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Report: Sullivan, Penguins looking to strengthen Wilkes-Barre in the future

Changes and improvements on an organizational level are being sought to help upgrade the situation in Wilkes-Barre

2023 NHL Winter Classic - Practices & Family Skate Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

Some really cool insight here from our long, lost former Pensburgh correspondent Tony Androckitis, who has now long since gone onto spread his wings into being a key figure for AHL news. He’s doing an Elliotte Friedman style 32-thoughts feature on his website Inside AHL Hockey that is worth checking out. And there are some salient and interesting notes about the Penguins this time around worth highlighting too.

18. There are big changes coming for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins moving forward, how they are operated and Pittsburgh’s overall presence around the team including a much-needed increase in their day-to-day on-site involvement.

19. Fenway Sports Group (FSG) have been working closely with Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan during the Pittsburgh Penguins transition between former GM Ron Hextall and whoever they hire to fill their current vacancy.

Relative to the AHL club, I’m told FSG will mandate to their new GM that this AHL Penguins club needs to be highly competitive — on the persistent advice from Sullivan, specifically, in making sure the organization’s top prospects are developing in a winning environment.

20. It might come as a surprise that Sullivan is so adamant about building/investing more in constructing an AHL roster as he has taken flack for barely giving the AHL Penguins’ call ups - and young players like Jonathan Gruden - much of an opportunity in terms of ice time.

But Sullivan, along with assistant coach Mike Vellucci understand the importance of building from within and winning at the AHL level as well as anyone. That should be music to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins fans’ ears.

“This is a [Sullivan] thing more than whoever the new [GM] is... and right now [Sullivan] has the hammer with the Fenway guys,” One NHL source told a few weeks ago.

21. Not that Pittsburgh’s GM interview process has reached it’s finalists, but I’m hearing to keep an eye on Marc Bergevin, Jason Botterill and John Chayka specifically.

22. Whether or not that will continue to be AHL Penguins GM Erik Heasley in 2023-24 probably depends on who the new GM coming into Pittsburgh will be, but the fact that Heasley has been around for the transition might be a sign that he’ll remain in the organization in a different role should the new NHL Penguins GM bring in his own personnel for that position.

23. The same goes the AHL Penguins’ coaching staff, though in talking with coaches around the AHL this season the sentiment they expressed the most was just the way J.D. Forrest and his staff had such a well-structured team despite certainly not having the depth to match their opposition over the long run.

Some good information here, and a focus on Wilkes-Barre is well over-due. Wilkes-Barre has become neglected lately and barely fielding an AHL quality team. Some of that has to do with the parent NHL Pittsburgh Penguins not having a lot of high-end young players, but not entirely. For too long the AHL franchise has been idling, or worse, losing steam.

A “winning environment” in the AHL with more to work with and develop off of might have helped younger players step up recently, as it did in the not too distant past when the Wilkes team was solid and very competitive. This season WBS finished last in their division and their 66 points ranked 30th in the 32 team AHL.

It’s also interesting to see Mike Sullivan at the forefront of the charge to indicate to new ownership the importance and need for a viable AHL club. Clearly the FSG ownership group is invested in Sullivan — they tacked years onto the end of his contract before it ended — he is a coach with a lot of influence and using it to highlight strengthening this weak area of the organization.

Sullivan started out in the Pittsburgh organization as the Wilkes-Barre head coach. He saw then-youngsters like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Matt Murray, Brian Dumoulin develop and get better to the point where they have been quality NHL players. Of that grouping, only Dumoulin (second round) was a high draft pick.

Even down the line, there are examples like Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl, Oskar Sundqvist, Josh Archibald and J-S Dea going through Wilkes and progressing into at least spot level NHL players, and sometimes more.

That train of prepping young players and turning them into NHL caliber players has been sorely missing in recent years, whether a deficiency by the individuals or the organization not able to help them enough (or, as it usually is in complicated situations: a combination of both factors).

While Wilkes-Barre hasn’t had an excess of talent, over the past few years career tracks for highly drafted players like Kasper Bjorkqvist, Filip Hallander, Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare have stagnated at best. Were these players all individually destined to not make it to the NHL for one reason or another? Possibly. But taken as a group, the common theme over the few years doesn’t add up to many successful development stories lately.

Even for players like P.O. Joseph, Drew O’Connor and Ty Smith, have they flourished in Wilkes-Barre so much as they had to play there due to Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation not leaving room for them in various recent years?

The bad news is help is not on the way soon from highly drafted players as none are expected to join Wilkes-Barre soon, aside from goalie Joel Blomqvist. The Pens’ organization has a huge challenge on their hands to find and stock the AHL level with promising talent and that isn’t simply a faucet to turn on and have quality players immediately pop out.

But, whether it’s future college free agents like Sheary and Zach Aston-Reese who developed in Wilkes or reclamation projects like Alex Nylander, Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre have to make more efforts to improve the organization with a broader base of talent and take players up a level.

To be fair, the strides Nylander took to refine his two-way game were impressive, and Joseph did use his time in the AHL to improve, Valterri Puustinen has been productive in the AHL and even Jonathan Gruden has shown some flashes. But what that’s the extent of the recent minor league success stories, it’s not a pretty picture and not nearly enough.

The first step to fixing the problem is admitting there is an issue to be addressed, and based on this reporting, giving some attention and attempting to focus and bring some competitiveness back to the AHL level should eventually pay dividends up the ladder as well. We shouldn’t be surprised that at the yet-to-be-hired GM’s initial press conference that there will be quotes and part of the vision stated to have an eye towards improving Wilkes-Barre as a team, in order to make the Pens’ organization as a whole healthier and better.