BURTON LOOKING TO LOCK UP SPOT WITH WBS

Jarrett Burton was all smiles as reporters approached him at his locker following the first day of training camp.  Not only was he excited to get back on the ice in preparation for the 2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins season, but he was happy to get a little relief from the soaring templates outside.

“Everyone’s happy to be back in the rink, especially during this heat wave right now we have going on,” he laughed, noting the 90 degree temperatures hitting northeast Pennsylvania.

Now entering his fourth training camp with the Penguins, Burton is looking to grab a regular spot in the team’s lineup.  He spent the majority of the 2016-17 campaign with Wilkes-Barre, notching 11 points (7+4) in 39 regular season games.

But Burton is hardly taking his opportunity to earn a roster spot out of camp for granted.

“You want to make sure that you’re always working as hard as you can,” he stated.  “Everyone’s on a clean slate.  It’s a brand new season, and everyone’s looking to make a great impression.”

One person who Burton has left a mark on already is Clark Donatelli.  The Penguins head coach was behind the bench in Wheeling when Burton first turned pro back in 2014, and has seen the 26-year old forward continue to develop.

“Burts is really good on face-offs, he kills a lot of our penalties,” Donatelli said.  “Great two-way player, and has a lot of responsibilities defensively.

“He’s going to develop and continue to get better.”

Burton is on a career path similar to one that his former teammate – Carter Rowney – travled.  Rowney  started out playing in Wheeling, moved up to full time duty with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then made the leap to Pittsburgh last year.

“I got to see what Carter does and how hard he works every single day, which is something that a lot of guys are fortunate that they’ve been able to see,” he said.  “He’s always been a great two-way player, but he just keeps on getting better each year.  That’s something that you can learn from a guy like that.”

Donatelli doesn’t see any reason why Burton couldn’t be the next former Nailer to suit up in the NHL.

“He’s proved that he can play here in the American Hockey League, and now he’s going to try to make that next step.”


The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins open up their exhibition schedule this Wednesday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena against the Hershey Bears.  Tickets are available at the arena box office, by phone at 570-208-7367 or online at TicketMaster.com.

Season ticket packages for the 2017-18 season of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey, including full season, 22-game, 12-game and Flexbook plans, are available by contacting the Penguins directly.

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

WBS TRAINING CAMP NOTEBOOK: SEPTEMBER 24, 2017


The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hit the Toyota Sportsplex ice for the start of training camp on Sunday morning, and stayed until the afternoon.

Coach Clark Donatelli and his staff ran the 28 players on the team’s initial roster through a more than two hour practice, that finally came to a conclusion just after 12:30pm.

For Donatelli, it was a chance to get an extended look at several fresh faces.

“A lot of the guys are new.  The guys are coming out here, trying to make an impression,” he said.  “Every practice we rank all of the players and then we go over it as a staff…I thought some guys here made some good first impressions.”

About half of the players in camp are free agents or inked to ECHL contracts.  And, with a considerable number of players still in camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins, these early practices, as well as this week’s exhibition games, present opportunities for unknown youngsters to leave their marks.

“We’ve got two games here (Wednesday versus Hershey; Friday versus Binghamton) that we’re going to play, and we’re going to a lot of looks at some of the guys we don’t know,” Donatelli said.  “Then we’re going to settle in and see what happens with Pitt with guys coming down for games three and four (Saturday at Hershey; Sunday at Binghamton).”

While it’s likely many of the players currently in Wilkes-Barre won’t be here to start the season, performances in these preseason contests could help in decision on call ups later in the year.

“If some of the guys have to go down to Wheeling, obviously then we’re going to have a good read on what they are,” Donatelli stated.

SHORT SUMMER

While Sunday morning saw hockey return to NEPA for the first time since late April, Donatelli hasn’t been away from the sport very much over the past few months.

After Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s season came to an unexpected early end, Donatelli and assistants J.D. Forrest and Chris Taylor (now with the Rochester Americans), worked with Pittsburgh’s practice squad as they advanced to their second straight Stanley Cup championship through late June.

Donatelli and Forrest then stepped behind the bench to lead the American entry at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in early August; traveled to Buffalo for the 2017 Prospects Challenge a month later; and spent a week with the NHL club as the Pens opened training camp.

“We had a short break, but it was great,” he said.  “Anytime you’re winning Stanley Cups, you’re playing a long time.  So that experience was great and our guys loved it.

“Short summer, but I’m excited to be back.”

SCHEDULE

The Pens will practice at the Toyota Sportsplex again on Monday and Tuesday mornings at 10:30am, before the action moves to the Mohegan Sun Arena for Wednesday’s opening exhibition contest.  All practices at the Toyota Sportsplex are free and open to the public.

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

FASTER, SMARTER GARDINER RETURNS TO PENGUINS


Reid Gardiner was always a standout in the Western Hockey League. Then he became a standout at the Penguins’ rookie tournament in London, Ontario last summer. Shortly thereafter, he became a standout at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton training camp. Gardiner turned a ton a success in a short period of time into an American Hockey League contract with the Penguins last year, and was expected to be a rookie standout for the eventual Kirkpatrick Trophy winners.

When the season started though, Gardiner found that he wasn’t the same beast he was in the WHL. He didn’t have the same open spaces he found in London. The confidence he gained at training camp slowly waned.

Despite showcasing his jaw-dropping shot and pure scoring ability on occasion with the Penguins in 23 games, he decided it would suit him better to utilize his final year of eligibility and return to juniors. The Penguins obliged and returned him to the WHL where he had a unique career opportunity. Gardiner suited up alongside his younger brother, Erik.

“It was special for me and my family,” Reid said. “It was lots of fun, [Erik] being a young guy on the team and me wanting to teach him a few things especially after my pro experience in Wilkes-Barre. I thought we had moments where we maybe didn’t like each other so much, but most of the time we got a long. That’s brother stuff, I guess. I loved every second of it.”

After taking a few games to re-acclimate to a more wide-open style of hockey played at the junior level, Gardiner found his scoring touch again with the Kelowna Rockets. He posted 37 points (18G-19A) in 28 games before unloading a whopping 15 playoff goals and 28 playoff points in only 17 contests during the WHL postseason.

Once the offseason rolled around, Gardiner made the decision to turn pro once again. While there were presumably many suitors for his services after the offensive flair he showed in Kelowna, one team made the most sense: the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

The Penguins’ upcoming training camp will serve as the first chapter in Gardiner’s second term with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and he’s determined to show them that he’s better than he was when they allowed him to return to juniors and play alongside his younger brother.

“I want to show management and coaches and the like that I’ve made huge strides over the summer,” Gardiner said. “I am a better player. Over first few weeks of the season, maybe my role gets more defined, but right now I’m just trying to put my best foot forward.”

What’s the biggest difference between last year and the Gardiner 2.0 model he’s been advertising? He says he more mature and knows what to expect from the pro style now, and he catered his training around those traits.

“I think I can maybe hang onto the puck for a half a second longer and keep my head up to make a play,” he said. “I know the pro game now. There won’t be as much as a learning curve. I like to think my skating has improved, too. So people can expect to see a faster player, and hopefully more points come from that.”

The Penguins coaching staff is expecting more points to come from Gardiner, too. At the 2017 Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, New York earlier this month, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Clark Donatelli discussed Gardiner’s return to the black and gold and what he thinks the stocky sniper can accomplish.

“We want him shooting the puck,” Donatelli said. “[Gardiner] is a player with a really nice shot, he’s a goal scorer. Hopefully, he learned from his pro experience with is last year and can use that to attack the play more. If he’s shooting, he’s always going to be dangerous.”

The danger of Gardiner 2.0 will be unleashed starting this weekend at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins training camp.

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

WBS NOTEBOOK: SEPTEMBER 22, 2017

Training camp doesn’t officially open until Sunday, but several Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins players and hopefuls (as well as one alumni member) hit the ice at the Toyota Sportsplex for an impromptu practice on Friday morning.

About a dozen skaters took part in the informal session, including Ryan Haggerty, Jarrett Burton, Pat McGrath and Reid Gardiner.

The 28 players on the Penguins training camp roster will report to the rink tomorrow (Saturday) for physicals, before the first official on-ice session takes place on Sunday morning.

As in past years, all practice sessions held at the Toyota Sportsplex are free and open to the public.


Defenseman Ryan Lannon visited town along with his pal, Ted

THE MAYOR IS IN TOWN

Former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman (an all around good dude) Ryan Lannon made an appearance at the rink on Friday as well, loosening up his legs with some of the current players.

A solid, stay-at-home defenseman, Lannon spent three seasons (2005-08) suiting up on the Penguins blue line, recording 42 points (5+37) in 217 games with the club.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ eighth round choice in 2002, Lannon has also played in AHL games with the Worcester Sharks, San Antonio Rampage, Houston Aeros and Lake Erie Monsters.  He has also played overseas in Finland and Austria.

Lannon, who attended high school with current Penguins assistant coach J.D. Forrest, won’t be participating in camp with the Pens, but expect some news from the man known as the ‘Mayor of Cape Cod’ in the near future.

 

 


MEANWHILE, IN OHIO…

The Pittsburgh Penguins continue their exhibition slate on Friday night, when they travel to Columbus for a 7:00pm contest.

The Penguins roster for Friday’s battle with the Blue Jackets:

Forwards

11 Jay McClement
17 Bryan Rust
23 Scott Wilson
33 Greg McKegg
34 Tom Kuhnhackl
41 Daniel Sprong
45 Josh Archibald
46 Zach Aston-Reese
47 Adam Johnson
53 Teddy Blueger
54 Thomas Di Pauli
79 Freddie Tiffels
80 Sam Miletic

Defensemen

2 Chad Ruhwedel
3 Olli Maatta
5 Zach Trotman
22 Matt Hunwick
24 Jarred Tinordi
51 Derrick Pouliot
55 Chris Summers

Goalies

1 Casey DeSmith
31 Antti Niemi

Friday night’s game can be heard online at http://bit.ly/1059X


 

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

DECISION TO STAY IN PITTSBURGH A NO-BRAINER FOR RUHWEDEL


by Mike O’Brien

It can be a daunting choice, one to which most everyone can relate.  At some point in life, it comes time to mull over a job offer.  Many hours and some sleepless nights are spent weighing the pros and cons, determining if the next opportunity is the right one.

Hockey players go through a super-charged version of this process come the start of free agency each summer.  Life decisions are crammed into a few hours as players must quickly choose which contract, which organization, which city is the best fit.

Even if defenseman Chad Ruhwedel had a crystal ball at his disposal last summer when he signed a one-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he might have had difficulty foreseeing the path the lay ahead.

Ruhwedel had been at this crossroads before.

The San Diego native had an outstanding junior campaign at the UMass-Lowell, helping the Riverhawks to the Frozen Four while being named an All-American.

At the same time, the undrafted defenseman was being pursued aggressively by the Buffalo Sabres, who signed Ruhwedel at the conclusion of the 2012-13 college season.  He hopped right into the Sabres line-up, making his NHL debut on Apr. 13, 2013 in a 1-0 win over Philadelphia as part of a seven-game stint with Buffalo.

The following season, Ruhwedel’s first full campaign as a pro, would provide the blueliner with a highwater mark for games played in the NHL.  He appeared in 21 contests for a rebuilding Buffalo squad, while also splitting time in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans.

A restricted free agent in the summer of 2014, Ruhwedel re-signed with the Sabres, but saw his time in NHL diminish to just five games in Buffalo over the next two seasons.

Fast forward to July 1, 2016.  Ruhwedel was at another proverbial fork in the road. Though there were many conversations with his family and agent leading up to the start of free agency, the final decision ended up being a pretty easy one.

“That was pretty hectic the week before free agency.  We narrowed it down to a few contenders,” Ruhwedel stated.  “When Pittsburgh’s name came up, to be honest, it was a no-brainer.”

The 27-year-old joined a Penguins organization that boasted a very deep bench on defense.  He began the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and immediately slotted into the top pairing for the AHL club.

When injuries befell the blueline corps in Pittsburgh near Christmas time, Ruhwedel was recalled to NHL.  He hit the ice for his first game with Pittsburgh on Dec. 20, and scored his first NHL goal a game later versus the New Jersey Devils.  His steady play endeared Ruhwedel to the coaching staff in a short amount of time.

“The reason Chad stuck is because he earned his spot,” said Pittsburgh Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan. “He earned it through his performance and his work habits each and every day.”

Ruhwedel set career highs with 34 NHL games played, two goals, eight assists and 10 points.  Those stats and time spent in Pittsburgh probably would have been enough to justify his choice to join the Penguins, but it only got better from there.

With the defense corps at full health to begin the postseason, Ruhwedel initially found himself a spectator through the opening round series versus Columbus and much the second round against Washington.

But, when Trevor Daley suffered an injury in Game Five against the Capitals, it was Ruhwedel who got that call from Sullivan.

The Penguins closed out the Caps in seven games, and Ruhwedel was also in the line-up through the first four contests of the Eastern Conference Final versus Ottawa – including 21:25 in Game Three.

As Daley returned from his lower-body injury, Ruhwedel was again relegated to the press box, but was on the ice in Nashville to hoist the Stanley Cup with the rest of his teammates.

Suffice to say, Ruhwedel felt good about electing to sign with Pittsburgh.  It is hard to imagine the season unfolding more perfectly as he described the year as one that “exceeded all expectations.”

Still, after the most successful season of his career, Ruhwedel headed into the off-season once again as a free agent and with a choice to make.  Ruhwedel re-signed with the Penguins on July 22, signing a two-year, one-way deal.  From the sound of it, he spent way less time on the decision this time around.

“It was really easy to decide to re-sign.  They wanted me back and I really wanted to be back,” Ruhwedel stated. “It’s just a good mutual relationship and I think it’s a good fit for both of us.”

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

OBIE’S OBSERVATIONS – PITTSBURGH TRAINING CAMP

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins broadcaster Mike O’Brien is in Western Pennsylvania for Pittsburgh Penguins training camp, and checked in with some of his thoughts from Monday’s practice and tournament game.

Practice

Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

•  During the first three days of practice at training camp, the Penguins have split into three teams for a round robin tournament.  Team 3 was not able to make it to the championship game as they were on ice early today for practice.  Their roster read like a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Who’s Who from the 2014-15 season with the likes of Josh Archibald, Matt Murray, Carter Rowney, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson out there.  Seems like forever, but it is less than two years ago that those players were helping Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to one of its best starts in team history.

•  It is always fun to see when players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton graduate to full-time residence in Pittsburgh, and obviously it has happened plenty of times over the last 18 years.  Still, it was special to see Carter Rowney skating during training camp today.  Such a good guy off the ice and a hard worker on it.  His trek from the ECHL to the NHL has been written about at length, as were his contributions during the Penguins’ most-recent Stanley Cup run.  Though Rowney has been a participant at Pittsburgh’s training camp before, it’s different this year.  His spot in the NHL this season is deserved and seemingly secure.  It has been a long, hard road for Rowney and it’s not hard to appreciate him officially reaching this point of his journey.

•  Recent Wilkes-Barre/Scranton signee Christian Thomas was also a part of Team 3’s practice.  A couple of times, he flashed the shot that helped him score 24 goals in Hershey last season.  Thomas also showed good ability distributing the puck.  His no-look pass to Garrett Wilson created a good chance in close and he set-up teams on a couple of 2-on-1s. Thomas was signed to bring another scoring element to the Penguins, but it appears he can be a playmaker as well.

Training Camp Championship Game

They won’t be throwing any parades for the winner of this one, but it was a spirited match-up between Team 1 led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s Team 2.  Team 1 used two goals in the “second half” of the scrimmage to pull away for the 4-2 win and take home the training camp crown.  Here are a few players that stood out:

•  Gage Quinney – The second-year pro was the MVP early on in the championship game, scoring both of Team’s 1 goals in the first half.  His first came off a quick shot that banged off the post and into the net.  Quinney’s second goal showed good patience, taking a pass from Ryan Reaves and waiting out Antti Niemi before tucking the puck past the skate of the downed goaltender.

•  Casey DeSmith – This isn’t DeSmith’s first training camp in Pittsburgh, but it is his first with an NHL contract.  The 26-year-old looked the part on Monday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.  Taking over net for the second half of the scrimmage and with the score knotted, 2-2, DeSmith pitched a shutout as Team 1 broke the tie and eventually skated to victory.  The netminder was reading the play well and kept his form whenever there was chaos or traffic around his net.  His prettiest save came with the glove, when he robbed Ian Cole on a bang-bang one-timer from the hashmarks.  DeSmith’s most impressive stop came moments before, getting a shoulder a Phil Kessel’s mid-air rebound opportunity on the left post.

•  Dominik Simon – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans remember Simon’s deadly shot that netted 25 goals during his rookie season in 2015-16.  At times last season, that skill took a backseat as he worked to develop other aspects of his game.  Skating on a line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Simon’s quick release and accuracy were on display once again.  Stationed on the left circle, Simon took a centering feed from Crosby and sniped a wrist shot to the top of the net that turned out to be the game-winner.  With the depth at wing in Pittsburgh, earning a spot with out of camp might prove difficult.  But if Simon continues to light the lamp during the preseason, he could put himself in line to be one of the first call-ups for Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan.

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

FINALLY HEALTHY, DI PAULI READY TO SHOW WHAT HE CAN DO

Based on the way Thomas Di Pauli’s first season as a pro went last year, it’d be easy to think he spent most of his days spilling salt over broken mirrors underneath a ladder with a black cat. It was a rather unfortunate year to say the least, one riddled with injuries.

First it was a knee ailment suffered during training camp. Then once he got healthy, a nagging issue in his back required surgery to fix. That ultimately sidelined him for three whole months. Finally, a slash cut him right back down with a broken finger that ended his season for good. After all of that, the promising two-way forward was limited to just 21 games.

Bad luck like that would give anyone a good reason to mope around and curse the heavens, but at the recent Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, New York, not even the Karate Kid could wax the smile off of Di Pauli’s face.

Grinning ear-to-ear after every game, the Italian-born 23-year-old couldn’t contain his excitement when talking about his healthy status. By the time the tournament was over, Di Pauli had one word to describe how he felt.

“Fantastic.”

“I feel strong, I feel fast, and I feel confidence,” Di Pauli said following the Penguins prospects’ title-clinching game against the Buffalo Sabres. “I guess I’m going to keep having fun, because right now the hockey is flowing and it’s been so fun to play.”

Di Pauli spent most of his summer altering his training regimen and his diet. Di Pauli cited the time he spent observing Penguins veterans like Tom Kostopoulos as a huge inspiration for him when he was sidelined, and for good reason. Not only does Kostopoulos still produce offense in his late 30’s, but he’s only missed one game due to injury over the past two seasons.

Di Pauli hasn’t altered his eating habits to completely mirror the gluten-free lifestyle of his captain, but he is now a pescetarian. In the gym, he’s placed an added emphasis on flexibility and mobility over strength, attempting to ensure that his body can better handle the rigors of pro hockey.

Everything the oft-injured rookie changed from last year to now is a direct result of his misfortune.

“I learned from it,” he said. “I had the whole summer to regroup and focus on this year. I’m a firm believer that when things like that happen, it can make you stronger. I’m trying to look at it as a positive.”

The changes he’s made off the ice appear to be already translating to his on-ice performance, as well.

“Now [Di Pauli]’s healthy, and you can see the difference,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli. “You can see he’s got more jump. He’s a little bit quicker, and he’s a quick player to begin with.”

With his health in check, Di Pauli has his sights set on making a big impact with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Technically, because he was robbed of so many games last year due to all of his miscellaneous setbacks, he still qualifies as a rookie by American Hockey League standards. That puts him right in the mix with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s expected and anticipated rookie class, including Zach Aston-Reese, Daniel Sprong and Adam Johnson.

Despite being existing in a crowded field not only of rookies, but the Penguins organization’s overall depth chart at forward, a healthy Thomas Di Pauli has his sights set on reaching the NHL. Soon.

“I know the player I am and I’ve always known the player I can be,” Di Pauli said. “I won’t be surprised if I’m playing [in Pittsburgh] sooner rather than later. I know I can make that jump. So I’m going to keep hammering away, paying my dues and having fun, because I’m confident that I can play there.”

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

DANIEL SPRONG FOCUSED ON IMPROVING HIS DEFENSIVE SKILLS

Everywhere Daniel Sprong has gone, he’s been really, really good at one thing: scoring goals. Ever since he was one of few young lads tearing up the rink in Amsterdam, he was scoring goals. Once he crossed the pond and was terrorizing the bantam and minor midget ranks up and down the eastern seaboard, it was because he was scoring goals.

Sprong has continued to generate offense in bunches since the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.  But now they’re looking for him to find a new trick: they want him to learn how to play defense.

The oft-cited but always elusive “200-foot game” is what Sprong is focused on achieving these days. Last year, after shoulder surgery denied him the first few months of the season, Sprong used his time back with the Charlottetown Islanders of the Québec Major Junior Hockey League to not only score many more goals, but to work on rounding out the defensive aspects of his skillset.

“I had good teammates and good coaches that helped me out with my 200-foot game in the Q last year, and I think my plus/minus showed it,” Sprong said. “And these games at [the 2017 Prospect Challenge], each game got better and better. It’s never going to be perfect at this time of year, but I’m making progress and getting closer to where I need to be.”

It’s hasn’t been an overnight adjustment for Sprong, largely because his game has been predicated on generating offense his entire life. And when he looks at the roster of the NHL team that drafted him, there’s plenty of existing offensive firepower with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel to name a few. So Sprong feels the pressure to demonstrate his worth amongst a crowded field of competition.

“Pittsburgh has a lot of scoring depth and me being an offensive guy, of course I have to worry about creating chances every time I’m on the ice to prove myself,” Sprong said.

That creates quite a mental paradox for a young player. On one hand, you want to do the one thing you’ve done your whole life, while the people in charge of you want you to do the opposite. Instead of being overwhelmed by it all, Sprong has welcomed this challenge with open arms.

Furthermore, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton assistant coach Tim Army says that Sprong is far from the first player to go through that conundrum.

“That’s the pressure of this immense offensive potential and ability,” Army said. “But then it’s about the process of players learning how to best take advantage of that ability. The only way you can take advantage of it, is being diligent without the puck in all three zones. Pro hockey’s too difficult, it’s too humbling. If you’re not diligent off the puck, you’ll quickly find you’ll dry up offensively, too.”

A young offensive stud isn’t exactly accustomed to playing off the puck all that often, though. Sprong has been the go-to guy for his teams to drive the play shift after shift. Now that he’s starting from scratch and isn’t going to always be in those same situations, well, that’s the current learning curve he’s on right now.

“That’s just all part of being a pro,” coach Clark Donatelli said. “Those offensive players, especially coming out of juniors, their defense IS having the puck. Now when you try moving up, you might have the puck less, so you have to adapt your game. He’s such a high talent that he’ll figure it out.”

Sprong is also far from the first player to go through these growing pains. Donatelli and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton GM Bill Guerin both used the phrase “superstars” when talking about the game’s history of offensive players thriving once they learned how to effectively play defense. Army, on the other hand, had more specific examples.

“I think back to all those years ago when I was in Anaheim, and we drafted Paul Kariya,” he said. “And then when we traded for Teemu (Selänne). They were really young guys at that time. They obviously had brilliant offensive ability, but to learn the game from an away from the puck vantage point, it took some time.Eventually, by them playing, and you being patient with them and instructing them, they begin to figure it out.”

Now, both Kariya and Selänne are Hall of Fame bound.

That’s not to say Sprong is destined for Younge Street, but those two names provide a perfect example of what his career could be if he harnesses the power of the mythical 200-foot game. Only then can he truly reach the skyscraper high ceiling of his offensive talents. More goals for Daniel Sprong. Though he’s probably used to hearing that at this point.

2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Season Ticket Information

PROSPECT CHALLENGE TITLE A TESTAMENT TO PENGUINS ORGANIZATION STRENGTH

At the 2017 Prospect Challenge, there was only one team without a single player selected in the first round on it’s roster. It was the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team with the most undrafted players on its roster was the Pittsburgh Penguins. Which team had the most points at the end of the tournament? The Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite their opponents boasting arguably more attractive depth charts, the Penguins organization proved its dominance once again with its tremendous showing at the Prospects Challenge. The efforts of the scouts, coaches, and most importantly the players culminated in a 5-3 victory in the final game against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

“This group was pretty special because we didn’t have too many practices,” said coach Clark Donatelli. “We showed them some video, we told them what to do, and they responded. They played really well. I think it gets contagious once they know they have success doing it, they want to do it more.”

Donatelli went on and spoke at length about the organizations philosophy when it comes to not just drafting and signing good players, but “good humans”, as he put it. There is an added emphasis on work ethic, too, and when those personalites all combine in one space, unique things can happen.

“When people come to us, they want to get better,” Donatelli said. “Every single person works so hard on the ice and off the ice. When you’re working in that kind of environment and you have people around you that are willing to pay the price to win and pay attention to details and practice habits, it’s contagious. Fortunately for us right now, that’s our culture. It’s a tribute to the organization and how they draft players.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a first round or a second rounder or undrafted. Once you’re a Penguin, you’re a Penguin. Once you’re part of the family, you’re part of the family.”

New assistant coach Tim Army has only been part of the family for a hot second, being hired by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton one month ago. However, he now has first-hand experience with what the Penguins organization is capable of, even when they have limited resources at the draft.

“I think the evaluation of players and brining in the right group is a credit to all of the scouting staff,” Army said. “You know, they get out there and they watch a lot of games. They’re all over North America and they’re all over Europe. We have some draft picks here, but there are also some unsigned players that are really battling. They bring in the right pieces.”

Those scouts found Teddy Blueger, who wore the “C” as a young leader on this team and was a beacon of light on defense.

Those scouts found Daniel Sprong, whose constant threat of offense kept opposing teams on their heels.

Those scouts found Jordy Bellerive, and undrafted, unsigned 18-year-old who ended up topping the tournament with seven total points (4G-3A) in three games.

Those scouts scoured the globe and found Slovenian Jan Drozg, who unloaded a wicked wrist shot on the rush for what became the game-winning and tournament-winning goal.

And on and on and on.

The Sabres opened the scoring with a first period power play goal by Brendan Guhle. The rowdy crowd at HARBORCenter thought that the hometown Buffalo squad would carry that 1-0 lead into the first intermission until Thomas Di Pauli slammed home a rebound in the waning seconds of the frame.

The second period was a back and forth affair, with the two teams trading goals in quick succession. Zach Aston-Reese made it 2-1 for the Penguins prospects with a goal on a five-on-three man advantage, but Buffalo’s Justin Bailey answered back with another power play marker. Antti Palojärvi, who checked in to the Penguins’ line-up for the first time on Monday, got the black and gold back on top, 3-2, before Buffalo’s third power play goal of the night (this time from C.J. Smith) evened things up again.

Drozg found his game-winner midway through the third, and then Zach Aston-Reese sealed it off with an empty netter.

They didn’t walk away with a trophy or gold medals or anything like that, but with the work put in by everyone with the Penguins this weekend, the organization showed its counterparts why its considered the best there is.

“There’s an expectation of winning here,” Army said. “And we told that to the guys before we bused out. We’re about winning here, so let’s go win a tournament. Well, we won the tournament.”

JAN DROZG WORKING HIS WAY TOWARDS SLOVENIAN DREAM

 There are certain countries that are considered hockey powerhouses. Canada quickly comes to mind for most. So do Russia and the United States. Sweden is always a tough out in international play and Finland has been on a roll lately. Slovenia isn’t in that same pantheon.

Slovenia isn’t thought of as much of a hockey anything, really. In fact, a 2014 survey revealed less than 5% of Americans could even identify Slovenia on a map of Europe. But nestled south of Austria, east of Venice and west of Zagreb is where Penguins prospect Jan Drozg grew up and where he found his love for hockey.

Only three Slovenians have ever played in the NHL: Greg Kuznik, Jan Muršak and Anže Kopitar. Drozg is using the Prospects Showcase in Buffalo as a stepping stone as he tries to climb the ladder and become the fourth name on that list.

“I always looked up to the NHL stars,” he said. “And Anže Kopitar, he’s a very good player. He does a lot of things very well. It’s easy for a Slovenian like him to be a model.”

Drozg was taken by Pittsburgh as a bit of a surprise pick in the fifth round of this past NHL Entry Draft. Not many knew his name, but the Penguins’ European scouts that saw him play for the Leksands U18 junior program in Sweden knew he had a skillset they couldn’t pass up. Through two games in Buffalo at the Prospects Showcase, that offensive flair has been apparent. He’s created scoring chances, shown off some slick hands as well the the kind of straight-ahead speed that the Penguins organization has coveted in recent years.

That isn’t to say Drozg isn’t the perfect player yet. If he wants to become the fourth Slovenian to make it to the NHL, he’s already been made well aware of where he needs to improve.

“I need to get stronger down low, in the corners,” he said. “That’s something the coaches have told me and I’m focused on it.”

The 18-year-old Drozg also recognizes the weight on his shoulders considering Slovenia’s history (or lack thereof) in the NHL and international hockey. He’s the first to admit that hockey doesn’t occupy the national consciousness very often. Frankly, it’s an afterthought compared to other popular European sports like soccer. But at a particular time of year, the country rallies around it’s hockey players.

“Slovenia is not much of a hockey country, but when it’s the Olympics, everyone is paying attention,” he said. “It would be great to play for my country at the Olympics, but that’s not something I’m thinking about now. That could be far away. I’m thinking about what I can do today.”

Today, his efforts are dialed in on improving so that he can make an impression of Penguins coaches and scouts and get himself in good graces for seasons down the line.

Drozg will not play for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or Pittsburgh this season, although he will get the opportunity to acclimate himself to the North American game as a member of the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Québec Major Junior Hockey League. Beyond that, Drozg will have the Penguins and his country watching closely to see the steps he takes towards making the NHL.

 

OTHER NOTES:

• Coach Clark Donatelli has been very complimentary of Teddy Blueger’s skating throughout the week, an identified area of improvement after last season. More on this later in the week.

• The Penguins prospects’ last game of the 2017 Prospects Showcase will obstensibly also serve as the Final for the tournament. Both the Penguins and their Monday night opponent, the Buffalo Sabres, have the most points through two games, posting an identical 1-0-1 record. Whoever wins their showdown tonight will be Prospect Showcase Champions.