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Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Continue to Thrive As Second Half Begins

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Forward Dustin Jeffrey ranks fifth in the American Hockey League with 43 points (13G-30A) through Friday.

Credit - Getty Images
During the 2007-08 campaign the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins made it all the way to the Calder Cup Final, mirroring their parent squad in Pittsburgh, who at the time was competing for the Stanley Cup.

Two years later the WBS Penguins are once again following the lead of Pittsburgh by overcoming numerous first-half injuries to compete for a top spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Heading into Friday’s road contest against the Syracuse Crunch, the Penguins have posted an overall record of 20-20-2, tying them with the Adirondack Phantoms for third place in the East Division. Such success is more impressive when you factor in the Penguins lost four of their top five leading scorers from last year, saw roughly one-third of their lineup injured or recalled to Pittsburgh and have broken eight rookies into the lineup.

Among the players who have missed significant action are Ryan Bayda, Chris Conner, Keven Veilleux and Nick Johnson. In addition, nine Penguins have already seen NHL duty, including a stretch in mid-November when the entire top-four defensive core of Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland, Nate Guenin and Chris Lee were gone at the same time.

Head coach Todd Reirden, who is in his first full season behind the bench after replacing Dan Bylsma when the latter was promoted to Pittsburgh on Feb. 15 of last season, believes his squad has benefited from the injuries and call ups.

“Up front, we were in a situation where we didn’t have … six forwards who projected among our top-nine,” Reirden said. “We went through a period where we didn’t have those guys so other players were put into situations – whether it be on the power play or first-line duty – where they were asked to develop quickly as first-year players. 

“I think that is very valuable experience. We have had a lot of growth both with our young players and with our older players in terms of having different roles and responsibilities on our team.”

Veteran offseason additions Bayda and Conner, who both saw NHL duty last season with the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars, respectively, combining to appear in only 39 games, second-year forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Luca Caputi have stepped up to assume larger roles.

Caputi, a power forward prospect who projects to play top-line minutes at the NHL level, is tied for the team lead with 13 goals despite spending two weeks with the parent club (where he notched a goal and an assist in four games) at the beginning of this month. A net-front presence with soft hands around the cage, Caputi leads the Penguins with seven power-play goals.

Eric Tangradi has picked up nine goals and eight assists in 34 games as a rookie with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Credit - Getty Images
“Luca Caputi’s strength is below the goal line and maintaining offensive-zone time,” Reirden said. “He continues to improve his consistency on a night-in, night-out basis. That is something he has added this year.

“He is on the right track, for sure.”

Jeffrey, who dressed for the NHL Penguins on Thursday night against the Washington Capitals but has subsequently been returned to WBS, has developed from checking-line center to the No. 5 leading scorer in the entire American Hockey League with 43 points (13G-30A) in 39 games.

“We were hoping to get more offensive production from him this year,” Reirden said. “We had to ask him to assume this role without sacrificing how he plays on the defensive side of the puck – which is his strength. Thus far he has met that challenge and he has been rewarded for that.”

His improvement was rewarded with his selection as one of the starters for the Canadian squad at the AHL All-Star Game Tuesday night. Jeffrey posted a goal and two helpers in that contest.

Jeffrey has also met the recent challenge of a position change. In an effort to get more offense from his squad, Reirden moved Jeffrey to the left wing on a line with Mark Letestu and Johnson.

WBS carried a 13-13-2 record before combining the three. They went 7-3 over their next 10 games with their new top line.

“With Mark Letestu and Nick Johnson – they were two guys who had success playing together at the end of last year,” Reirden said. “They had some chemistry right away. Ryan Bayda started with them and he got hurt and so did Johnson, so we were never able to really get them back together.

“It takes Dustin out of his natural position but it also gives him valuable experience to grow on. Any time you have the versatility to play a number of different positions I think that definitely helps you. It helps your value to an organization.”

While all of the veterans have quickly taken to advanced roles, two of the rookies who have adapted to the pace of the professional game are Eric Tangradi and Joe Vitale.

Tangradi (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) has the skills and body to become a great goal scorer when he reaches the NHL. The Philadelphia native came to the Penguins organization last February along with Chris Kunitz in the trade which sent Ryan Whitney to Anaheim.

Tangradi has worked back from a serious forearm injury he suffered in the postseason last spring with Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League to become an improving scoring threat while learning the professional game in mostly a third-line role. He has posted 17 points (9G-8A) in 34 contests while becoming more consistent with each passing game.

“There are lots of nights when Eric shows us there is no question he can play in the National Hockey League,” Reirden said. “He just needs to continue to add consistency on a nightly basis. There are some nights where he is the best player on our team.

“He is working hard every day in practice. He has a great set of tools to work with. He is an exciting player to work with every day.”

Vitale, who spent the past four seasons with Northeastern University where he served as team captain, has played well beyond his years centering a line with Tangradi and Tim Wallace. Although he has picked up 18 points (3G-15A) in 39 games, Vitale’s ticket to the NHL is all the little things he adds to a team.

“He adds a lot of speed to your lineup,” Reirden said. “He is one of top faceoff guys. He takes our big faceoffs most of the game. He has done a nice job.
Rookie Joe Vitale has emerged as the top faceoff man for head coach Todd Reirden.
Credit - Getty Images

“He adds an energy and a compete level. He is very consistent with what he brings to the table.”

While Tangradi and Vitale have stepped in to contribute as rookies offensively, a pair of first-year blueliners, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo, have made quite an impression on the back line.

Strait, a Boston University product, is a former third-round selection in 2006 who made the jump to the professional ranks despite having one season of college eligibility remaining. If the first half of the season is any indication, Strait made the right call.

In 41 games he has picked up eight points (1G-7A) while, most impressively, leading all WBS defenders with a plus-5 rating. A tremendous skater, Strait (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) is a classic stay-at-home presence who plays sound positional hockey.

“I have been very happy with Brian’s development,” Reirden said. “He does a great job of penalty killing and he plays a shutdown role. He plays against one of the other team’s top-two lines every night. I have been very happy with his adjustment thus far.”

Bortuzzo (6-foot-4, 212 pounds), whose forte is his ability to use his size in the corners and to clear the front of the cage, has been equally as impressive. He has also picked up eight points (1G-7A) in 41 games.

Just like with his forwards, Reirden finds the added ice time players like Strait and Bortuzzo have received as beneficial to their development.

“At one time we had our top-four defensemen all in Pittsburgh and these two were able to get great experience because they were our go-to, shutdown defensemen,” Reirden said. “For any first-year pro to go through that experience is extremely valuable for them as the year progresses.”



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