Some teams take a while to get going and build chemistry.
The Baby Penguins own the month of October. The team soared through the season’s first month with an 8-1 record. Combined with last year’s perfect start, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton owns a 17-1 October record the past two seasons.
However, the winning has not stopped there. The Baby Penguins added to their record with wins over Norfolk and Hartford so far in November.
The team’s hot start could be considered surprising by some, especially since the team began the year with two new coaches and a different roster – including six prospects from a different organization (the Edmonton Oilers).
However, it’s not been a surprise to those who play the games.
“I am not surprised. I think Wilkes-Barre has a great tradition of good teams. We had good teams the three years I was there,” said Penguins forward Max Talbot, who was recalled to Pittsburgh from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Oct. 24. “They have really good players. This year with the addition of Edmonton [prospects], I think it helps a lot. They got some good players from there. There’s a great coaching staff again, two good goalies and good defensemen. The system is really good. So, I am not real surprised they are winning. There are some great prospects down there.”
First-year Baby Penguins head coach Todd Richards is enjoying the team’s positive start.
“I am not surprised at the good start because they had a great team last year and we got a lot of those players back,” he said. “I think the players that we’ve added only make our team better. As a coach coming in, you never know what to expect. There are times going into the year that you think you have good team, but you don’t know until you start playing other teams.”
Yet, Richards knows the season is a marathon and not a sprint.
“We’ve gotten off to a good start, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” he said. “You can be off to a great start like they did last year and lose in the second round of the playoffs. That’s the way it goes.
“You look at the way Edmonton played last year. They just made the playoffs and then go to the Finals. It’s a process. It’s about going on this long journey and dealing with adversity when it arises and coming together as a group and learning about each other. You really have to care for one another. When you have a caring group at the end, hopefully that brings along the success.”
Wilkes-Barre’s players have come together despite the infusion of six prospects (Kyle Brodziak, Rob Schremp, Jeff Deslauriers, Tom Gilbert, Alexei Mikhnov and Marc-Antoine Pouliot) from Edmonton.
“It’s not a big deal. It’s still a team and the goal of a team is to win games,” Talbot said. “All the mix of Edmonton and Pittsburgh is no big deal. Everyone gets along really well and everyone has to perform to go to the next level.”
According to Richards, the biggest issue is juggling playing time.
“It’s been unique,” he said. “The one problem I am having is finding ice time for everyone. That’s been the biggest problem and it’s a good problem to have.”
Overall, the players have adjusted well to Richards and new assistant coach Dan Bylsma.
“Right from when I got down there, the one thing I noticed was the work ethic, which was very similar to last year, I think,” said Penguins defenseman Noah Welch, who was recalled to Pittsburgh on Oct. 23. “Everyone worked hard. Especially early in the season when the chemistry’s not exactly there yet and you’re still learning the systems, I think work ethic alone can win games. I think that’s what happened early on for us.
“The coaching staff is doing a great job preparing the players for each game and it’s trickling down. The guys are doing a good job of trying to bring it every night.”
Richards and Bylsma modeled their systems after Penguins coach Michel Therrien’s approach.
“He did ask that we try to follow his system just to make the transition easier for the players. He didn’t say we had to do it, but I agree with that completely,” Richards said. “For the most part, we do things pretty similar. There might be a couple tweaks here or there than what they do. I think the reason why is, at our level, there are a lot of things we can get away with doing just from the skill level standpoint from the NHL compared to the AHL.”
The results have been successful.
“All the systems are similar. There are a couple minor tweaks here and there, but every game you have to adjust to the opponents,” Welch said. “That’s the other thing I noticed – the coaches have been doing a really good job changing a forecheck or maybe a power play breakout or a penalty kill forecheck to adjust to what the other teams are doing. They are doing a good job. I think we outcoached and outworked a lot of teams when I was there. With that combination, you should have a lot of success.”
Winning has helped ease the transition for Richards and Bylsma.
“The great thing that has made this adjustment and transition between two new coaches who had never really met before is our personalities. We have two very similar personalities,” said Richards, who was an assistant with Milwaukee in the AHL last year. “We’re both very energetic and like to have fun. It is about the work. He is all about that. He’s very intelligent and knows the game and he has a tremendous work ethic. He is passionate about the game and passing on his knowledge to the players. When players see you’re passionate about game, but also making them better and you’re sincere about it, that’s what they want because they want to get better.”
The two enjoy working in the environment of hockey-mad Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“It is a great place to play hockey. I don’t think these players really understand how great it is to live here and play here,” Richards said. “The city is great; the fans are great and very supportive. And the staff here is great with the way they work and the things they do to help the players and coaches out and make our jobs easier.”
Talbot, no stranger to that atmosphere, agrees.
“They are doing really well there and it’s good to see because every day is cool down there,” he said. “It’s really good. It’s so fun to play there. The crowd is always there and it’s always a good atmosphere. The players are treated really well, so you want to go every day and work really hard.”