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Wilkes Weekly: Can the NHL Pens get any help from Wilkes-Barre?

Looking at the AHL Penguins’ last week and if any reinforcements could help out the big club

@wbspenguins

The Wilkes-Barre Penguins won one of three games last week, in three very close contests. They can’t get over the hurdle that first-place Hershey provides, even in badly out-shooting the Bears this week the Pens were unable to score and lost yet again this season to their rivals. But WBS has proven to be as good against Springfield as they are bad against Hershey for their lone win of the past week.

Nick Hart from WBSPenguins.com with the good summary:

Wednesday, Jan. 17 – PENGUINS 2 vs. Providence 3

A 32-shot effort from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton went by the wayside as the Bruins converted on three of their 18 bids. Jesse Puljujärvi scored for the second-straight game, and Ty Smith tacked on a goal for his team-leading 26th point of the season.

Saturday, Jan. 20 – PENGUINS 0 at Hershey 1

A five-on-three, power-play goal by Ethen Frank was the difference in a duel between the Atlantic’s two All-Star goalies. Joel Blomqvist made 19 saves for the Penguins, while Clay Stevenson turned away 28 shots for his AHL-leading sixth shutout.

Sunday, Jan. 21 – PENGUINS 2 vs. Springfield 1

The Penguins saw Owen Headrick’s first career AHL goal and multi-point performances from Vinnie Hinostroza (1G-1A) and Alex Nylander (2A) catapult them to a narrow win over the Thunderbirds. WBS wraps its six-game season series against Springfield with a commanding 5-0-1-0 record.

Overall, the Pens advance to third place in their division, likely a mirage given all the games in hand that Hartford carries over them, but a reasonable enough spot nonetheless.

In the big picture, though, Pittsburgh fans will be curious to know if anyone in Wilkes-Barre can help the NHL club out right now. Given the current status of the Pens’ system, the answer doesn’t look encouraging, and that’s largely because the organization has already tried (almost) all credible options for support.

  • Valtteri Puustinen is already up with the NHL team, though his impact has waned after an impressive start
  • Radim Zohorna has made his way back to the AHL after following a similar path of initial NHL success followed up by the dreaded downturn
  • Whatever magical hope that Alex Nylander could grow an NHL regular has all but disappeared after a brief but completely uninspiring five-game NHL stint this season
  • Vinnie Hinostroza is OK as a bit role player and NHL/AHL tweener, but not much of a full-time NHLer at this point of his career to add any value
  • Joona Koppanen got an early look in the NHL, and there wasn’t much to see
  • Jonathan Gruden is who he is as a hard-working but limited impact player who isn’t going to provide much more than a low minute fourth liner as an injury replacement

The good news if you’re of the mind to “give new/young players a chance” is that all six of these forwards that started the season in Wilkes all got a reasonably decent opportunity to get NHL games and then it was up to them to make the most of it. As an organization, the Pens DID present a number of forwards the chance this season, which isn’t something that can be said in a lot of years. However none of those players, save for Zohorna and Puustinen in brief stretches, made very much out of the opportunity.

One player conspicuous by his absence that is not listed above is Sam Poulin. As has become an unfortunate trend, timing and unavailability has struck Poulin this season, since he was out with an injury for six weeks in November/December when Pittsburgh was giving many AHL forwards a chance due to injuries of their own at the NHL level.

Lately, some tea leaves might be aligning, though. Drafted as primarily a winger back in 2019, Poulin has spent the majority of his professional apprenticeship in Wilkes as a center. That’s gone out the window lately, with Poulin back on the left wing in an interesting recent shift of his positioning. AHL lineups can be notoriously fickle about getting players in where they fit and as necessary from game to game, but Poulin going to LW has been more ongoing than a one-off lately and deserves watching.

That goes double upon the realization that the lower line wingers for the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup these days are Colin White and Jansen Harkins, two waiver-esque replacement level type of players who have spent their fair share in Wilkes this year themselves. Could Poulin offer more than one or both of those two veterans? It’s an intriguing thought that has only grown with Poulin having produced seven goals and three assists in 15 games since December 16th when he returned from his injury. In his draft+5 season, Poulin’s career has mostly been below NHL level, which is an indicator to temper expectaton that he would instantly be able to change the fortunes of the NHL club — but it might be high time to figure out what he does or doesn’t have to offer at the top level.

The other big and obvious name to watch is a new face in Jesse Puljujarvi. Since joining the WBS on a 25-game max AHL tryout, Puljujarvi has had a few weeks now to get back into the rhythm of a pro hockey season following his double hip surgery this month. The forward was held without a point for his first four games, then fired in goal+assist performances in two straight games last week. Since then, it’s been no points in the last two games. As you can see in the scores above, it wasn’t a high-scoring week and producing points in the AHL level can be a challenge.

Of more importance than the basic box scores and point totals for Puljujarvi is how his body is doing physically after the major surgeries. Can he still get around the ice like he used to? Is he able to do so consistently to be an effective player?

These are the questions that Puljujarvi is going to have to answer affirmatively in order to turn his tryout contract into a ticket back to the NHL. Opinions and takes have been all over the map — there are whispers that Puljujarvi physically hasn’t looked super-impressive at times, but other more positive takes that see a player re-gaining his form and timing after a long layoff. The jury still looks very much out for deciding when/if the experiment will be concluded, which by itself leads to caution that Puljujarvi may not be a significant factor at the NHL level as a mid-season addition.

From the Pittsburgh perspective, they’ve tapped a lot of names out of Wilkes-Barre already this season to not that encouraging of results. Poulin and Puljujarvi are the last two best chances for any sort of NHL contributions this season, but even then times are far from 2015-16 when the host of young players made the trek west across the PA to give a significant boost to the NHL level.