The Pittsburgh Penguins AHL affiliate Wilkes/Barre-Scranton Penguins were just eliminated from the Calder Cup Playoffs this weekend, losing a massive 7-0 blowout to the Syracuse Crunch and losing the series 4 games to 1. The ECHL affiliate Wheeling Nailers failed to even make the Kelly Cup playoffs. So now that both team's seasons are over, we see the players moving on and preparing for the long summer.
Practice Squad Call-Ups
The first event of note is that the Penguins have officially called up goaltender Jeff Zatkoff as a member of the Pens "Taxi Squad." I like the WBS term "Black Aces" to refer to the players that come up to practice with the team but not play better, but really what they are called doesn't make a difference. I don't really understand the call-up, as Zatkoff had a playoff fallout that makes Fleury look like <insert best goalie of all time here>. In his last 3 playoff games, 2 vs Providence and 1 vs Syracuse, Zatkoff allowed 19 goals in just over 6 periods of play. I'm also not really sure what they are going to do with 4 goalies in practice, since Eric Hartzell already gets very limited exposure.
I would have assumed, and preferred, to see Brad Thiessen getting the call-up to Pittsburgh. He is the playoff leading goaltender (Zatkoff led the regular season) and he played 4 regular season games with the Pens last year, the first two were rather good (22 of 24 for .917 Save % and a W in both games), the 3rd was less good (26 of 30 for .867 Save % but still a W), and the 4th was bad (20 of 28 for .714 Save % and an L), plus in one final game he stepped in to finish off a 3rd period Fleury loss and stopped all 7 shots against him. However, the explanation for why they may have passed on Thiessen can be found in an interview done by the illustrious Jonathan Bombulie today.
"I talked to Thiessen this afternoon. He said he expects to move on in free agency, but he said he thought the same thing at this time last year, so he’s not closing any doors. That seems perfectly reasonable."
"All that said, you’d have to think this is the end of the road for Thiessen and the Penguins. He may have never convinced Pittsburgh’s management that he was NHL caliber, but Thiessen’s legacy with WBS will be a strong one. An 88-49-6 record in the regular season, a team-record 17 shutouts, an AHL goalie of the year award in 2010-11 and a history of stepping up his game in the playoffs, with his 46-save performance in Game 6 against Providence as the clear highlight."
"His career regular season numbers with the Penguins: 2.44 GAA, .907 save percentage. Career playoff numbers: 2.08, .923."
As for why there are no other players moving up to join the Pens to finish out the playoffs, I don't have a good answer for that, but it appears to most likely be due to the fact that the Pens already have 4 forwards and 3 D wasting away as healthy scratches. Maybe I just got spoiled by the Black Aces and I'm not looking at it from a numbers perspective. I don't really see why they wouldn't want to keep some of the guys around to have them practice and get some experience in the system. They are quite obviously not going to play, neither is Zatkoff, but having them practice and get exposed to the playoff atmosphere and the general Pittsburgh experience would be great for their development. I understand, from a monetary perspective it is not feasible, since they would have to pay for some form of room and board for anybody coming to stay in Pittsburgh, even if they stayed in Pittsburgh and didn't travel on the road (flying to Boston would certainly be an unnecessary expense for a player with no chance of playing). But you would think some of them, the ones they have hopes for joining the NHL roster in the future, would benefit from the opportunity.
Contracts and future considerations
With the season over, the Baby Pens had their "Break Up Day" exit interviews today in which the staff and players discuss their performance from the season, strengths and weakness, what needs to be improved, and a general discussion on whether or not the player is in the plans for next season. The Nailers also had their first post-season roster considerations today as they announced their "Protected List" roster. These are players which the Nailers plan to retain their rights and negotiate contracts with for next season, although the current 27-man Protected List needs to be trimmed down to a 20-man Season Ending Roster by June 15th.
The Nailers have listed a number of players on their Protected List that have spent time in WBS over the past two seasons, so I broke down who they are in the comments to another post. However, I felt it pertinent to the topic at hand, so I will include them in this post as well.
Chris Barton - Signed to an ECHL contract with Wheeling, he finished the season with 23 Goals (tied for 1st on the team), 20 Assists (tied for 3rd on the team) and 43 Points (2nd on the team) in just 47 games played, averaging just under a point per game. He was loaned to WBS multiple times over the past 2 seasons, playing in 9 total games, and finished the season as a member of the Black Aces squad.
Cody Chupp - Signed to an AHL contract with WBS, he was assigned to the Nailers due to an overloaded roster during the lockout, and he got injured and missed most of the season. He did play 15 games with WBS last year, but did not join the Black Aces squad this year, presumably because he was not fully recovered from his injuries.
Paul Crowder - Signed to an ECHL contract with Wheeling, he was the Nailers Alternate Captain this year and had been their Captain last season. He was also the Nailers leading scorer (62 Points) and tied for the lead in Goals (23) and with a clear lead in Assists (39) in 68 games, averaging just under a point per game. He was loaned to WBS for a short time this year where he played 2 games, but when the Nailers season ended he was loaned to the AHL's Houston Aeros where he finished out the regular season and joined in their playoff run.
Bobby Farnham - Signed to an AHL contract with WBS, he began the year under an ECHL contract with the Nailers and was loaned to WBS earlier this season, and after a successful tryout they signed him to an AHL contract. He played in 65 regular season games plus 5 playoff games.
Denver Manderson - Signed to an AHL contract with WBS, he got injured in the preseason and upon returning was assigned to the Nailers due to an overloaded roster during the lockout. He only played in 1 game in Wheeling before re-aggravating the injury and missing the rest of the season. He was no invited to join the Black Aces, presumably because he was still recovering from his injuries.
Christiaan Minella - Signed to an ECHL contract with Wheeling, he was loaned to WBS late in the season and played in 8 games plus an additional 6 playoff games. Him and Farnham often found themselves on the Baby Pens' 4th line, sometimes together (Farnham-Sill-Minella) and sometimes one in place of the other (usually paired with Sill and Uher). While not the most glowing stat, he led WBS (by a wide margin) with 274 PIM.
Andrew Hotham - Signed to an ECHL contract with Wheeling, he didn't play with WBS this year but was on an AHL contract and played with them 2 games last season. This year he only played 17 games in Wheeling, during which time he managed to have the highest +/- amongst the Nailers D and averaged just over a point per game. He was loaned to the Oklahoma City Barons as the lockout was coming to a close and they needed to replace their NHL players, and he is currently playing with them in the AHL Western Conference Finals.
Peter Merth - Signed to an ECHL contract with Wheeling, he was the Nailers Captain this year and was an Alternate Captain last year. He was loaned to WBS last season, where he played in 11 games, and then returned to WBS for the playoffs this year and played in 8 games. He led the WBS D in +/- during the playoffs.
Alex Velischek - Signed to an Amateur Try-Out contract with Wheeling. He was an unsigned Penguins prospect taken in the 5th Round of the 2009 Draft. After finishing up his senior year at Providence College he remained unsigned by the Pens, and with his player rights expiring he opted to sign an ATO with the Nailers where he played 3 games. If he remains with the organization and plays well, he could very well move up and get signed to an NHL or AHL contract in the future.
Cody Wild - Signed to an ECHL contract with Wheeling, he was under an AHL contract with WBS last season where he played in 51 games plus an additional 2 playoff games. This year in Wheeling he led the D in Assists (20) and Points (26) and was tied for Goals (6). He was loaned to WBS following the end of the lockout and played in 14 games plus 2 playoff games.
Scott Darling - Signed to an ECHL contract with Wheeling, he was briefly loaned to WBS during the season as an emergency backup goalie when Zatkoff got called up to Pittsburgh. He dressed and served as Thiessen's backup but didn't have to play. Following the conclusion of the Nailers season he joined the Black Aces squad in WBS.
Beyond the Nailers, we return to the Baby Pens for the rest of our examination. Once again, Joanathan Bombulie provided an excellent analysis of the Baby Pens post-season expectations and conveniently provides us with a list of players who are under contract for next year and those that will be Free Agents.
Derrick Pouliot (WHL Portland Winterhawks) and Olli Maatta (OHL London Knights) are currently under NHL contracts but are not old enough to play in the AHL next season. So next year they will either return to their respective junior clubs or play so extraordinarily well in training camp that they are able to steal a roster spot from an existing NHL player. Most likely they will be back in the juniors, but anything can happen.
Clark Seymour (OHL Peterborough Petes) and Alex Velischek (Providence College) both remain unsigned by the Pens but are old enough that they can play in the AHL next year. Velischek, as listed above, finished the year under an ATO in Wheeling and is currently on their list of players they plan to negotiate contracts with. Seymour, now aged out of the juniors (although at 20 he could still be brought back as an overage player) had a short stint with the Black Aces in WBS following the conclusion of Peterborough's season.
There are quite a number of players still under NHL contracts for next season: Forwards Tom Kuhnhackl, Steve MacIntyre, Jayson Megna, Adam Payerl, Dominik Uher, and Anton Zlobin; Defensemen Nick D'Agostino, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, Reid McNeill, Harrison Ruopp, and Philip Samuelsson; and Goaltender Jeff Zatkoff. Obviously this leaves quite a lot of roster openings that need to be filled by resignings, new free agent acquisitions, or off-season trades. Zatkoff will almost certainly be back as the AHL starter next year and if he gets resigned could likely move up to be our NHL backup in 2 years.
Kuhnhackl got injured and missed most of the season, while him and Uher, Megna, and Payerl were all rookies this season. Zlobin joined the Black Aces upon completion of his QMJHL season, next year he will be an AHL rookie (or the unlikely possibility of returning to the juniors as an overage player). MacIntyre is a veteran, but he is an enforcer who spends very little time in the lineup. None of them are particularly ready to move up to the NHL next year, although Megna was in training camp this year. In WBS, Megna, Zlobin, and Kuhnhackl could very well be Top 6 forwards, although their lack of experience does leave something to be desired, while Uher and Payerl would likely return to the Bottom 6.
Samuelsson finished up his 2nd year with the team this year, while Dumoulin and McNeill were both rookie this year. Harrington joined the team following the conclusion of the Memorial Cup and played 2 playoff games, Ruopp joined the Black Aces upon the conclusion of his WHL season. Both of them can theoretically return to the juniors as overage players, but most likely will play their rookie seasons in WBS next year. D'Agostino got signed after finishing his senior year with Cornell, but did not finish the season on any of our clubs, he will be a rookie next year. It is unlikely that any of them move to the NHL next year, although we do still need a 7th D and Samuelsson has the experience while Dumoulin and Harrington have the skill, so there is a chance if they don't resign somebody else. However, from an AHL standpoint it should be pretty good assortment of D. D'Agostino and Ruopp may find themselves starting in Wheeling, depending on who gets resigned in WBS, but the other 4 should have no problem making the AHL roster.
There are also a few Restricted Free Agents to consider: Brian Gibbons, Riley Holzapfel, Zach Sill, Paul Thompson, Keven Veilleux, and Alex Grant. Holzapfel was the 2nd highest scorer during the regular season and 3rd highest during the playoffs, he spent most of the 4 previous season with the Atlanta/Winnipeg (traded to Anaheim late last year) AHL affiliates and signed with Pittsburgh this past summer. Gibbons and Thompson spent 2 years in WBS and were the 4th/5th highest scoring forwards in both the regular season and playoffs. Sill spent 2 years under an AHL contract and then 2 years under an NHL contract in WBS and more often than not found himself centering the 4th line. Veilleux spent 4 years under NHL contract in WBS but missed a large portion of his career due to injury and found himself relegated to Wheeling this year. Grant also spent 4 years with WBS and over the past 2 years became the leading scorer amongst D and the PP quarterback. I hope Gibbons and Thompson return, they are excellent Top 6 scorers in the AHL, and Sill should be easy enough to bring back as a 4th liner. Grant may be able to find a team with more room on D, possibly becoming a 7th NHL D and PP specialist like Lovejoy. Holzapfel I am not sure about, he was only here one year, but was one of the best scorers in the league. Veilleux is almost certainly gone, the team was unhappy with his racial slur incident and did not invite him to join the Black Aces when Wheeling's season ended.
There are also a number of Unrestricted Free Agents: Philippe Dupuis, Chad Kolarik, Warren Peters, Trevor Smith, Dylan Reese, and Brad Thiessen. Smith was picked up as a free agent this past summer, while Kolarik was acquired via a mid-season trade. They were both usually on the top line and were amongst the Top 3 scorers on the team during both the regular season and playoffs. Peters signed as a free agent this summer and was also a relatively prolific scorer, but also out top defensive forward who centered the Check line. Dupuis, another summer free agent, got injured and missed a large chunk of the season. Reese was the leading scoring defender during the regular season but got injured and missed the end of the playoffs. Thiessen played with the team for the past 4 seasons and leads the AHL's playoff goaltenders in GAA and is #2 in Save %. Thiessen, as mentioned above, is going to try his luck in free agency. Reese I wouldn't be surprised to see him back, he is a Pittsburgh native with quite a few years of experience and he was supposed to be given a shot to crack the NHL roster in training camp this year. The remaining 3 I am unsure what to expect, as they are all quite good enough to find lucrative deals elsewhere.
The final free agents are all players that were under AHL or ECHL contracts, and many of them were discussed above: Chris Barton, Chris Collins, Bobby Farnham, Christiaan Minella, Derek Nesbitt, Peter Merth, Joey Mormina, Cody Wild, and Scott Darling. Barton, Farnham, Minella, Merth, Wild, and Darling were ECHL contracts discussed above. Mormina is the WBS Captain, was an Alternate Captain last year, and as a 30 year old veteran spent 4 of the past 5 season in WBS. Collins played for WBS 2 years ago, spent a season in Germany, and bounced around the ECHL/AHL this year before landing a job back in WBS after the lockout. Nesbitt was added for a playoff push at the AHL trade deadline. I can't imagine the Baby Pens without Mormina, so I expect him to be back next year. They were also fairly impressed with Minella and Farnham, so they could possibly be back fleshing out the Bottom 6. Merth is certainly possible, he did well enough in his short stint in the AHL, and also Wild as they seem to like him in WBS. Of course it depends on how many D they need. Barton and Nesbitt I am less convinced about, as they didn't really live up to their expectations, but they could do well if they get used to playing with the Pens. And Darling, they are likely only going to go after him if they need a backup (depending on what happens with Thiessen and Hartzell).