Following is the first quarter breakdown of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton “Baby” Penguins players by position.

Forwards



RW #9 Konstantin Pushkarev – 6’0, 188 lbs
Playmaker – 1 G, 2 A, 3 Pts in 18 GP
My Grade: C

Pushkarev was a late addition to Pittsburgh’s training camp roster a few months ago. Friends with Evgeni Malkin from their playing days in Russia, the Penguins brought him into the organization via a pro-tryout contract which will give them a look for 25 games. In 2007-2008, he was nearly a point-per-game player with the Iowa Stars (AHL) and in 06-07 he played 16 games with the Los Angeles Kings (NHL). He has barely produced, as the team is struggling offensively on most nights, but he has been used on a third-line checking role for the most part. He surprisingly finishes a lot of his checks and likes to handle the puck when he’s out there. His weakness is that he will try to take the puck through the whole team and score but he’ll end up giving it away. In last week’s game against Hershey he was on a newly formed line with Eric Tangradi and Joey Haddad, and they generated a lot of good scoring chances.

C #10 Mark Letestu – 5’11, 195 lbs
Playmaker – 4 G, 9 A, 13 Pts in 14 GP
My Grade: A

The Penguins management are high on this guy for two reasons. One – he worked his way up from the Wheeling Nailers and two – he can play solid hockey. In the 07-08 season, Letestu toiled on the fourth line with the likes of Dennis Bonvie and Paul Bissonnette. Last year was his breakout season and he was basically the teams top forward. He was promoted from a checking role to a scoring one, and has blossomed every game ever since. He is the team’s best faceoff guy, behind Dustin Jeffrey. He has been a point-per-game player for WB/S so far this season, and he is utilized on the top power play unit on the half boards. He is very good at dishing the puck around to his teammates and makes the little plays that usually would go unnoticed, such as keeping the puck in the offensive zone or lifting a stick that saved a scoring chance. His main weakness is his soft style of play and lack of grit. In just two years, Letestu has transformed himself from strictly AHL depth to a legit prospect. He made his NHL debut a few weeks ago, and didn’t look out of place.

F #11 Zach Sill – 6’0, 201 lbs
Grinder – 1 G, 2 A, 3 Pts in 15 GP, 2 PIM
My Grade: B

Sill was kicked out of the University of Maine in 06-07 for undisclosed reasons. From there he went on to play two years for Moncton (QMJHL). The Penguins saw something they liked in him, and signed him to a minor-league deal. In prospect camp earlier this year, he was one of the top stand-outs. On day three I believe he was the best forward on the ice. He has a knack for getting loose pucks and throwing them to the net. But his main game is banging bodies. Despite his small stature, he hits like a freight train and hits anything in his sight. In last week’s game against Norfolk, he came out on his first shift with about five hits and set the tone for the rest of the game. He is currently out with a broken finger injury. I’ve liked his play so far, but if he wants to get an “A” grade he needs to drop the gloves more frequently. It’s part of his game.

C #N/A Tyler Spurgeon – 5’11, 188 lbs
Grinder – 0 G, 0 A, 0 Pts in 0 GP
My Grade: A

Spurgeon was signed yesterday to a PTO. Head coach Todd Reirden asked Dan Byslma and Todd Richards what kind of guy the team could use. This kid’s name came up every time. He leads by example, and plays an in-your-face style of game. He could be compared to a Marty Reasoner, in that he excels in the defensive aspects of the game. This is his second stint in Wilkes-Barre, as he played here just a few years ago as an Edmonton Oilers prospect. And he’s already dropping down and blocking shots in practice.

LW #15 Wade Brookbank – 6’4, 220 lbs
Grinder – 1 G, 1 A, 2 Pts in 17 GP, 45 PIM
My Grade: B

This offseason, Brookbank stated that if you are going to play in the AHL, the best place to do it bar none is in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Well he got his wish. Brookbank returned to his old roots this season and has earned the role of the team’s top heavyweight enforcer. Brookbank has 5 fighting majors so far in the season, and has yet to lose boasting a 4-0-1 record. He enjoys sticking up for his teammates and he has a reputation for backing down from nobody. He is wearing the assistant captains “A” on his jersey. If Eric Godard goes down due to injury, this guy is coming up.

LW #17 Luca Caputi – 6’3, 200 lbs
Power Forward – 9 G, 8 A, 17 Pts in 21 GP, 27 PIM
My Grade: A+

The 09-10 season marks the beginning of Caputi’s sophomore season in the AHL. Last year I was raving about his ability and untapped talent, but he has improved over the offseason undoubtedly. One of the areas I said he needed to improve on was his grit and finishing his checks. Well, Caputi has come into this season as mean as ever. He is plastering every defender into the wall on the forecheck, and when they take offense to it, he is dropping the gloves with them. He is starting to show up on the scoresheet night in and night out, and he has been the top forward on the Baby Pens this season, leading the team in goals. He is known for putting in some dirty goals but the majority of his tallies have been highlight reel material this year, such as sniping an opposing goalie top shelf. He has improve his shot strength and accuracy since last year. Without a doubt in my mind, next year he will graduate to the NHL full-time.

RW #18 Jesse Boulerice – 6’2, 218 lbs
Grinder – 1 G, 1 A, 2 Pts in 12 GP, 25 PIM
My Grade: C+

Boulerice was another late addition, as he was brought into the minor leagues via a pro-tryout contract. With his reputation of being overly aggressive, Boulerice made his WB/S debut and fought Bridgeport’s Trevor Gillies, after Gillies put a cheap shot on Robert Bortuzzo. This shows he is a team-first guy, but with the line-up so jammed at forward, he isn’t an every-day guy inserted in the line-up. He has five fighting majors this year, with an unofficial record of 2-2-1.

C #19 Wyatt Smith – 5’11, 205 lbs
Grinder – 4 G, 10 A, 14 Pts in 20 GP
My Grade: B-

Smith, an NHL veteran was named the captain of this year’s team and plays regular minutes on the top line. He also plays the point on the top powerplay, but I don’t think he’s very good in that position. He has a lot of weaknesses such as turning over the puck but he plays the style of game that the coaching staff likes. In preseason, he showed that he isn’t even a borderline NHL player any more but he brings leadership and experience to a very young AHL team this season. He has a history of scoring timely goals and he could be a key player on the team come playoff time.

C #21 Dustin Jeffrey – 6’1, 199 lbs
Playmaker – 3 G, 19 A, 22 Pts in 19 GP
My Grade: A

Earlier this year I had written off Jeffrey because of his miserable training camp and/or preseason performance. I figured his potential would be nothing more than a fourth-line grinder slash penalty killer. But he has proven me and everyone else who doubted him wrong. He still has maintained his shutdown penalty killing role, and still poses as somewhat of an offensive threat while shorthanded. This season he has turned back into the playmaking machine that he was in juniors, just two years ago. He leads the team in assists, and points. He is gaining more confidence with his play, and seems to be improving every day now. He’s also the top faceoff man on the team. I’m not Ray Shero, but I’m sure Jeffrey will get a legitimate look at a checking line role in two years, if not next season.

RW #23 Chris Conner – 5’8, 180 lbs
Sniper – 2 G, 6 A, 8 Pts in 8 GP
My Grade: A

The small and speedy winger opened my eyes in training camp and definitely in the NHL preseason, where he scored on multiple breakaway opportunities. He has the ability to literally blow past two defenders and generated a solid scoring chance. After putting up 8 points in 8 games this year in the AHL, he was promoted to the NHL for a short period of time. He currently is on the shelf with an injury that is supposedly long-term. His knack is obviously his small size that allows strong defenders to body the puck off of him along the wall. Definitely a solid offseason depth signing by the general managers.

RW #24 Tim Wallace – 6’1, 180 lbs
Grinder – 6 G, 2 A, 8 Pts in 20 GP
My Grade: B+

Wallace is another player that is close to being ready for the NHL on in a fourth line role. He enjoys taking the body and going out of his way to finish checks. He isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, but has done so at a less frequent pace than I would like him too. Ray Shero absolutely loves this guy and that’s why they keep re-signing him. His offensive game is starting to show this season as well, as he already is on pace for a career high in the goals department. The last goal he scored against Norfolk wasn’t a typical grinder goal either, as he came down 1-on-1 with a defender, and shot the puck through his legs, putting it top-shelf on the opposing goalie. Good team guy to have around in the system.

F #25 Eric Tangradi – 6’4, 225 lbs
Power Forward – 3 G, 2 A, 5 Pts in 12 GP, 7 PIM
My Grade: B

Sidelined by injuries and illnesses, number one prospect Eric Tangradi has shown glimpses of his power forward game but has shown he needs time to adapt to the professional style, much like Caputi and Jeffrey did. Weeks ago in a game against Portland, Tangradi scored his first AHL goal. Seconds later off the faceoff, he dropped the gloves with Kyle Rank. Two out of his three goals are game winners. He hasn’t been given much power play time which is disappointing to me, but obviously his role will increase more as the season moves along. He was phenomenal in NHL preseason playing alongside Sidney Crosby. He put a ridiculously big hit on Columbus’ top tough guy Jared Boll minutes into the game, and later went on to assist on three of the Penguins goals. This kid will be a force to reckon with in the NHL, but still needs time to develop. His game is putting dirty goals in the net and deflecting point shots. With his positive attitude and talent, the sky is the limit for the “big dog”.

C #26 Joe Vitale – 6’0, 200 lbs
Grinder – 0 G, 4 A, 4 Pts in 18 GP, 30 PIM
My Grade: B

Vitale had a strong prospect camp and is a decent prospect in the system. His specialty is faceoffs, and he has a good penalty killing ability. He is very fast on his skates, and is among the leaders in hits on the team next to Sill and Wallace. He has shown agitating abilities so far in the young season which is evidenced by his 30 penalty minutes. Tangradi stated that if Vitale would have played in juniors instead of college he would have been “the next Sean Avery by now”. I could see him playing in Pittsburgh in a few seasons if he keeps his solid play up.

RW #28 Nick Johnson – 6’2, 202 lbs
Dangler – 1 G, 0 A, 1 Pts in 7 GP
My Grade: C-

Johnson is at his best when the puck is on his stick or when he unleashes his strong one-timer shot. He has been out with an ankle injury as you can see, with his limited amount of games played. He only has one goal on the year, and it was a nice one, but he wasn’t playing at the level of hockey that we’ve seen him play at. Hopefully when he gets healthy again, he can pick up where he left off in last year’s AHL playoffs, where he scored 10 points in 12 games.

RW #34 Aaron Boogaard – 6’1, 215 lbs
Grinder – 1 G, 0 A, 1 Pts in 13 GP, 45 PIM
My Grade: B

Many, including myself had Boogaard written off to a trade or Wheeling early in training camp, but he seemed to have been shadowed by Paul Bissonnette last year. Now with Biz serving as Phoenix’s main enforcer, Boogie Jr. has shown a new attitude towards fighting in terms of how often and when he drops the gloves. He has been improving in his role as a bodyguard, and leads the team in fighting majors with 9. He rarely chips in offensively, but his only goal on the season ended up being a game winner. He still has a long ways to go to be penciled into a NHL line-up.

LW #37 Ryan Bayda – 5’11, 185 lbs
Grinder – 8 G, 1 A, 9 Pts in 14 GP
My Grade: A

Bayda was brought into training camp on a try-out contract, and with a strong showing in preseason he earned himself a two-way deal with the Penguins. He was sent to the AHL shortly before camp ended and he has brought a lot to the table. He was leading the team in goals before he got hurt (long-term leg injury). His goals came at big times as well, whether it was a game ending goal in overtime or a game tying goal with minutes remaining in regulation. He also takes the body and finishes his checks on every shift, and loves to create energy and stir the pot with opposing players. After he returns from injury, depending on certain situations, I wouldn’t doubt seeing the grizzled veteran on Pittsburgh’s fourth line possibly come playoff time.

LW #41 Joey Haddad – 5’11, 185 lbs
Power Forward – 0 G, 1 A, 1 Pts in 6 GP, 11 PIM
My Grade: B

Haddad started his first professional season of in Wheeling of the ECHL, where he put up very good numbers (11 points [5+6] in 12 games, 24 PIMS). After the log jam at forward cleared up due to injuries, Haddad received the first call-up to Wilkes-Barre. He brings toughness and a lot of scoring potential to the team. He loves to score goals and he has been able to do so throughout his whole career. He also plays a gritty, power forward style game which the organization values. He hasn’t put one in the net yet, but give him time to get adapted. He had a strong showing in his first pro fight against Adirondack’s Kevin Marshall (above). His weaknesses are that he takes too many minor stick penalties, the ones that are a result of a lack of hard work.

C #44 Keven Veilleux – 6’5, 218 lbs
Power Forward – 2 G, 1 A, 3 Pts in 9 GP, 12 PIM
My Grade: B+

It’s tough to tell what kind of player big KV will develop into. He maintains a hard shot that he can put in from long distance, and he is deadly from inside the slot along the ice. The second goal Veilleux scored was perhaps the top highlight reel goal of the season so far. He received the puck on his backhand, turned it over, and proceeded to dangle his way through the defenders and slid it home on his backhand. He also has shown a new brand of toughness, dropping the gloves in two straight games, manhandling both of his opponents. With his large size, and hockey sense he could also be another force to watch for one day in the NHL.

Up Next: WB/S Defenseman and Goaltender First Quarter Report.