Minor Distractions - Moving Pieces

Justin K. Aller

The injury bug has been exceptionally virulent this season and the Penguins organization is feeling it at all levels. How has this impacted the lineups in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Wheeling?

Goaltending

Technically the effects of the injury bug can be traced all the way back to before the season even began, as the Pittsburgh Penguins had to keep the presumed Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins starting goaltender Jeff Zatkoff. That set into motion the signing of Jeff Deslauriers to a PTO, a move that proved to be very fortuitous. The other summer acquisition Peter Mannino was injured and missed out on the AHL training camp, so the Baby Pens went into the season with Deslauriers the starter and Eric Hartzell the backup.

The Nailers cannot claim to have the same stability. Their starting goaltender Mike Condon has been a constant since ECHL training camp began, but they have gone through 5 different backups already. They wound up having to start the season with veteran camp invitee Alex Westlund. A week later they had released him and brought back former Nailers starter Peter Delmas. Another week went by and they lost him to the Hamilton Bulldogs and gained Hartzell from WBS. After he was called back up the Nailers then were forced to use their equipment manager Billy Higgins as an emergency backup before acquiring the current backup Mathieu Corbeil from the Utica Comets. He has been with the team for nearly a month, but now Condon has been called up by Hamilton.

Defensemen

They didn't feel the effects of the injury bug quite as keenly along the blue line, though that is mostly due to it being the deepest and most talented position in the organization. Even though they started with injuries right out of NHL training camp, there was still enough depth available that WBS got an unexpected addition of Simon Despres to the lineup, despite the fact that he had graduated to the NHL last season. That's not to say they were unscathed, as Brian Dumoulin, Harrison Ruopp, and Dustin Stevenson all came to AHL training camp injured and Peter Merth got injured early in the season. However, they had 6 healthy D to start the season, so the injuries just meant that players who would normally have begun the season in Wheeling got a shot to play in WBS instead.

The season opener featured Despres with Philip Samuelsson, Brendan Mikkelson with Scott Harrington, and Reid McNeill with Nick D`Agostino. Dumoulin got his first call-up to the NHL in early December. This prompted them to sign Barry Goers from the Nailers to a PTO, and then Samuelsson got called up to the NHL. As of right now they have Harrington with Mikkelson, D`Agostino with Ruopp, and Goers with Stevenson, while McNeill and Merth remain injured. Merth is expected to be out until after Christmas while McNeill is day-to-day.

The Nailers opened the season with 7 D: Goers, Mike Ratchuk, Matt Grassi, Paul Cianfrini, Jake Arashenko, Ryan Blair, and Ryley Miller. Gentry Zollars began the season injured and has yet to return to the lineup. Blair decided to retire from hockey in mid-November and then they then spent a couple weeks making due with just 6 D until they acquired Myles Harvey at the end of November. As of right now they have just 6 healthy D again: Ratchuk, Grassi, Cianfrini, Arashenko, Miller, and Harvey.

Forwards

The forwards were solid to open the season, 14 healthy bodies with everybody that was expected to be returned from Pittsburgh in the lineup and even room to send a couple players down to start the season in Wheeling. The season opened with Andrew Ebbett centering Tom Kuhnhackl and Chris Conner, Nick Drazenovic centering Paul Thompson and Tom Kostopoulos, Brian Gibbons centering Harry Zolnierczyk and Jayson Megna, Zach Sill centering Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and Dominik Uher, Mike Carman and Adam Payerl as healthy scratches, and Bobby Farnham and Anton Zlobin injured.

The first NHL call-up was Zolnierczyk in mid-October followed by Conner, they both returned to WBS after about a week. Upon their return Megna went up and spent 3 weeks in the NHL. After he returned Sill got the next call-up and spent a week in Pittsburgh. During that time, injuries striking their own roster, Gibbons got his first NHL call-up while the Baby Pens received help from Wheeling with Denver Manderson and Cody Sylvester joining the lineup. Sill went back up again not long after returning and was joined by Ebbett. Gibbons returned and WBS got further assistance from Wheeling in Carter Rowney, but then they sent Megna and Conner up to the NHL again. They further bolstered their roster at the beginning of December with the addition of C.J. Severyn on a PTO. They then sent Zolnierczyk up for a 2nd time, got him back a few days later at which time they returned Rowney to the Nailers, and recently have had Gibbons and Zolnierczyk return to the NHL yet again.

The current WBS lineup includes Drazenovic centering Zlobin and Kostopoulos, Carman centering Uher and Thompson, Severyn centering Leblond and Farnham, and Manderson centering Kuhnhackl and Sylvester, while Payerl remains injured long term.

Down in Wheeling they began the season with Zack Torquato, Stephen MacAulay, Scott Zurevinski, Sahir Gill, Ryan Flanigan, Patrick McGrath, Max MacKay, Justin Smith, Jack MacLellan, Denver Manderson, Colin Mulvey, Cody Sylvester, Christiaan Minella, Chaz Johnson, and Carter Rowney while Jordy Trottier began the season injured and has yet to return to the lineup.

Midway through November the released Mulvey and lost MacAulay to recall by Hamilton. The next to go were Manderson and Sylvester to WBS. Rowney went up to WBS at the end of November but returned two weeks later. During that time they added Tyler Fernandez, re-signed Mulvey, and gained Ben Duffy from Hamilton. A week later they lost both Duffy and Zurevinski to Hamilton, acquiring Shane Bakker and Alexandre Carrier. Most recently they saw the return of Rowney from WBS and both Zurevinski and Duffy from Hamilton.

The current Nailers lineup includes Torquato, Rowney, Gill, Johnson, MacKay, Duffy, Zurevinski, Fernandez, Flanigan, Mulvey, Bakker, Carrier, and McGrath. MacLellan, Minella, Smith, and Trottier are injured. With 13 healthy forwards in a league that only dresses 10 per game it means they are actually quite well off despite losing some key AHL contracted players.

Results

Despite the constantly shifting lineups due to injuries and call-ups that have resulted in just 2 players, Harrington and Samuelsson, that have played in all 26 WBS games, the team has continued to play quite well. And Samuelsson now up in Pittsburgh may not be back by the next game this weekend, so it could be down to just 1 player with perfect attendance by the end of the week. The Baby Pens are currently 16-7-1-2 and are still sitting at 1st in the East Division with a 4-point lead over #2 Binghamton. They have fallen to #4 in the Eastern Conference and are currently 4 points out of 2nd, and they are 7th in the entire AHL.

The Nailers have fared better roster-wise with 4 players who have played in all 24 Wheeling games: Torquato, Ratchuk, Johnson, and Grassi. The Nailers have gone 13-6-0-5 and currently have a commanding 10-point lead over Reading for 1st in the Atlantic Division. They are #3 in the Eastern Conference and are 6 point out of 2nd, and they are 5th in the entire ECHL.

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