ERIK HEASLEY BREAKS DOWN PENGUINS FREE AGENT SIGNINGS
PITTSBURGH, Pa. – On the first day of the free agent signing period, the Pittsburgh Penguins put pen to paper on eight new contracts. One day later, the ink dried on three more new deals.
It was an active 48-hour cycle in the Penguins’ front office, but not all of those 11 signings were made for Pittsburgh. A handful of those players are likely to spend a significant portion of the season in the American Hockey League with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Free agency was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s first chance to shape its roster for the upcoming 2023-24 season. Given the club missed the Calder Cup Playoffs for just the fourth time in franchise history last spring, this wasn’t an opportunity that team management wanted to miss.
“It was critically important for us to ice a strong team in Wilkes-Barre,” said WBS general manager Erik Heasley. “Building depth, it was our main focus, and we are excited about what we’ve been able to do at this point.”
Additions on NHL contracts include forwards Joona Koppanen, Ryan Johnstone, and Radim Zohorna, as well as defensemen Ryan Shea and Will Butcher and goalies Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg. Earlier in the offseason, Heasley also inked 20-year-old forwards Evan Vierling and Avery Hayes to AHL deals.
Heasley was quick to point out that the Penguins aren’t done adding in free agency, either. They still want to flesh out Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s top six forwards with players who can provide some offensive pop at both the AHL or NHL level.
“We want to add some skill at the top of our lineup,” Heasley said without hesitation. “That’s an important piece that we want to address here before the season gets going. Also, we feel like we need someone that’s going to help us on our power play on the back end.”
While we wait to see what players the Penguins organization will acquire next, here are Heasley’s thoughts on each of the aforementioned signees.
RYAN SHEA – LD – 2022-23 AHL STATS: 70GP, 7G, 21A, 28PTS
“He was a guy that we that we really liked. I think he can help us on both ends of the ice. I think he took a step in his offensive game last year. He has a really good stick, and can end plays really well. He skates well, too. He’s a guy that we feel comfortable having an opportunity if he needs to get called up to Pittsburgh that he can handle those minutes and help Pittsburgh as well as be a leader in Wilkes-Barre.”
JOONA KOPPANEN – LW – 64GP, 12G, 23A, 35PTS
“Well, obviously, the size is the first thing that jumps out to you. But for his size, he skates pretty well. We like his two-way game. Again, he’s another guy that took a jump offensively. He had a little bit of power play time. His utility will be interesting for us to see how J.D. and the coaches want to use him, but the fact that he’s a guy that’s still young and played in the league for a couple of years now. We felt his two-way game and utility would help our group.”
RADIM ZOHORNA – C – 51GP, 12G, 22A, 34PTS
“‘Z’ was a guy that we didn’t want to lose last year. We really didn’t want to lose him. When we looked at the makeup of our team heading into last season, he was going to be a big part of that. When the opportunity arose that we could acquire him again, it was a no-brainer. Plus, the NHL coaches have familiarity with him and comfort with him. He can play up and down your lineup. He can play wing, he can play center. So in talking to Radim and his representatives, there’s a comfort level on both sides. And again, when we talked about size down the middle being something that we wanted to address – you know, him being 6-7 and Koppanen being 6-5, it’s certainly going to make us more difficult to play against.
MARC JOHNSTONE – RW – 69GP, 9G, 13A, 22PTS
“Kyle (Dubas) certainly influenced that acquisition, but we knew him well from playing against the Marlies. We know what he’s all about, and we’re excited to bring him in. He’s hard to play against. He can be a pest. A very strong two-way player. He’ll be involved in the P.K. I think he helps our bottom six, but not only that, I think he’s capable of going up and playing higher in the lineup if needed. Quite frankly, he’s the type of guy that you root for that kind of started from the bottom and have worked their way up and good on him to earn an NHL contract.”
EVAN VIERLING – C – 2022-23 OHL STATS: 60GP, 35G, 60A, 95PTS
“Evan Vierling has a strong offensive game. He’s a former high pick of the OHL and a draft pick of the New York Rangers who went unsigned. We were trying to find some young guys with potential, and to sign a guy like that to an American League contract was intriguing to us. I think his skill set is capable of pro hockey. For a guy that’s 6-foot-1, he’s pretty filled out already. There’s some potential there. He just had a breakout year offensively; over 90 points. And we like Evan as a person a lot, too. I think he can grow into being a good pro hockey player, and we’re more than willing to bet on that.”
AVERY HAYES – RW – 2022-23 OHL STATS: 65GP, 43G, 34A, 77PTS
“Avery is a guy that with every conversation we had about him, it’s been very similar. It’s: ‘This guy is a dog on a bone.’ To get him locked in for two years and kind of see how he can grow as a player, it’s exciting. That urgency and that competitiveness is something we were attracted to, as well. He’s only been on teams that have won, which was intriguing to us. All indications were that in pro hockey, he’s going to be a guy that’s going to be a terror to play against and can score. Avery’s got a good shot, good release, and he scores big goals. It was another no brainer from our perspective.”
*This interview with Erik Heasley was conducted before the Pittsburgh Penguins announced the signing of Will Butcher on July 3.
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