Penguins training camp concluded several months ago.
Yet, don’t blame head coach Michel Therrien if he has some flashbacks of it when he looks around the team’s locker room.
After all, the injury-plagued Penguins have had a lot of new faces shuffled to and from their AHL farm club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the past few weeks. All told, 12 players from WBS have spent time in Pittsburgh this season.
Some have become major contributors, like Kris Letang, Ty Conklin, Tyler Kennedy and Jeff Taffe, while others have chipped in when needed: Tim Brent, Chris Minard, Alain Nasreddine, Nathan Smith, Ryan Stone, Ryan Lannon, Jonathan Filewich and Connor James.
“It feels like training camp,” Therrien said with a laugh. “We’re losing a lot of guys. We have no choice but to call up players.
“It’s a good reward for those young kids who have been playing really well in Wilkes-Barre and the team is doing really well there,” he continued. “It’s an opportunity for a lot of young players to show they are ready to play at the NHL level. They have to take full advantage of it. That’s the way we see it.”
They certainly have seized the opportunity.
Letang has been a regular on the Penguins’ defense. He has eight points (2+6) through 34 games and played well enough in his zone to earn a berth to the NHL YoungStars event. Taffe has three points (2+1 through 19 games. He led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in scoring with 21 points (11+10) when he was recalled to Pittsburgh, but has spent most of his time on the Penguins’ third and fourth lines. Kennedy, also named a YoungStar, had 12 points (8+4) in 21 games with the Penguins before he was sidelined with mononucleosis. Conklin was on fire in the goal for the Penguins. He had a 12-3-2 record and a 2.07 goals-against average in 18 games.
“The guys go up there and the opportunity is there and they’ve knocked down the door. I am speaking more about Tyler Kennedy and Jeff Taffe and Kris Letang and Ty Conklin,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Todd Richards said. “They are just going up there not to have a cup of coffee. They are going up there with the intention of staying there. They’ve done a great job.”
However, it’s no coincidence the players recalled to Pittsburgh are having so much success in the NHL. The teams run similar systems and it’s paid off for the squads as well as the players.
“We’ve been working really closely with our minor league team about the way we play and about the way that we handle every situation. There’s a good communication,” Therrien said. “When those players get called up, they know what to expect in the way we’re playing. So, they don’t have the stress about learning a different system or learning other things. A lot of these guys have spent a lot of time together in the minors. They come here and feel comfortable because they know some of the players and the coaching staff because I coached those guys there. I think it helps.”
Richards and WBS assistant coach Dan Bylsma fully agree.
“We had coaches meetings this summer. Even last year when I came in, I sat down with Michel Therrien and told me it was my call with what we wanted to do here,” Richards said. “He felt the transition for players coming up from Wilkes-Barre into Pittsburgh would be a lot smoother if guys knew what Pittsburgh was doing. So, we wanted to do the same thing. The transition has been great for these guys. I owe the players all the credit. They are the guys that do the work and I have a great staff here as well and they do a great job preparing the guys. “
Despite all the roster changes, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton raced up the East Division standings and was tied for second with 56 points through 46 games played. At one point, the team embarked on a 9-0-1 spree. Much of the success can be placed on rookie goaltenders John Curry and David Brown, who stepped up to fill the void Conklin left when he was called up to Pittsburgh.
“Coming into the season, we knew we had a quality goaltender in Ty Conklin. The one thing I was impressed with about Ty Conklin was how well he handled the puck. With us having a young defense down here, it really took them out of precarious situations,” Richards said. “Now, with Ty going up, my immediate concern was how we were going to handle it with two young goaltenders. First, the pressure of just stopping the puck, but also how was it going to affect our team and our defensemen. The one thing I have found is that those two guys have stepped right in looking for opportunities and done a great job. You can say the same thing about Ty with the way he has stepped in at Pittsburgh and done well.”
In addition, the offense has come alive, spearheaded by Brent, who had 37 points (9+28) through 43 games, and his linemates Kurtis McLean and Minard.
“When Tim first got here, for about the first 20-25 games, was a very average player. He’d have some good games and some not so good games. Just like our record, he was kind of a C player,” Richards said. “There came a point where he elevated his game. When we went 9-0-1 at one point, he and his line of Kurtis McLean and Chris Minard were a big reason why we were having success. They were really contributing in the offensive zone. He’s a very smart player. He knows the game. He is not a highly, highly skilled guy. He can handle the puck, shoot the puck and score goals, but he is just a very smart player, probably more of a defensive-type player, but down here those guys have to contribute offensively as well.”
Overall, the organizational success is a great sign for the Penguins.
“We’re missing some key players, but I like our depth and I like our leadership from the young players. We don’t have much experience. So, we have to compensate with different things. One thing we have to compensate with is our emotion and the second thing is our work ethic. This is what we’re doing,” Therrien said. “One thing I am starting to be pleased and the players should have a lot of respect about is that we’re being recognized as a team that’s working really hard. The players deserve a lot of credit. We work hard a lot game-in and game-out and we’ve had some success. We’re going to make sure we keep doing that.”