15 goals and 30 assists.

Jarrett Burton, AHL Experience: 2 Years

Jarrett Burton

Jarrett Burton split his time between Wheeling and WBS last season after signing his first AHL pro contract. I’d expect more of the same this year. A bottom-6 guy in the AHL, Burton will likely start the year in Wheeling again until call-ups hit Wilkes-Barre and then he’ll slot into the bottom-6 at either wing or center, depending on the need of the team. I expect not a tremendous amount out of Burton this year, hitting 10 goals and 10 assists if he spends about 60 games in the AHL.

Troy Josephs, AHL Experience: Rookie

Troy Josephs


A 7th round pick of the Penguins back in 2013, Troy Josephs signed to an AHL contract at the conclusion of Clarkson University’s season and his senior season. A pretty averagely sized center at 6 foot and 194 pounds, Josephs fits a similar mold to most of the players in WBS in that they skate like the wind and they play a solid 200 foot game. He managed to appear in 13 regular season games and 1 playoff game playing on the 4th line; and given his potential development, he’ll likely start in the AHL and remain there. I expect 10 goals and 15 assists from a full season in the AHL for Josephs.

Riley Bourbonnais, AHL Experience: Rookie


Just signed as I’m writing this article (good timing Riley), Riley Bourbonnais is a center who was playing for Wheeling after the end of RPI’s college season where he was the captain. He then put up 8 points through 10 ECHL games for Wheeling and made an appearance at the NHL Penguins development camp, earning himself an AHL contract. A smaller but skilled forward, Bourbonnais was one of the few bright spots on a pretty abysmal RPI and while he is likely to start in the ECHL, expect to see Bourbonnais make a solid impression in the AHL by the end of the year, probably approaching 0.5 points per game when he does play up for Wilkes-Barre.

Realistic Third Line Center Options

Ever since the news of Nick Bonino’s departure to the Nashville Predators, Penguins fans and media have all been buzzing about who the Penguins new third line center would be.

Right off the bat names such as Matt Duchene, Jordan Staal, and Tyler Bozak were thrown out there with dream scenario trade proposals involving those players coming from every angle of the media.

However, after recent news arose that GM Jim Rutherford is not looking for any of those centers the potential options for the Penguins third line center have slimmed down to a few key options.  These options are all based on the salary budget of 2-3 million dollars that Jim Rutherford told the media.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights, $1 Million

The best replacement to fill all of Bonino’s roles would without a doubt be the young center William Karlsson.  William carries a very low cap hit of $1 million dollars and has one year left on his contract.  He put up 25 points in 82 games which isn’t stellar, but his biggest strength is that he was on the first line penalty kill for the Columbus Blue Jackets this past year.  Karlsson could slot in on the first penalty kill line for the Penguins and fill that third line center void.

Erik Haula, Vegas Golden Knights, $2.75 Million

Arguably the second best and most attainable center would be Erik Haula from the Vegas Golden Knights.  Haula had an alright 2016-2017 season and put up 28 points in 72 games.  He also just got locked into a 3 year deal with an AAV of $2.75 Million dollars.  Haula is a two way player, but his skill set leans a little towards the offensive side.

Adam Lowry, Winnipeg Jets, $1.25 Million

The last player that seems to present himself as a real option, is the big bodied Adam Lowry.  Lowry comes in with a solid 6’5 frame and was able to put up 29 points in 82 games this past year.  Although Lowry did not play penalty kill for the Jets, I can see him developing into someone that can take up penalty kill minutes in Sullivan’s system.

Why would Jim Rutherford Want a Player Only Worth $3 Million or Less?

Penguins fans have been spoiled with the wizardous moves that Jim Rutherford has pulled off during his time in Pittsburgh.  He has acquired so many big name players that to the average fan it would only make sense to go after someone such as Bozak, Duchene, or Staal.

However, to take everything in perspective we need to look at what the Penguins have been able to do over the past few years.  They have turned players into something from almost nothing.

They turned Ian Cole from a 7th defenseman to a top 4 defenseman, they turned Nick Bonino from mediocre to noteworthy, they took Justin Schultz from a scapegoat to an elite defenseman, and they turned a low-end prospect in Brian Dumoulin into a $4.1 million AAV defenseman.

It would make lots of sense for them to look at someone in Bonino’s price range from the 2016-2017 season, which was $1.9 million, and see how they can better that player in their system.

What Would it Take to Get One of These Players?

The two most often thrown out names in traders are the two most unjustified scapegoats in recent Penguins history.  Those two players are Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, and yes I did say unjustified.

Most average fans find it quite easy to place the blame on these two, and most of the time it is undeserved, but that is besides the point.  The Penguins most likely will not deal Maatta, but Pouliot is looking like he could be on the move.

Pouliot looked like he could finally get his chance as a sixth defenseman with the departure of Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, but then Jim Rutherford signed Hunwick to a deal worth $2.25 AAV…and that kind of contract doesn’t seem like he signed him just to trade him.

So it is looking like the Penguins could deal out Pouliot along with picks for any of these centers.  This also means that Haula and Karlsson are much more likely to be the targets, the reason being that Vegas is not a contender and has already made it clear they will move players for young prospects and picks.

Winnipeg on the other hand is a team that can contend for a playoff spot and doesn’t need more defenseman.  So the likely trade would be either Karlsson or Haula coming to Pittsburgh and in return they get Pouliot and picks or just picks.  But obviously this is all just educated speculation as I am not in Jim Rutherford’s head nor do I know what wizardous move he will pull next.

Hunwick An Underrated Find For Penguins

The Penguins definitely lost more firepower than they acquired this offseason. Losing names like Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley due to their seeking of bigger money elsewhere wasn’t an aid to the Penguins chances at a three-peat.

They acquired a few new players via offseason moves and resigned a few of their current free agents to deals. None of the signings were spectacular but the signing of Matt Hunwick, in particular, was one I’m a big fan of.

The Penguins signed Hunwick to a 3-year deal at $2.25 AAV.

To the average hockey fan, many won’t recognize the name and wonder why he got a decent chunk of money. The Penguins, in a big way, needed to find NHL capable defensemen without paying an arm and a leg. Hunwick is a great fit.

Hunwick won’t knock anyone’s socks off with his goal scoring ability, or lack there of, from the blue line. His career high is six, which he did twice. But those two seasons were his first and second full seasons in the NHL. His 19 points last year were his second highest aside from his first NHL season.

He will remind you a lot of Brian Dumoulin in the sense that his lack of offensive scoring prowess is made up by his stellar defense. Much like Dumoulin, Hunwick has good puck moving abilities. Hunwick spent some time on the power play in Toronto last season so he has the ability to run it in a dyer situation.

He thrives as a penalty killing defenseman, something the Penguins wanted to replace in the loss of Daley.

Hunwick’s two most recent seasons in Toronto saw him block a career high shot total as well as his hitting totals went up. He’s not considered a “tenacious” defenseman but he seems to have an edge that if things get out of hand, he’ll have his hand in attempting to fix the problem.

If you watched any of the NHL Playoffs outside of the Penguins last season, specifically the Toronto and Washington first round matchup, there is a case to be made that Hunwick was Toronto’s best and most noticeable defenseman.

On a roster with young defenseman such as Jake Gardiner, Morgan Reilly, and Nikita Zaitsev, the 32-year old Hunwick was the one who had the most solid, all-around performance, earning himself the chance to make some money on the free agent market.

It’s very likely that Hunwick will be on the third defense pairing with Olli Maatta. Guys like Chad Ruhwedel and Derrick Pouliot would be next if the Hunwick experiment doesn’t work out. Both have shown flashes of being capable NHL defenseman which means that Hunwick will need instant production.

Another small tidbit about Hunwick is something that may impress you.

Hunwick’s 1.06 points/60 minutes at even strength were the highest of any defenseman on the roster last season outside of Kris Letang, who we know only played half the season due to injury.

The prime years for Hunwick are trending towards the end, but the Penguins do a fine job of bringing in “afterthought” defenseman (i.e. Justin Schultz) and turning them into very good blue liners. The potential to do the same in this situation is there as long as head coach Mike Sullivan deploys Hunwick in the correct way.

We all know how often Sullivan strikes gold with his new acquisitions. This, likely, will be no different.

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