When Dennis Bonvie arrived in Wilkes-Barre back in 1999, he had no idea of the impact he would make on his new team, let alone hockey fans in Northeast Pennsylvania.
But he certainly sees the mark he’s left now.
Bonvie was among the dozen figures inducted into the Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday night at the Best Western Genetti Hotel & Conference Center in downtown Wilkes-Barre. He’s the first member of the Penguins to receive the honor from the local organization.
But it wasn’t an honor Bonvie was expecting until he received a phone call two months ago.
“I was kind of in awe, I didn’t know what to say,” he stated from the podium in a packed ballroom. “Anytime you can be part of a hall of fame with these special people, these special athletes, you say yes right away.”
Already a seasoned-pro of six seasons, Bonvie joined the Penguins organization just prior to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s first training camp, and spent two years with the club. He experienced the lows (a last place finish in the team’s inaugural season) and highs (a trip to the Calder Cup Finals in the second) in a short amount of time.
But it was the thrills, big hits and fisticuffs that he displayed that turned the what was officially known as the Northeastern Pennsylvania Civic Arena and Convention Center into the “House That Bonvie Built.”
Bonvie spent considerable time away from the rink engaging with fans throughout the area, endearing himself to hockey aficionados and newcomers alike. He never shied away from a photo or autograph, and generously donated time to community appearances and charity events.
The native of Antigonish, Nova Scotia left the area after the 2000-01 campaign, but returned to the Penguins four years later to great fanfare. He spent the final three seasons of his 15-year pro career with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, before hanging up the skates at the conclusion of the 2007-08 campaign.
But that was hardly the last Penguins fans would see of Bonvie, as he and his family (wife Kelly, son Rhys, and daughter Davyn) continue to reside in Luzerne County today.
“I came here not knowing what Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was,” said Bonvie. “It’s our second home now.”
For more information on the Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame, visit the organizations official website.
When Mike Sullivan went out of his way to bestow the moniker of “Buzzsaw” upon Josh Archibald, one could correctly surmise that the head coach, then of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, was a fan of the forward’s style of play.
When Sullivan ascended to become the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, one might have also assumed that an NHL call-up would soon follow for Archibald.
But Archibald was not part of the group elevated from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton soon after Sullivan took over in Pittsburgh. The 2011 6th-round pick instead was forced to watch as teammates, such as Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson, found permanent homes in the NHL and eventually lifted the Stanley Cup.
But patience paid off for Archibald.
Using the tenacity and speed that once drew the admiration of his head coach, Archibald earned a spot with Pittsburgh late in the 2016-17 season, and found himself hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The third-year pro got off to a fast start this past season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, skating alongside Oskar Sundqvist and Garrett Wilson to form one of the best lines in the Eastern Conference. The trio combined for 60 points over the first 31 games of the campaign.
As the Penguins continued to jockey for positioning atop of the American Hockey League standings, Archibald had a career night on Feb. 4, posting two goals and an assist in a 7-1 pummeling of rival Lehigh Valley.
Less than a week later, the 24-year-old received his call-up to Pittsburgh and jetted across the country before taking the ice for his NHL season debut in Arizona.
“It was kind of a long trip. I left New York and I don’t think I got to Arizona until about midnight and had to get up to do the morning routine, morning skate and video,” Archibald recalled. “I was really excited to get back out there with the Penguins and show them what I had.”
Archibald showed both the Penguins and Coyotes what he had, notching his first two NHL goals to help Pittsburgh rally and earn a point on Feb. 11. His first tally opened the scoring as he was quick to a rebound chance and snapped a backhander to the top of the net.
His second goal showed off the skills that made him one of the top performers for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
With the Penguins on the penalty kill, Arizona goaltender Mike Smith had trouble handling the puck near the no-touch zone. Archibald came speeding in on the forecheck to cause havoc.
“It happened really fast,” recalled Archibald. “[The puck] was almost in that awkward spot in the triangle where he can’t play it. It was kind of sitting on the line. So I think he hesitated a little bit and I got in on the forecheck. I was able to recover it… …My body just took over and I was able to kick it up to myself with literally a wide open net.”
The bang-bang shorthanded goal with 5:22 to go pulled Pittsburgh within one and, with seconds left, Phil Kessel evened the score with the extra attacker. The Penguins ultimately fell in overtime, but Archibald could not have asked for a better personal performance in his season debut.
Archibald appeared in one more game for Pittsburgh before returning to the AHL, but was recalled for good at the end of the March. While injuries provided the opportunity for the forward to move into the line-up, Archibald believes his speed, getting behind the defense and never giving up on plays helped to establish himself with the Penguins.
Ice time was sparse through the remainder of the regular season, and Archibald found himself in the press box through the first two rounds of the playoffs. But as Pittsburgh advanced to Eastern Conference Final versus the Ottawa Senators, Archibald made his way back into the line-up for Game Four with his team trailing 2-1 in the series. The guidance from coaches for his first-ever NHL postseason appearance was brief.
“They just told me, ‘We know how you can play,’” said Archibald. “’You got to go out there and do it.’”
Archibald and the Penguins smacked down Ottawa in a 7-0 victory that tied up the Conference Final. He went on to dress for two more contests as Pittsburgh defeated the Senators in seven games to make it back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final.
The championship round saw the Penguins match-up against the Nashville Predators. Once again Archibald’s first appearance during the series came in Game Four.
“We felt we wanted to try to put some enthusiasm and energy and speed in the lineup,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Post-Gazette at the time. “Archie brings all those things to the table. He played some very solid games for us. He’s a guy that brings a certain dimension that we felt we wanted to have.”
Though the Predators knotted the series with a 4-1 win, it was an event that Archibald will forever savor.
“It was just one of those games, but it was a lot of fun,” Archibald said. “Great experience to get in a game like that.”
Of course, it is much easier to look back on such times when you end up on the winning side of history. That is exactly what happened with the Penguins pitching consecutive shutouts to claim their second straight Stanley Cup. Though Game Four was Archibald’s lone contest played during the series, he was on the ice after the deciding contest to take his rightful turn lifting the coveted trophy in the air. It was a moment that meant that much more with his college and Penguins teammate, Jake Guentzel, passing him the Cup.
“It was a pretty ecstatic moment for me. For [Jake] to hand me that Cup to me after what we’ve been through kind of together, in college and then him coming into Wilkes-Barre at the end of last year and then even this year in Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh, it was pretty awesome.”
Archibald will get a crack at another Stanley Cup and a chance to build on his NHL resume, as he signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh on July 13. The one-way deal would seem to indicate a more permanent tenure at the NHL level for Archibald, who hopes that the end of the regular season and playoffs “were a good indication of what I can do.”
If life briefly settled down for Archibald following the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run, things are about to pick up big time in a short while. Josh and his wife, Bailey, who were married last summer, are expecting their first child in the next week or two.
From marrying his college sweetheart last summer, to scoring his first NHL goals, getting his named etched on the Stanley Cup and soon to be welcoming a new addition to the family, it has been quite the year for Archibald. There is little question as to where it ranks so far.
“Probably number one,” joked Archibald. “It definitely has been the best year so far. Hopefully, we can keep building and have even better years from here on out.”
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins training camp is still more than a month away, but two members of the team’s coaching staff will be back behind a bench later this week.
For the second consecutive season, Clark Donatelli will guide the United States Under-18 Select Team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. The eight-team tournament will be held in Breclav, Czech Republic and Bratislava, Slovakia, starting on August 7.
Among the assistants joining Donatelli with Team USA will be Wilkes-Barre/Scranton assistant coach, J.D. Forrest.
The tournament features the top players under the age of 18 from the major hockey playing countries. The teams are split into two groups (Group A – Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, USA; Group B – Canada, Finland, Russia, Slovakia), with each team playing once against the other countries within its group.
The top two teams in each group will advance to play in semifinal and medal rounds, while the lower ranked teams will face off to determine places five through eight.
Donatelli and Forrest were among the coaches and administrators who helped select the team of 22 skaters from a pool of players at USA Hockey’s Boys Select 17 Player Development Camp, held last month in Amherst, NY.
Last year Donatelli led the U.S. to a second-place finish in the competition, guiding the team to a 4-0 record before falling to the Czech Republic, 4-3, in the championship game.
We will have updates after every game online, and J.D. Forrest will be keeping us updated from overseas with blog posts and photos throughout the tournament. We hope you’ll follow along with us.
The full U.S. team schedule for the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup:
Thursday, August 3
Saturday, August 5
Monday, August 7
Breclav, Czech Republic
Tuesday, August 8
Breclav, Czech Republic
Wednesday, August 9
Breclav, Czech Republic
Friday, August 11
Saturday, August 12
Ivan Hlinka played in 256 games as a member of the Czechoslovakian national team and scored 132 goals in international competition. He also played in 544 games in Czechoslovak league, scoring 347 times. Hlinka was among the first Czech-born players to suit up in the National Hockey League, joining the Vancouver Canucks in 1981. He set a Canucks rookie record with 60 points (later broken by Pavel Bure).
In 2000, Hlinka took over the head coaching reigns of the Pittsburgh Penguins, guiding the team to a 42-28-9-3 mark, and a spot in the Eastern Conference Final. He was killed in an automotive accident in the Czech Republic in August of 2004.
When Casey DeSmith wasn’t stopping pucks on the ice this past season, he often found himself dodging playful jokes from his teammates in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins locker room. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence, but all too frequently, someone would deliver DeSmith an insult regarding his car.
For a pro athlete, DeSmith drives modestly. He arrived at the rink every day in a gold 1998 Toyota Celica, a vehicle with a burnt-out taillight as well as the grit and character of a veteran fourth-liner. Affectionately known as “The Golden Snitch” in some circles, it was the low hanging fruit, perfectly ripe for his teammates to pick.
DeSmith probably got it so hard from his teammates about his obsolescent automobile because there was little else they could tease him about, especially when it came to his play on the ice. One season after his sudden and shocking ascent from being a third-string goalie in the ECHL to the Penguins playoff starter, DeSmith picked up right where he left off for his first full AHL campaign.
Day in and day out, game after game, he was a dominant force between the pipes. That kind of consistency lent itself to one of the best rookie seasons a goalie has ever had in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins history. Not only did his gaudy statistics earn him a series of individual accolades, but his year culminated in the once undrafted DeSmith signing his first NHL contact on July 1.
“A personal goal that I set was just not necessarily to sign an NHL contract, but having a year to give me the possibility or opportunity to do that,” he said. “I’m glad that I was able to do that, and obviously it’s super exciting.”
An NHL contract wasn’t the only goal DeSmith set for himself at the start of the 2016-17 season, though. He came right into camp with the motivation to prove that his unpredictable playoff success the spring before was no fluke.
Anyone anticipating the New Hampshire native being a flash in the pan was proven wrong, not only when he started the season with an 8-0-2 record, but when he ultimately finished the season with an AHL-best 2.01 goals against average.
“That was important for me,” DeSmith said. “Obviously, the year before I didn’t have a ton of playing time or exposure or anything like that. So I definitely made the most of what I had. But this year, I knew I would have more of an opportunity to prove myself, and I wanted to take advantage of it.”
That’s exactly what he did. The coaching staff and his teammates, already familiar with his wizardry from the previous playoffs, grew to trust him even more. Just because the Penguins didn’t have their A-plus game on a given night, that didn’t mean their chances of victory were sunk. Just because Tristan Jarry wasn’t in net, it didn’t mean the Penguins would have a “back-up goalie mentality” when the other guy went in. Because the other guy was Casey DeSmith.
The rest of the league took notice of DeSmith, too.
Before the season’s end, he was named to the AHL’s 2016-17 All-Rookie Team. Once the season concluded, he and Tristan Jarry stood tall as statistically the best netminding tandem in the league, earning them the Harry “Hap” Holmes Award given annually to the goalie(s) with the fewest goals against at the end of the season.
With the playoffs gearing up at that stage of the year, DeSmith wasn’t really in the state of mind to appreciate the weight of the individual accolades he had received. However, when he returned home for the summer, he took the awards that were stashed in the back of the good ol’ Golden Snitch and handed them over to his mom and dad. It was in that moment that the reality of his accomplishments sunk in.
“I took them out and showed my parents, and you kind of realize how cool it is to get an award for All-Rookie Team or lowest goals against average as a tandem,” he said. “That’s not easy to do. [All-Rookie Team] is something only one goalie gets a year. One tandem as far as the Holmes award. It was handing those trophies to my parents and being like, ‘Man, this was a really good year.’”
DeSmith’s banner year didn’t end with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s season, though. On the first day of NHL free agency, the Pittsburgh Penguins inked him to a one-year, two-way contract.
“Excitement” is the emotion DeSmith cites most often when he thinks back to the day he put pen to paper, making the deal official. But he doesn’t dwell too much on what he’s already done. He’s already prepared to move forward and forge another unforgettable year like the one he just had.
“As a competitive athlete, it’s not enough,” he said. “You want to win the Stanley Cup. That’s the ultimate goal. So, it’s like a step in the right direction, rather than ‘Oh, I reached my goal. This is the top’. This doesn’t feel like the top of the mountain. This is another step in my climb to where I want to be.”
While DeSmith has his eyes on a greater prize as he continues to work to advance his career, certainly he had to celebrate the gigantic season and big contract signing in some fashion. And he did. After signing his first NHL contract, DeSmith went out and bought himself a new car.
Now, he’s the proud owner of a black Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Even though he’ll be traveling in style from now on, DeSmith isn’t so sure anyone will let him forget about his old ride anytime soon.
“You know, I might still hear about the gold car from time to time. But at least I won’t be driving to the rink in that anymore.”
You could say Freddie Tiffels has some history with the Penguins organization. It is more than his sixth-round (167th overall) selection in the 2015 NHL Draft. No, this is about a winner-take-all game on the international stage, but we’ll get to that later.
Tiffels signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 22, capping off a whirlwind Spring for the 22-year old from Cologne, Germany.
His junior year at Western Michigan University was a memorable one. After two down seasons, Tiffels was part of a resurgence that saw the Broncos thrive in a stacked NCHC that featured the last two teams standing in the NCAA tournament – Denver and Minnesota-Duluth – not to mention perennial powerhouse North Dakota. Tiffels tied a career high with 21 points (9G-12A) in 37 games as Western Michigan spent 10 weeks in the top 10 and finished tenth in the final USCHO poll. Though the Broncos fell to Air Force in the first round of the NCAA Championship, Tiffels would go on to make his mark in a not-so-small tournament a short time later.
Though most North American hockey fans hone in on international play every four years at the Olympics, the World Championships takes place annually and is as big as it gets in international play. Tiffels received an invitation to try out for Team Germany and was the only collegiate player to make the roster. Through training camp and exhibition games, he used his high-end speed to repeatedly catch the eye of Head Coach Marco Sturm. The relatively-unknown Tiffels made a name for himself skating alongside players such Leon Draisaitl, Christian Ehroff and Dennis Seidenberg.
After Tiffels scored his first international goal in a loss against Russia, Sturm told DW, “”Freddie is giving us more than we had expected. He always goes all out.”
The German forward was hardly done and saved his biggest performance for the most important game of the group stage round robin. And this is where the history comes into play. Maybe not so much against the Penguins as a whole, but instead another prospect in their system.
On May 16, in Tiffels’ hometown of Cologne, Team Germany took on a Latvia side that included Penguins forward Teddy Blueger. The winner of this game moved on to the knockout stage. The loser was done for the tournament. After a thrilling 65 minutes of regulation and overtime hockey could only net a 3-3 deadlock, the two teams headed to the shootout. Five shooters skated out to center ice and all five failed to score on the opposing netminder.
With the game on his stick, Tiffels raced into the slot and dragged the puck back to his forehand before unleashing a wrist shot through the five-hole of Latvian goalie Elvis Merzlinkins.
About the moment, Tiffels said, “I think I was a little bit lucky because Latvia missed three times and [Germany] only missed twice. I could only be the hero. If I don’t score, it just goes to another around. So, I think there was not too much pressure, but when I scored it was probably the best moment of my life.”
After that goal, the celebration for Germany was on. Not so for Blueger and Team Latvia. The good times almost carried on for Germany, nearly shocking the world and hanging with Canada, but eventually falling 2-1.
Following the amazing World Championship run for Tiffels, the Penguins forward now turns his attention to the next phase of his career. A participant in Pittsburgh’s development camp last month, Tiffels realizes his dreams of making the NHL include a first stop in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but has been working this summer to get ready for the onset of his pro career. With speed already a part of his game to go along with some good size (6-1, 201 lbs.), Tiffels is focused on the develop the cerebral element of the hockey skill set.
“I want to get better at everything, but I think I want to get smarter and making the right decisions on the ice.”
Though familiar with each other from past camps in Pittsburgh, Tiffels has yet to catch up with Blueger since that night at Lanxess Arena. They will seem to have plenty of time to do so come Penguins training camp this fall. Whether they reminisce or not, Tiffels will always have the fond memories of his entire World Championship experience.
As one of the new guys on scene now with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Tiffels will to try to generate some more moments versus the rest of the AHL.
That was the total number of defenseman taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2014 and 2015 NHL Entry Drafts.
The dearth of blueliners selected was the consequence of several factors: the Penguins had traded away a number of picks in trades which helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups; following the formula of opting for the best player available when Pittsburgh was on the draft clock; and perhaps a slight organizational philosophical lean to help build up the forward prospect pipeline.
In recent drafts, the Penguins have since shifted their focus to the backline once again, with eight defensemen chosen over the last two drafts.
That one selection though – taken with pick number 203 in the seventh round of the 2014 draft – looks ready to make an impact on the Penguins starting this season.
Seeing him on the ice during the Pittsburgh’s recent development camp, Jeff Taylor seems the template of what Penguins defenseman have come to embody lately. Taylor is not a towering figure (5-11, 185 lbs.) in the defensive zone, but he has good speed, awareness and passes the puck efficiently.
The 23-year old has a championship pedigree as well. In his lone season in the USHL, he helped the Dubuque Fighting Saints claim the league’s Clark Cup. The following year, as a freshman at Union College skating alongside future NHLer Shayne Gostisbehere, Taylor and the Dutchmen on to win the first NCAA Championship ever for the school.
Taylor was drafted that summer by the Penguins and his ability have had many speaking glowingly of the defenseman.
Penguins assistant general manager Billy Guerin told the Post-Gazette in December, “I remember his first development camp, everybody was like, ‘Oh, wow, look at this kid. He can move the puck, he can skate, he’s quick. He thinks the game well.’ He’s an undersized guy, but he has the ability to get himself out of trouble because he’s got great feet and he thinks the game well.”
Taylor officially signed his entry-level deal with Pittsburgh after completing his four-year college career this past March. His first pro experience came via six regular season games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and, while it didn’t reach the lofty heights of his early success at Union, Taylor’s growth both on and off the ice over the short stint was evident.
“His improvement was impressive,” said Penguins assistant coach JD Forrest. “From game one to the last game he played with us, he got better every day. I was surprised at how fast he picked up the game. He’s a real smart player.”
Like most players coming out of the collegiate or junior ranks, Taylor will work on his power and strength to complement his already sound decision making with the puck. Though he finished last season on a high note, Taylor’s experience in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was still an eye-opener.
“It was definitely huge for me to get my feet wet and understand how the pro game works,” said Taylor. “Just the preparation and the recovery, and all that stuff you don’t see that’s behind the scenes. That was big for me coming in.”
Taylor wasn’t the only defenseman to get a taste of AHL life late last year, though.
Dylan Zink, an undrafted free agent who skated four seasons at UMass-Lowell, signed an AHL contract with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and joined the team on an ATO in April.
After averaging 25 points through his previous two seasons, Zink broke out his senior year with 36 points (10G-26A) in 41 games, ranking fourth among NCAA defensemen. He helped lead the Riverhawks to the Hockey East Championship, a berth in the National Championship and was named a Second Team All-American.
Offense has been a mainstay of Zink’s game for the majority of his college career. He stands as the only defenseman in school history to record three consecutive seasons with double digit goals. Penguins management was pleased to be able to sign the 24-year defenseman, and Zink also saw a match with the Pittsburgh organization, noting “the way they develop their players. They’ve been using their minor league systems a lot up through the NHL.”
As he maps out a path in his mind for career success, Zink doesn’t have to look too far to find someone who has already blazed a trail that he might want to follow. Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel was also once a similarly-sized, undrafted free agent skating for UMass-Lowell, where he too earned a Hockey East title and was named an All-American. Turning pro after his junior year in 2012-13, Ruhwedel signed with the Buffalo Sabres and spent most of three seasons in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans. Joining the Pittsburgh Penguins last off-season, Ruhwedel graduated full-time to the NHL in January, hoisted the Stanley Cup a few months later and re-signed with Pittsburgh on a one-way deal on June 22.
Zink would not mind following a comparable model.
“I think I kind of play pretty similar to him and just to see the success he’s had. He’s spent some time in the minor leagues in the ‘A’, but he got his chance and he’s been rewarded with it.”
For now, Zink’s focus is on preparing for his first season as a pro.
“Right now, I’m just trying to become a better skater,” Zink said. “Working on that and just want to put on a lot of strength. I know the next level, it’s a long season so it can definitely take some wear and tear on your body so I’m really just trying to work on my skating and get as strong as I can.”
Come the start of the 2017-18 season, Taylor and Zink will officially begin their first seasons as pro hockey players. That puts these two talented players at the forefront of the prospect group that could be next to man the backline for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
December 28, 2005 is a date that Colby Armstrong will likely never forget.
It was immediately after recording a goal and two assists against the Hartford Wolf Pack that night that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward received a promotion to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he spent the next seven seasons as an NHL regular.
That night was also the last time the foursome of Armstrong, Dennis Bonvie, Chris Kelleher and Alain Nasreddine appeared together until this week.
That handful of former Penguins returned to NEPA to take part in the team’s inaugural Goal in One Golf Classic, presented by GWC Warranty. Those skaters joined past and present Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaches at a VIP reception on Sunday night, before hitting the links with more than 80 golfers on Monday afternoon. The tournament, a benefit to raise funds for the Penguins GOALS Foundation and Blue Chip Farm Animal Rescue, was held at Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club in Mountaintop.
“Honestly, time flies, but it doesn’t seem like that long ago,” said Armstrong, who spent parts of four seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “But the cool thing about it now is these guys are all involved in hockey, and I kind of get to do it from the other side now.”
Armstrong now serves as a post-game analyst on Pittsburgh Penguins television broadcasts, and Nasreddine is entering his third season as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils. Bonvie and Kelleher, who still make their homes in Luzerne County, are scouts with the Boston Bruins and Minnesota Wild.
“We’re all a little fatter, a little older,” quipped Armstrong. “But we’re still involved with the game and i think it’s pretty cool.”
The group had plenty of time to catch up with one another, as they teamed to shoot a 61 and take home the title in the team’s inaugural summer tournament.
“Every time we get together, it’s still those stories. And I know you want to hear one or two but, they’re definitely stories we can’t really tell you,” laughed Nasreddine.
“It’s a good thing there was no social media back when we played,” replied Kelleher.
The group, which one social media user call the ‘Mount Rushmore of WBS Penguins’, also spent time reminiscing with former coaches during the two-day event, including Glenn Patrick, Michel Therrien, John Hynes and Mike Sullivan.
“It just shows too how Wilkes-Barre had an impact on a lot of people,” said Nasreddine. “Everyone’s back. Even Sully, who just won two Cups, and he’s here. [It just shows] how important Wilkes-Barre was to us four and all of these people who showed up.”
The year is just slightly more than half way over, but it’s safe to say that nobody is having a better 2017 than Carter Rowney.
In the span of five months, Rowney appeared in his first NHL game, netted his first NHL goal, saw the birth of his first child, and lifted the Stanley Cup.
But Rowney is no overnight sensation.
An undrafted free agent out of the University of North Dakota, Rowney broke into the pro ranks on a professional tryout contract with the Abbotsford Heat following his 2012-13 senior season. After splitting the next two seasons between the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Rowney finally found firm footing with the AHL Pens in 2015-16.
And how did he respond? Simply by leading the team in regular season scoring (56 points), finishing second on the club in goals (24), third in assists (32) en route to being named Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s MVP for the year.
That performance also put the Grand Prairie, Alb., native firmly in Pittsburgh’s picture, as the NHL club signed him to a two-year deal in March of that season.
Less than five months after signing his first NHL contract, Rowney married longtime girlfriend, Danielle, in August of 2016. He began the 2016-17 season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but was promoted to Pittsburgh in late January.
He played his first NHL game on Jan. 31 against Nashville. At the time, that one game after grinding his way up from the ECHL as an undrafted free agent out of college seemed like the fairy tale ending.
But Rowney’s remarkable story continued as he recorded his first NHL point on February 4, and netted his first goal a little over a month later on March 17.
With each game, Rowney continued to carve out a niche for himself. Despite not being a big goal-scorer, his reliable physical player and penalty killing prowess earned praise and, by the time the playoffs rolled around, he was a staple of the Penguins formidable attack.
“That’s something I take pride in,” said Rowney. “Find a role that I could be on the team, accept that role and try to do my best in that role.”
That he did, and his best performances came during the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, an exciting time both on and off the ice for Rowney.
Between Games One and Two in Pittsburgh, his first child, a son named Anders, was born. With the due date actually being later that week, when Rowney would’ve been playing Games Three and Four in Canada’s capital, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Following Anders’ arrival, Rowney played some of his best playoff hockey. In Game Four, his ice time was more than any forward, aside from captain Sidney Crosby, and even then he was only 21 seconds short. But it was Game Five where he really showcased what he was capable of. Rowney notched three assists and a plus-four rating, besting superstars like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to earn the number one star of the game.
After years of shuffling through minor league contracts to get his foot in the door of pro hockey, Rowney’s season of firsts culminated in hockey’s ultimate prize, with the Penguins standing triumphant, the Stanley Cup hoisted over their heads.
“Every time I would suit up in that Penguins uniform and get on the bench, I would just take a second and look in the crowd and realize where I was,” said Rowney, reflecting on his first NHL playoff experience. “It was just a fun time to play. And to cap it all off, to lift Lord Stanley, that was just unbelievable.”
In just half a season, Rowney became an inexpensive, but crucial part of the team. There’s even talk that he could be the perfect long-term replacement for Matt Cullen, should the wily veteran decide to retire. With his average of 15 minutes of ice time per game and his 21 draws at center being the most of the team behind the four regular centers, Rowney has certainly proved his worth. If the comparison bothers Cullen, he hasn’t shown it.
“It’s easy to get behind a kid like that who’s had to work for everything he’s earned,” said Cullen, following the Penguins shut out of the Senators in game five.
For now, at least, Carter Rowney can focus on his new, growing family as he’s had to delegate most daddy duties to his wife for nearly a month while helping the Penguins win their second Stanley Cup in as many years. He’ll spend the time off trying to figure out, much like everyone else, how the undrafted kid from the prairies now has his name etched alongside the greats.
The Vegas Golden Knights will see the majority of the team’s roster take shape on Wednesday when they announce their 30 selections in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. The newest NHL franchise will select one player from each of the other existing teams to bulk up their player pool as they enter their first season of play.
The last time the league held an expansion draft was back in 2000 when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets were gearing up for their first forays into the hockey world. Each team selected 26 players – one from every existing team, minus the recently formed Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators.
That draft came just months after the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins inaugural season came to an end, and fans in NEPA saw a fan favorite change his zip code as a result.
With the 31st overall pick in the 2000 expansion draft, the Blue Jackets snatched up former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton captain Tyler Wright.
Selected 12th overall by the Edmonton Oilers int he 1991 Entry Draft, Wright made his pro debut with with the Oilers in late 1993. He split the next three seasons between Edmonton and Cape Breton (AHL), earning a reputation as a pest with some scoring touch.
Wright was acquired by Pittsburgh on June 22, 1996 for a seventh round pick in that year’s entry draft, and split his first season between the Penguins and their then minor league affiliate, the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League.
Wright spent the entirety of the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons with Pittsburgh, but found himself the odd man out as training camp came to a close in the fall of 1999, and he was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
After going scoreless in 61 games with Pittsburgh in 1998-99, Wright found his scoring touch once again with the newly-formed AHL club, recording 20 points (5+15) in 25 games.
Wright’s final game with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton came on December 17, 1999, in a 2-1 win over the Albany River Rats. He was summoned back to Pittsburgh after that victory, and spent the rest of the season with the NHL club.
Wright provided valuable leadership and a calming presence during his time in Northeast Pennsylvania. Wearing the captain’s ‘C’, he was a veteran voice of encouragement to a team that struggled to find wins in the early going.
And his influence is still felt to this day around the rink. Current Penguins captain Tom Kostopoulos, a rookie during Wright’s tenure with the team, wore 25 during his first season. However, he adopted Wright’s sweater number 29 the following year, the number he still wears to this day.
Wright finished the 1999-00 season with 22 points (12+10) in 50 games with Pittsburgh, all career highs up until that point.
That performance may have piqued the interest of the Blue Jackets, who made Wright a centerpiece of the team for the next four-plus seasons. He recorded 104 points (57+47) in 291 games with Columbus between 2000 and 2004 and became a pillar in the community, establishing the Hats for Heroes program to help in the fight against pediatric cancer.
Wright began the 2005-06 season in Columbus, but was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for Sergei Fedorov early in the season. He had a short stint playing in Switzerland in 2006-07, before retiring and going the Blue Jackets hockey operations staff as director of player development. He holds that same position today with the Detroit Red Wings.
More than 120 players have laced them up in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and then gone on to play in the National Hockey League. That’s no surprise. After all, the main purpose for every American Hockey League team is to prepare players for the big leagues.
But what about when those playing careers come to an end?
Well, it turns out Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is pretty adept at helping players become coaches as well.
At least a dozen former Penguins players either stood behind a bench last year, or will do so in the coming season. Here’s a quick look at they Pens who have gone from the locker room to the coach’s office.
MATT CARKNER: Carkner joined the Penguins in 2006-07 after spending his first five pro seasons with the Cleveland Barons, as well as one game with the San Jose Sharks. The bruising defenseman recorded a career-best 30 points (6+24) in 75 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and was named the AHL’s recipient of the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award for community service. He spent the next two seasons with the Binghamton Senators, before earning a spot with Ottawa in 2009-10. He played three years with the NHL Pens, followed by two more with the New York Islanders. He finished up his playing career in Bridgeport during the 2015-16 campaign, before transitioning to a coaching role with the Sound Tigers last year.
REID CASHMAN: A standout at Quinnipiac University as a player, Cashman spent parts of two seasons with the Toronto Marlies before splitting the 2008-09 season between the Wheeling Nailers and Penguins. He recorded six points (2+4) in 18 games with the Pens, before joining the Milwaukee Admirals/Cincinnati Cyclones the following year. He finished up his playing career with Linz EHC in Austria before returning to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 2011. Cashman spent five years with Quinnipiac before joining the Hershey Bears coaching staff last year.
RYAN CRAIG: Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Craig spent the first seven seasons of his career playing with the NHL team or one of its affiliates (Hershey, Springfield and Norfolk). He joined the Penguins for the 2010-11 seasons, and wore the captain’s C for two seasons, recording 78 points (30+48) in 139 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets the following season, and spent the final five seasons of his playing career with the organization, helping the Lake Erie Monsters to the Calder Cup in 2016. He retired at the end of the 2016-17 campaign and immediately joined the Vegas Golden Knights as an assistant coach.
TRENT CULL: A member of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s first Calder Cup Final team, Cull joined the Penguins after six seasons split between three minor league squads. His 26 points (11+15) were third among team defenseman in the 1999-00 season. He spent his final three playing seasons with the Houston Aeros (2001-02) and Syracuse Crunch (2002-04), before going the Guelph Storm (OHL) as an assistant. He returned to Syracuse as an assistant coach in 2006, was named head coach of the Sudbury Wolves (OHL) in 2010, and returned to the Crunch bench in 2013, where he remains today.
BEN EAVES: A standout during his four years at Boston College, Eaves was selected by Pittsburgh in the 2001 NHL Draft. He made his pro debut with Wilkes-Barre during the 2004-05 season, and appeared in five games with the AHL club the following season before suffering a knee injury. He missed the entire 2006-07 season before signing with Finland’s Espoo Blues in 2007. He returned to North America in 2009, signing with the Nashville Predators, but left the team’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee early in the campaign. After three more seasons in Finland, Eaves hung up the skates and is currently an assistant coach with St. Olaf College in Minnesota, serving under his father Mike.
PETER MANNINO: A university of Denver product, Mannino suited up for 10 different teams at the NHL, AHL and ECHL levels before landing in Wilkes-Barre for the 2013-14 season. He suited up for 18 regular season games and 11 playoff contests during his only year in NEPA. He split the following season between the Portland Pirates and Binghamton Senators. His coaching career got off the ground with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League in 2015, where he spent two seasons. On June 1, 2017, he was named an assistant for the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
JOEY MORMINA: Four years at Colgate University led Mormina to start his pro career with the Manchester Monarchs in 2005-06. After two seasons in New Hampshire and one in Albany, Mormina joined the Penguins for the first time in 2008-09. He left after one season for the Adirondack Phantoms, before landing back in NEPA for three more seasons. In all, the Montreal-born defenseman put up 53 points (13+40) in 233 games with the Pens. He rounded out his playing career in Syracuse and Rochester, before going the Mercyhurst Lakers ( NCAA) coaching staff prior to the 2016-17 season.
ALAIN NASREDDINE: Nas joined the Penguins during his ninth pro season, and became one of the team’s most respected and reliable players during the next five seasons. Serving as team captain starting in 2004-05, he recorded 55 points (12+42) in 249 games with he AHL club. He also recorded his lone NHL goal – assisted by Sidney Crosby in his hometown of Montreal – during the 2006-07 season. After two seasons in Germany, Nasreddine returned to NEPA to join the Penguins coaching staff under John Hynes. That duo spent five years in Wilkes-Barre, before both were hired by the New Jersey Devils in 2015.
TOBY PETERSEN: A late round selection by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998, Petersen split his first pro season between the AHL and NHL Penguins, leading the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster with 26 goals, 41 assists and 67 points in 73 contests. He spent the entire 2001-02 season in Pittsburgh, but was back in NEPA for the 2002-03 and 2003-04 campaigns. He signed with the Edmonton Oilers in 2004, and spent the next three seasons in their system. The bulk of his career was spent as a member of the Dallas Stars organization, where he also helped the Texas Stars to the Calder Cup in 2014. He retired following that run, joining the Blue Jackets organization as an AHL assistant with Springfield/Lake Erie/Cleveland.
ROBBIE TALLAS: A veteran of 99 NHL games with he Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, Tallas spent two seasons (2001-03) minding the net in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He posted a 20-36-8 mark in 71 games before finishing his career in Europe in 2004-05. He has served as goalie coach for the Florida Panthers since the 2009-10 season.
JOHN SLANEY: Slaney was eight years into his pro career when he joined the Penguins for the team’s inaugural season in 1999-00. He was a bright spot for the struggling squad, leading the team with 60 points in just 49 games, and recording 30 goals from the team’s blueline. He was famously traded to the Philadelphia Flyers by Pittsburgh on the eve of the AHL All-Star Game in Wilkes-Barre during the 2000-01 season, spending the majority of the next six seasons with the Philadelphia Phantoms. His final four years as a player (2007-11) were spent overseas before he joined the Portland Pirates staff as an assistant coach in 2011-12. In 2015-16 he made the jump to an NHL bench, and currently serves as an assistant with the Arizona Coyotes.
MIKE YEO: Another inaugural team skater, Yeo joined the club after five seasons with the IHL’s Houston Aeros. His time wearing a Penguins sweater was short though, as he was forced to retire due to injury just 19 games into his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton stay. He immediately joined Glenn Patrick behind the Penguins bench, and remained an assistant in NEPA until he was promoted to Pittsburgh along with head coach Michel Therrien in 2005. He returned to Houston as head coach of the Aeros in 2010, and was promoted to head coach of the Minnesota Wild the following season. He spent four-plus seasons guiding the Wild before being let go late in the 2015-16 season. He joined the St. Louis Blues as an associate coach in 2016, and assumed head coaching duties there midway through the recently completed NHL season.