Over the years, the Penguins have been criticized for their talent in the minor leagues. Big trades and acquisitions used to fuel failed playoff runs of years past seemed to have drained any previous minor league depth the Pens had down in Wilkes-Barre.
With the vast amount of injuries dealt with in Pittsburgh this season, the Pens had to dig deep and heavily rely on minor league depth that many thought was not there. These players that began the season playing in the AHL are proving any doubters wrong and have become the true unsung heroes to the major turnaround in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s AHL team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, have become a staple franchise in the minor leagues. They have now made the AHL playoffs 15 straight years after another successful campaign. Although they have never won a Calder Cup, the success of the “Baby Pens” shows that there has never been anything short of major talent in the Penguins minor league system.
When Mike Johnston was fired in December, the Pens immediately went to Wilkes-Barre to solve their vacancy with the hiring of Mike Sullivan. Sullivan has changed the dynamics of the Penguins, leading them to a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division after it seemed the Pens were spiraling out of control. After compiling a 32-22-3 record since taking over as head coach, Sullivan will look to follow in the last former Wilkes-Barre to lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup after being promoted mid-season, Dan Bylsma.
These players that the Penguins brought up from the minor leagues this season already had an advantage with Sullivan being the new head coach. These players knew Sullivan firsthand before anyone else in Pittsburgh did. Like previous seasons, there has been no shortage of injuries in Pittsburgh. The Pens have seen Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Olli Maatta all miss significant time with injuries.
After Fleury has gone down twice to concussions this season, the Penguins turned to Baby Pens starting goaltender, Matt Murray, to help rescue them in net. Some expected Murray to be Fleury’s back-up in Pittsburgh to start the season after his incredible season in Wilkes-Barre the year before. Murray lost the job to Jeff Zatkoff which came to the chagrin of Penguin fans. Zatkoff struggled in his limited appearances, bringing Murray to the forefront in Pittsburgh. Murray helped the Penguins get by when Fleury missed eight games earlier in the season and again was relied on heavier when Fleury went down again in late March.
Murray has gone an impressive 9-2-1 this season, including one shutout against the Islanders on April 2. Murray kept the Pens unbeaten since Fleury was diagnosed with a second concussion until last Saturday in Philadelphia when Murray himself was knocked out of the game with an injury.
It has been Wilkes-Barre players have played an unsung role in the offense since Sullivan took over as coach as well. Players like Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary and Oskar Sundqvist, have played the part in that role the most. Since being called up on Jan. 6, Kuhnhackl has compiled 15 points and ended up earning a two-year, one-way contract extension running through the 2017-18 campaign. He also finished the regular season with four points in his last five games.
While undersized, Conor Sheary has shown Pittsburgh he has an enormous heart. The 23-year-old rookie’s finest hour came in Madison Square Garden last month, where he scored two goals against Henrik Lundqvist, leading the Penguins to a 5-3 win. Sheary was battered last week by many Capitals players, but showed major grit by managing to grab a key goal to help the Pens win in overtime on the road.
Sundqvist is the most recent call-up of the bunch, but will look to play a key role in the postseason after scoring his first career NHL goal against the Islanders this month. Sundqvist was also given first-line center duties this past Saturday against the Flyers when Sidney Crosby was given the game off.
It seems ages ago since former Penguins GM, Ray Shero, was making blockbuster trades that most thought would leave the Penguins minor league system for dead. Slowly but surely, the Penguins have rebuilt a solid minor league system that saved them from total destruction this season. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here, and do not be surprised if one of these “Baby Pens” help lead Pittsburgh to new heights this postseason.