For Penguins, success begins in Wilkes-Barre

by Alyssa Dombrowski || for

Between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League and their NHL affiliate in Pittsburgh, much more is shared than simply a synonymous mascot. The success of the Pittsburgh Penguins and their partners in Northeastern Pennsylvania has been actively intertwined since their affiliation began in 1999.

“The way we view it, it’s really one team,” said John Hynes, the AHL’s 2011 Coach of the Year who is in his fourth season at the helm for Wilkes-Barre. “Between the management and coaches, we’re on the same page as far as how we like to run the two teams and the values we want to have within our locker room.”

It’s a sense of unity that resonates across the board. Through the years, Pittsburgh has looked to Wilkes-Barre for the development of players such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Max Talbot, Alex Goligoski, Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi, Mark Letestu, Michal Rozsival and Brooks Orpik.

The latest crop to graduate from Wilkes-Barre – players like Beau Bennett, Joe Vitale, Olli Maatta and 2014 AHL All-Star Brian Gibbons – have reinforced Pittsburgh’s injury-riddled lineup this season.

“Systematically, it’s give-and-take,” said Hynes, whose predecessors behind the Wilkes-Barre bench include current Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma, Columbus’s Todd Richards and Montreal’s Michel Therrien. “We like to be on the same page so that it’s an easy transition for players to go up and down, so that on a moment’s notice, they can go from lineup to lineup and still be able to perform well for themselves and for the team.”

Second-year defenseman Brian Dumoulin was recalled by the Penguins in December, becoming one of eight Wilkes-Barre players to make his NHL debut with Pittsburgh this season. He recalls the ease in being among a handful of former teammates within Pittsburgh’s locker room.

“When I was called up, a lot of the Wilkes-Barre guys were playing for Pittsburgh,” said Dumoulin. “It was nice to have familiar faces in the locker room, to already have a level of comfort there. For a lot of us, having that experience playing in the NHL this year has definitely helped us come back and play really well here in the AHL.”

Hynes, whose 186 wins with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are the most in team history, recognizes the value of Pittsburgh’s propensity to reward hard work at the developmental level.

“In the AHL, it’s important for your players to have that drive to be able to get opportunities to play up in the NHL,” said Hynes. “Pittsburgh provides that quite a bit throughout the year.

“It really catches fire when guys see their teammates go from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh and not only play, but get put in good situations to help the team win,” he added. “It really just verifies [the process] and gets them excited about the work they’re putting in down here – they realize that it’s helping them not only win and do well in the AHL, but it’s preparing them for success at the NHL level.”

Those are, essentially, the primary ideals for anyone in the American Hockey League – and Hynes seems to have established a model formula for balancing the two.

“Winning and development go hand in hand,” said Hynes. “The development process comes down to the individual training of each player and what they need in particular to get to the NHL. Then on the winning side of it, you want to be able to play a structured system and have everybody work together, and that usually helps create winning.”

A winning tradition is deep-rooted for Wilkes-Barre. Currently in the midst of their 12th consecutive Calder Cup Playoff appearance, the AHL Penguins were conference finalists last year and have played in three Calder Cup Finals in their 15-year history.

“Even though we do have a young group here, we have a lot of strong veterans that have played in the playoffs,” said Dumoulin. “We have really good leadership right now, and the young guys are learning from them.”

Pittsburgh – which enters the weekend one win away from the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals – and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – which opens its second-round series against Providence tonight – are looking to duplicate a feat they achieved in 2008, when both clubs reached their respective Cup finals.

“It’s exciting, especially with some of my really good friends and everyone from here playing for Pittsburgh,” said Dumoulin of the teams’ simultaneous playoff runs.

It’s the high-pressure, high-intensity atmosphere of the postseason that Hynes believes to be crucial to his players’ careers, both presently in Wilkes-Barre and in the future with Pittsburgh.

“Obviously with an organization like Pittsburgh, the Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal every year,” said Hynes. “For us to be able to provide players that can assist in those runs, the AHL playoffs are really important. [They’re] a big part of the development of your players – understanding how to prepare for a series, how to win a game in closeout, how to play with their backs against the wall.

“When the players end up going to the NHL, they’re been in those situations and they’re coming from an environment where the commitment to and details of winning are ingrained in them.”