|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
For the first time ever, the Texas Stars head east to face off with perennial AHL powerhouse Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins will make the return visit to Cedar Park in mid-January. WBS is blessed to have a great media following, including Jason Iacona and his Chirps from Center Ice site, which he has been writing since 2010-11. Jason agreed to do a Q&A with us to tell us more about a team we have yet to see. Our own Q&A with Jason can be read on his site here.
HDH: What has been the arc of the Penguins season so far this year?
Jason Iacona: While I will die on the hill that former head coach Clark Donatelli did all he could with the tools that he had last year, the Penguins still missed the playoffs for the first time in over ten years. When you can’t fire the players, you fire the coach. So what do they do for a replacement? Hire the coach that won the Calder Cup last year and won coach of the year. Mike Vellucci had some hiccups in October but finally got this team clicking on all cylinders with a 9-2-1-1 November. Veterans like goaltender Dustin Tokarski and forward Stefan Noesen have ties to Vellucci, and that blend of veterans with promising rookies have the Penguins primed here at another run in the playoffs.
HDH: What style of hockey do the Penguins play?
JI: It’s very systematic, much like Pittsburgh’s. They finally shook the ‘dump and chase’ mindset from a few years ago and attack with a straightforward style that has any line with a threat to score. Defensemen don't attack or jump into the play that often; they sit back, give space and let the play develop.
HDH: Stefan Noesen has been electric for WBS, and he earned an NHL contract this week with Pittsburgh as a result. What has he meant to this team and do they have firepower to replace him while he's in the NHL?
JI: Noesen is essentially a third of the offense for the Penguins. Among the 66 goals scored by Wilkes-Barre, Noesen has 22. He’s been a bit of a reclamation project as you may have seen on the AHL’s website this week. With ties to Vellucci, he’s been given a chance to pause, take a step back and dominate here in the American League.
As far as a replacement? Stars fans should be familiar with Andrew Agozzino's body of work from his time with San Antonio and Colorado from years prior. Agozzino also has a third of the offense centering Noesen on the top line. But, it’s easier said than done. Anytime you lose an offensive threat with Noesen’s pedigree, it’s more of a ‘wait and see’ approach. Wilkes-Barre has a lot of non-divisional games coming up (two with Texas this weekend, a visit to Rochester mid-week next then a weekend trip to Cleveland) and the Atlantic is potentially shaping up to be a six-horse race. You’d like to see seven or more points come out of those games at the very least. Doing so without their top offensive guy is going to set up to be a challenge, but a challenge I feel Vellucci and staff is prepared for.
HDH: Which prospects should we be keeping an eye on?
JI: Jake Lucchini is in his first pro season and plays a smart, sound game. Chase Berger centers the second line and had a hell of a game against Bridgeport Saturday collecting a fight in the process. On defense, I really like Niclas Almari’s game. I think he has transitioned quite well after playing last season overseas. I’ve been impressed with Jon Lizotte also, he plays a heavy type of game and has a nice shot. He doesn’t have an NHL contract yet, but I am guessing that he realizes that now is the time to put on the exhibition for a possible NHL contract for next year with a team.
HDH: Just how good is Casey DeSmith?
JI: Ha, he's kind of like a cheat code. DeSmith is an established NHL goaltender who was forced out of town due to salary cap issues in Pittsburgh. That has been a benefit for Wilkes-Barre because he’s received the lion share of starts with Dustin Tokarski (on an AHL contract) healing up from a summertime ailment / injury. Wilkes-Barre has three goaltenders on the roster with Emil Larmi beating out Alex D’Orio in camp in early October. Goaltender, for now, has been the least worrying about position for the Penguins. If an injury or trade happens at any time, Wilkes-Barre will turn to a goaltender who won the Calder Cup last season in Dustin Tokarski. DeSmith doesn’t belong here honestly, but he’s making the best of a situation he has no control over evidenced by going 7-1 in November with a 1.60 GAA and a .951 SV% with two shutouts, which was good for AHL Goaltender of the Month in November.
HDH: What's the atmosphere of the arena like in WBS?
JI: Well, with any good thing that is always there, the novelty of it has worn off for some. For those who do make it out, it’s a passionate crowd who is engaged most nights and takes an interest in the game. We have our rivals in Hershey and Lehigh Valley and always love when the out of town scoreboard flashes that the Bears or Phantoms are losing to whomever the opponent is.
HDH: Anything else we should know about this team?
JI: You have a golden circle of AHL franchises who, every year, are in a discussion as a championship contender for one reason or another. In the West you have teams like Grand Rapids, Texas, Milwaukee and Chicago that are there year after year, season after season, graduating players and coaches to the NHL. In the East, Providence, Wilkes-Barre, Hershey, Syracuse, Rochester, Toronto and Lehigh Valley to some extent are these franchises that take development at the AHL level seriously. The older franchises like Hershey and Providence pioneered the concept of it and other teams like Toronto, Syracuse and the rest caught on. You pretty much know that every time Wilkes-Barre comes up on the schedule that the team is going to be well coached, play a system that is successful, and the game is going to be a test for your club against a well-rounded, hungry, good team.
Injuries and callups
Kero (lower body)