While NHL fans suffered through a horrible work stoppage that ate most of the season, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League have been at it since the start of the season.

Today, we catch up with Jason Iacona of Chirps From Center Ice. We discussed a few key points leading up to the Penguins training camp that is tentatively slated to start on Sunday.

Jesse Marshall: Jason, yesterday we heard Dan Bylsma say that he was using Wilkes-Barre as a sort of guinea pig in terms of adjustments to the system. Is there anything you’ve seen this year that has stood out to you in terms of how the Penguins are approaching the game?

Jason Iacona: Less dump and chase. More accurate passing. One bad turnover a game versus four or five. Unfortunately, some bad turnovers have cost us games. Defensively, an opponent brings the puck in the zone and are there for seven seconds before the puck is out of there and back up the other way. When the system is working, it really is a joy to watch.

Marshall: One thing that stands out about this current WB/S roster is a lack of a true breakout player. Points are relatively even and when goals come, they seem to be coming from all over the place. Is the lack of a true statistical leader an issue for you?

Iacona: No. Not at all. Here is why: The thing about WB/S is that they have never and will never have a player which will lead the league in scoring or win MVP. It’s just not the philosophy. As a fan of the team you become accustomed to that fact. So the goals have to come by committee.

Marshall: When I’ve watched WB/S this season, Robert Bortuzzo has stood out to me as an extremely strong pillar on the defensive side of the puck. It appears that he’s really maturing into a true shutdown role. What have you seen from Bortuzzo this year, and is a shot at a bottom pairing in the NHL within reason?

Iacona: Here’s the deal with Bortuzzo. You rarely hear anything about him on a given night. That’s a good thing. He does his job and does it well. He has the size (6’4, 220) and the skill set to be a regular in the bottom pairing in Pittsburgh, if not higher.

Marshall: After a recent game where the Penguins went 0-6 on the power-play sans Beau Bennett, I thought you made a very poignant thought about Beau Bennett in saying the WB/S power-play appears to run through him. Has this been the case all year, and what of Bennett has particularly struck you in terms of the man-advantage this year?

Iacona: He has a vision about him when he is out there that is amazing for a rookie. When he is on the ice, he knows what play he is going to make before he even gets the puck. It’s almost like the game is scripted and he is an actor playing out a part.

Marshall: Bennett’s 5 on 5 numbers haven’t exactly set the world on fire, but it appears that he has had some chemistry with Benn Ferriero at times. Any thoughts on Bennett’s play at even strength, particularly in regards to his ability to play through checks?

Iacona: You aren’t going to believe this, because I didn’t when I looked it up, but Bennett is statistically better at five on five (4-11-15) than on the power play (2-6-8) – you brought up an excellent point the other day about his wrist still being 100%. He’s gaining confidence by leaps and bounds right now. This may sound ridiculous, but a NHL call up may actually hamper his development, because he’d be going against the absolute elite night in and night out. He’d get exposed, which wouldn’t play well for is confidence. Unless he flourishes in the top-six, he should be in Wilkes-Barre in the top-six. I don’t think there should be an in-between.

Marshall: When I’ve seen him this year, Simon Despres has made it look easy in the AHL. Does he strike you as a youngster that is ready for the show?

Iacona: I will use “eventually” as my answer. Look, Despres is hot and cold. I honestly think he is a product of who he is paired with. In my opinion, I think that Robert Bortuzzo is more NHL ready than Despres is. Getting back to who Despres is paired with, I can’t remember a time when Bortuzzo-Despres have been paired together.

Marshall: . I know that December and early January have been frustrating times for WB/S. What has to change for this team to improve down the stretch?

Iacona: Power play is one and shot selection is another. This past weekend, the Penguins registered 99 shots on goal and only got 4 goals out of those 99 shots. The last game vs. Connecticut they were shutout. The power play was a collective 0 for 15. It sounds cliché, but they need to get back to their game. Of recent, it just hasn’t looked like the same Penguins team which has been so successful in years past. You can’t say it’s a product of inexperience because the team went 10-2 in the month of November and was the hottest team in the AHL.

Marshall: Assuming a key piece like a Despres, Bennett, or Bortuzzo is recalled to join the parent club, who fills those roster spots, respectively?

Iacona: Let’s pretend all three go up. Defensively, we are left with:

- Dylan Reese, a Pittsburgh native with NHL experience.

- Joey Mormina, a veteran AHL defenseman

- Philip Samuelsson, the best statistical defenseman on WBS roster

- Joe Morrow, a rookie rounding into form, getting more confidence with every shift.

- Brian Dumoulin, another rookie who at times has looked shaky but is capable

- Brian Strait, the yin to Bortuzzo’s yang (that sounds dirty, sorry)

- Alex Grant, kind of shuffled out of the everyday lineup but one who belongs in the lineup night after night.

For Bennett’s absence there are guys like Trevor Smith, Benn Ferriero, Paul Thompson, for guys that can fill his role. I’m not sold at all that Bennett has graduated yet to the NHL, but that remains to be seen.

Marshall: Thanks, Jason!

Iacona: No problem. Glad to have the NHL back. Let’s Go Pens!

Keep Jason’s blog in mind throughout the year as he’ll continue to cover Wilkes-Barre Scranton in their journey towards the Calder Cup.