With the NHL lockout just hours away, the Penguins roster at Wilkes Barre is taking shape as all seven players cleared waivers today and the team officially assigned 23 players to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins also assigned prospects Scott Harrington, Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot to their respective juniors teams. Harrington and Maatta will be playing for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and Pouliot will be playing for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
The players who were assigned to WBS include forwards Benn Ferriero, Keven Veilleux, Beau Bennett, Dominik Uher, Brian Gibbons, Tom Kuhnhackl, Jayson Megna, Adam Payerl, Zach Sill, Paul Thompson, Keven Veilleux, Philippe Dupuis, Riley Holzapfel, Warren Peters and Trevor Smith; defensemen Simon Despres, Joe Morrow, Carl Sneep, Brian Dumoulin, Reid McNeill, Philip Samuelsson, Dylan Reese and Alex Grant; and goaltender Patrick Killeen.
Six players on two-way contracts who were not placed on waivers include Eric Tangradi, Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait, Steve MacIntyre and goaltenders Brad Thiessen, Jeff Zatkoff, as the Penguins did not want to risk them on waivers. The Penguins though have had discussions with all six players about signing seperate AHL contracts so they would be eligible to play in Wilkes Barre during the lockout without having to clear waivers.
A source confirmed that Robert Bortuzzo, Brad Thiessen and Jeff Zatkoff plan to sign AHL deals and it’s likely that Tangradi and Strait also will at somepoint.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the lockout is going to impact roster spots in Wilkes Barre with several good prospects who probably should be playing in Wilkes Barre, will be forced to play for Wheeling. This is an extremely deep group on the blueline and some intriguing talent on the wings.
Here’s a Roster Breakdown:
Centers: Trevor Smith, Philippe Dupuis, Warren Peters, Zach Sill, Riley Holzapfel
Down the middle, the top-4 centers project to be Trevor Smith, Philippe Dupuis, Zach Sill and Warren Peters with Riley Holzapfel battling for playing time.
What this group is lacking is a skilled No. 2 center behind Trevor Smith. Smith, 27, is a skilled center who had 26 goals and 69 points in 64 games for Norfolk. In the AHL playoffs he had 16 points in 18 games.
After Smith, Wilkes Barre has more of a group of No. 3 and No. 4 centers in Dupuis, Sill and Peters. Dupuis right now projects as the No. 2 center with Sill and Peters battling for the third and fourth line center role. Dupuis had 15 goals and 31 points in 42 games for the Marlies last season. He had 0 goals in 30 games with the Maple Leafs in 2011-2012 and appeared in 74 games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2010-2011, collecting 6 goals. Sill is a strong forechecker, hard working player who had 10 goals and 17 points in 2011-2012 but will likely be the No. 4 center to open the season behind Warren Peters.
Peters is a hard working checker who had 11 points in 20 games for the Houston Aeros and appeared in 58 games with the Minnesota Wild last season.
Holzapfel, 24, is a player to keep an eye on who will push for playing time. Holzapfel had 16 goals and 37 points in 57 AHL games last season with the Syracuse Crunch and St. John’s.
Wingers: Benn Ferriero, Beau Bennett, Tom Kuhnhackl, Brian Gibbons, Paul Thompson, Dominik Uher, Keven Veilleux, Adam Payerl, Jason Megna, (Eric Tangradi?, Steve MacIntyre?)
Assuming Eric Tangradi signs an AHL contract, which is believed to be likely, the top-2 lines figure to consist of Trevor Smith and Philippe Dupuis down the middle as the first and second line centers with Tangradi, Benn Ferriero, Tom Kuhnhackl and Beau Bennett on the wings to round out the top-6.
Ferriero has third line NHL type capabilites as he skates well, is a hard worker, battles for pucks and can make a skilled play. He figures to open the season as the top line right winger. Ferriero had 7 goals in 35 games with the San Jose Sharks last season.
Kuhnhackl and Bennett join the organization as the Penguins top-2 forward prospects. Kuhnhackl is more of a complete player and he could even play a third line role off the bat if the coaches went that direction.
What the organization will be watching is how Bennett holds up strength wise early on. After two injury filled college seasons, he has not played a lot of hockey the past two years.
After those four, there’s going to be some good roster battles for the wingers spots on the bottom two lines.
Rising prospect Dominik Uher joins the organization and is a strong two-way player and will be difficult to keep out of the lineup on the third or fourth line.
Paul Thompson enters his second professional season with the organization and many inside the organization feel he’s ready to take the next step offensively. Thompson had 10 goals and 27 points in 67 games last season. He was a 50+ point player in college and he figures to go into camp as the third line right winger behind Ferriero and Beau Bennett.
Brian Gibbons had 11 goals and 30 points in 70 games last season and could even bump up to a top-6 role if Eric Tangradi doesn’t sign an AHL contract immediately.
Adam Payerl was signed last spring after playing for the Belleville Bulls of the OHL in 2011-2012. Payerl appeared in two games with Wilkes Barre last season and had one assist. The coaching staff has a little bit of familiarity with Payerl and Dominik Uher who practiced with the Baby Pens last spring after his junior season ended, which gives those two a leg up going into camp over a player like Jason Megna, an undrafted college free agent signed this summer out of Nebraska-Omaha University. Megna, 22, is a solid two-way player who had 31 points in 38 games last season for Nebraska-Omaha. Megna could be destined for the ECHL off the bat.
What complicates spots for the likes of Megna and maybe even Payerl is if Steve MacIntyre signs an AHL deal and takes up a spot.
The wildcard out of this group is 2007 second round pick Keven Veilleux. Coming off knee surgery, Veilleux is one of the most talented forwards in the system when healthy. Drafted as a center, the Penguins are expected to continue to keep Veilleux at right wing this season.
Defensemen: Simon Despres, Joe Morrow, Brian Dumoulin, Dylan Reese, Alex Grant, Carl Sneep, Phillip Samuelsson, Joey Mormina, Reid McNeill, (Brian Strait?, Robert Bortuzzo?)
This is a very deep group with an infusion of young talent with top prospect Joe Morrow and Brian Dumoulin who should be given spots in the top-6. There are some evaluators who feel Morrow and Dumoulin could be NHL ready by next season.
If Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo sign AHL deals, it could make ice time even for an established player like Alex Grant and Carl Sneep hard to come by.
Strait – Bortuzzo
Despres – Reese
Dumoulin – Grant/Sneep
Others: Mormina, Samuelsson, McNeill
Under this scenario, the Penguins are very likely to send Samuelsson and McNeil to Wheeling so they get top pairing minutes. That’s the impact of the lockout with Strait and Bortuzzo likely coming down.
Overall this is an exciting talented group with Morrow and Dumoulin joining the organization, Despres continued develop, Sneep hopefully taking that next step, ect.
Regarding Sneep, I’d rather see him getting regular playing time over Dylan Reese because of the upside being much higher with Sneep.
Goaltenders: Patrick Killeen, (Brad Thiessen?, Jeff Zatkoff?)
With Thiessen and Zatkoff expected to sign AHL deals, those two figure to open the season as the No. 1 and No. 2 netminders. Zatkoff, 25, could push Thiessen for No. 1 duty. He played the last four years in the Los Angeles Kings organization after being drafted by the Kings in the third round (74th overall) of the 2006 NHL Draft. Last year, Zatkoff posted a 21-17-1 record, 2.49 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage in 44 regular-season games with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League.