It was a difficult season for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Nevertheless, it was another successful one.
Faced with a unique dual affiliation with Pittsburgh and Edmonton in 2006-07 and an entirely new coaching staff, the Penguins were able finish among the AHL’s top teams.
|Head coach Todd Richards, left, and assistant Dan Bylsma have formed a solid partnership behind the bench. KDP Photography |
“We had a great season. When you look at the season overall, we played a lot of young players. At times, we had very few veteran players on our roster, which is normally the key to success at the AHL level,” said Pittsburgh Penguins Assistant GM Chuck Fletcher, who oversees Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “We finished with the third-best record in the AHL and the second-best record in our division and we did it with young prospects. I think we’re proud of that in the sense that we were a true developmental team.”
Head coach Todd Richards and assistant coach Dan Bylsma were able to take two relatively young and inexperienced groups of prospects from different organizations and bring them together as one cohesive and successful unit. The Penguins qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs for the fifth-straight season and were ousted in the second round.
“When you look at the job Todd Richards and Dan Bylsma did molding two groups of prospects into one highly-competitive team, I think we’re quite pleased with how the season developed,” Fletcher said. “They did a great job. Early in the year, they were helped out by some quality character people and veteran players in Alain Nasreddine, Max Talbot, Matt Carkner and players of that ilk. As the season wore on, we lost Nasreddrine, Talbot and Erik Christensen to call ups and the club became much younger and really devoid of some of the leadership we had earlier in the season.
“We not only asked Todd and Dan to coach, but also to provide leadership and probably more direction than what coaches normally provide. There just wasn’t as strong a leadership group in the room probably as what you’d normally have due to how young and inexperienced the players were. I think we’re very pleased with the job Todd and Dan did. We won games and we developed players.”
Edmonton will have its own affiliate in 2007-08, which means Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will feature only Pittsburgh Penguins prospects once again. That also means Fletcher is hard at work finding players to stock the WBS roster.
“There are three steps to the process and I say that because we don’t have a lot of drafted kids turning pro this year. Kris Letang is going to turn pro and he is going to compete for a job in Pittsburgh, so he may be available for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton if he doesn’t make Pittsburgh’s roster,” Fletcher said. “Really, we just don’t have a lot of draft picks that are graduating to pro hockey this year. A lot of them are already in Pittsburgh and we have a lot of kids who are playing college hockey and that’s just the way our system works right now.
“So, in view of that, the first step, which we have already started to implement, is looking at free agents, whether that’s a college free agent like a Mark Letestu that we signed or a junior free agent like an Aaron Boogaard that we signed or European free agents. We’re in talks with a couple kids over there right now. We’re trying to find some younger prospects we can put into the system to continue to grow our talent base.”
Secondly, Fletcher is hoping to secure some talent already on the team.
“The next step is trying to re-sign players that did play in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, a guy like Kurtis McLean for example, who we’ve signed to an AHL contract,” he said. “We will quickly get into contract talks with Micki DuPont, Nolan Schaefer and Connor James, among others. We will try to bring back as many players as we can from that team.”
The final phase is finding players via free agency.
“The third step is waiting until July 1 and pursuing the professional free agents as vigorously as possible. We’re allowed to sign up to five veteran players, so we will have five veteran spots to fill and we’ll look for as many players as we can that teams cut loose,” Fletcher said. “There are plenty of players available; the key is to make the right decisions. We want to have a competitive team that wins games, so we’ll make sure we have solid goaltending and enough quality veteran players. We also want to find as many potential prospects as possible. So the stage we’re in right now is trying to find any free agents that have slipped through the cracks, so to speak. That’s the first part and, really, the exciting part. If we can identify a player or two who hasn’t been drafted, for whatever reason, and we can sign them and put them in our system, it’s like a free draft pick. We’ve tried to do that so far with Letestu and Boogaard. I am confident we will sign a couple more in the next couple weeks.”
While filling out a roster with the right players may be a formidable task, it is an exciting one for Fletcher.
“It is. That’s the challenge of the AHL. It’s a lot like college athletics, where you have a graduating class every year, whether to the NHL or to better opportunities in Europe or with another team. So, every year, you do have to replace a lot of players,” he said. “We have a lot of good draft picks in the pipeline that will eventually make their way to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton over the next two to three seasons. Drafting well is the long-term key to success, not only for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but Pittsburgh as well. With the new rules in the NHL and players becoming free agents so much earlier, we’re forced to really look aggressively at free agents. That’s a part of the program that we are going to pursue very vigorously over the next couple of years. Hopefully, this summer we can uncover a couple of kids who can go to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and play well and eventually become Pittsburgh Penguins.”
In addition, Fletcher is looking forward to overseeing Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in this upcoming season.
“I can’t wait. It will be great. I have a lot of players to sign,” he said. “We’ll have a conditioning camp at the end of June here in Pittsburgh where a lot of players who will be playing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will come in and we’ll be able to evaluate their fitness levels and work them out for a week,” he said. “We’ll bring them back for a rookie camp in September. Now is sort of the fun part. You spend some time where you try to sign some players to help your club, but you also spend time developing players you have and spend time with them and push them in conditioning and off-ice activities to help make them better players.
“We’re looking forward to it. We have a good group of prospects and we have a great coaching and support staff in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and there’s no reason why we can’t be successful every year.”