Penguins Weekly: Rookies Find Success During Light Part Of Season
WILKES-BARRE — In a good way, ignorance is bliss for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward Adam Johnson.
Because the Hibbing, Minnesota, native is in his first professional season, he doesn’t have a notion of what constitutes a light or rigorous schedule in the AHL. All he has been focused on is making sure he’s putting his team in position to succeed.
“Either way, you’ve just got to play your best,” Johnson said last week after a practice at the Toyota SportsPlex. “Keep working hard, stay in shape, take care of ourselves and just keep trying to win games.”
It appears he is not the only first-year Penguin that has bought into that mindset.
Through Friday’s 5-2 loss to the Syracuse Crunch, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been the beneficiary of 24 goals from its rookie class. That number is only one off the league-leading total of the Rockford IceHogs’ group of newcomers. Furthermore, Penguins rookies found the net in 10 of 12 games during the team’s recent point streak, so they clearly aren’t shying away from the increased speed and physicality of playing at the AHL level.
Making their early success more impressive, though, has been their ability to adjust to the team’s relatively sporadic schedule. With Saturday’s game against the Crunch at Mohegan Sun Arena, the Penguins will have played only nine games in November and 17 total.
For new players trying to prove themselves, in-game repetitions can be key for development.
“It depends on who you are; sometimes it can take two games, it can take 10, it can take a full season (to adjust),” forward Gage Quinney said. “We’ve had the opportunity to have great veterans on this team that have really helped the rookies, shown us everything.
“I think it’s good that we have a lot of practices, so you learn the system and just learn how to play each other and build that chemistry.”
Those practice habits have been working. Zach Aston-Reese, after going pointless in his first five games, has been one of the team’s most productive skaters of late. He has nine points in his last nine games and has helped form one of the team’s most explosive lines with Ryan Haggerty and Jean-Sebastien Dea.
Thomas Di Pauli, who did benefit from playing in 21 games last season, has five goals in his last five games — with many of those coming at key junctures.
And Daniel Sprong is always dangerous on the power play, where he has scored five goals to tie for the lead among AHL rookies.
So, how have they all gotten on the same page so quickly?
At least for Johnson, who signed with Pittsburgh out of college this offseason, the off-ice routine is just as important as learning team structures. It’s a philosophy all the rookies share.
“It’s a lot more of a grind in this league,” Johnson said. “You’re playing against much bigger, stronger guys, so you’ve got to try to stay on top of eating healthy, getting extra sleep and just staying in shape.”
Personnel is also a factor.
Quinney said having Clark Donatelli as a head coach is very beneficial because he is more willing to give younger players a chance in different spots.
For example, Di Pauli has been an anchor on what technically is the team’s fourth line, but he is also a frequent penalty-killer and can chip in on the power play.
“That builds the confidence for a rookie,” said Quinney, who has four goals so far this season.
The challenge for them now is to maintain that production as the schedule begins to get a lot heavier. The Penguins are scheduled to play 14 games in December, nearly doubling their season output in a single month.
Fatigue is the immediate concern, but Quinney and Johnson said the entire team is well-conditioned and should be just fine.
Not to mention, none of the Penguins’ rookies are the type to shy away from a challenge.
“They’ve got a lot of responsibility,” Donatelli said. “They’re on the power play, 4-on-4. They’re on special teams and the kill.
“They’re diligent; they pay attention to detail. They want to get better. They pay attention to film. So, you don’t have to go looking for them. They’re an eager bunch.”
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