Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s quest for a Calder Cup championship fell short this season.
Nevertheless, the Baby Penguins’ year is a success.
From its record-setting start, to mass personnel and coaching changes, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton captured the franchise’s first division championship. In addition, the young Baby Penguins continued to mature.
“We’re satisfied with the young players,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “When you look at the big picture, it’s a pretty good season for our young team.”
Therrien started the year as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s head coach. He guided the Baby Penguins to a 21-1-2-1 start and 45 points in the team’s first 25 games in the American Hockey League. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won its first nine games of the season and did not lose a game in regulation until its 24th game. The Baby Penguins also established an AHL road winning streak of 15 games, dating back to April 10 of last season.
“The way that team started, we caused a lot of surprise with having a young team and being to establish an American Hockey League record at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Because the team here [in Pittsburgh] struggled a little bit, there was some movement with the players and coaches. [Wilkes-Barre’s season] didn’t turn out like we were expecting. We were expecting to be a team that got a chance to go to the finals. We wanted to give our young kids the experience of going to the finals. I think that’s a good experience from their standpoint.”
Nevertheless, Therrien and his assistant coach Mike Yeo, along with strength and conditioning coach Stephane Dube and goaltending consultant Gilles Lefebvre, were promoted to Pittsburgh on Dec. 15. Therrien left Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with a 94-81-10 career mark.
“There is piece of my heart over there because I worked there for two and a half years,” he said. “First of all, I like the people there. I like the fans. It’s a great place for hockey. We did some great things over there.”
Penguins assistant coach Joe Mullen replaced Therrien as head coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He was joined by assistant coach Al Sims.
“They did try to follow the same plan. Every coach is going to have his own little recipe and that’s fine,” Therrien said. “That was Joe’s first time as a head coach and it was an adjustment for him. [After the good start to the season,] the pressure was on him. You know, eventually, the good start was not going to stay. We were not expecting to lose just four games during the regular season – there are going to be some ups and downs. There were some ups and downs, but for his first year, we have to say we’re satisfied with what he accomplished given the circumstances that he did not have much experience as a head coach.”
In addition to the coaching change, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s personnel changed dramatically as Matt Hussey, Erik Christensen, Guillaume Lefebvre, Max Talbot, Michel Ouellet, Colby Armstrong, Tomas Surovy, Ryan Whitney, Konstantin Koltsov, Alain Nasreddine, Rob Scuderi, Lasse Pirjeta, Shane Endicott, Noah Welch, Sebastien Caron, Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin all shuffled between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre.
“There was some movement. That team lost some pretty big pieces of that puzzle,” Therrien said. “They lost some guys with some experience in the AHL, too. Down the stretch that probably hurt them. I think those kids learned a lot. They learned how to be winners and got to face adversity.”
Despite all the changes and alterations in team chemistry, the Baby Penguins went on to win their first-ever division title. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton finished with a 51-18-6 record to claim the East Division crown with 113 points – 10 more than Hershey. The Baby Penguins finished two points away from the most points in the AHL this season. Grand Rapids racked up 115 points.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton faced a formidable foe – Bridgeport – in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. The Baby Penguins showed some character, too. After falling behind in the best-of-seven series 2-0, they battled back to tie it. The Sound Tigers went up 3-2, but Wilkes-Barre/Scranton battled back again to claim the last two games and the series.
However, the emotional grind may have been too much for the Baby Penguins. They were swept in the second round by Hershey.
“It was an emotional series. Bridgeport was a good team. The Islanders sent a lot of guys to Bridgeport,” Therrien said. “I saw two of those games against Hershey and we were not sharp at all. We were not playing like a team that is supposed to compete in the playoffs. Maybe, the guys were tired mentally and physically.”
Regardless, Therrien believes the Baby Penguins will remain a top AHL team and continue to churn out solid prospects.
“You compare your young players to different organizations and this is where you can see we’re pretty solid,” he said. “We have some good, young players we are satisfied with. Ryan Stone really did well through the season. [Jonathan] Filewich played well. Maxime Talbot, we have faith in him. [Daniel] Carcillo, we think he could eventually play in the NHL. [The] biggest prospect is Welch. Christensen played well, too.
“In the meantime, we still have some good, young kids here.”