Penguins Say Goodbye To 2018-19 Season
WILKES-BARRE — This day comes around every year for all but one lucky AHL team that wins the Calder Cup.
Still, the fact it came so early for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins made for a pensive morning at the Toyota SportsPlex.
Fresh off its final game of the 2018-19 regular season, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton held annual season-ending exit interviews for players on Monday. Before looking to the team’s future, and their own, the Penguins couldn’t help acknowledging the sting of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“It’s always disappointing,” forward Jimmy Hayes said. “It’s a team here that makes the playoffs every year and something, as a player, you strive to (do). That’s why you play the game. You want to get yourself in a position to succeed in the playoffs, and we came up a little bit short. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part was no one could point to a specific factor as being the primary hurdle.
The Penguins had to rely on a lot of rookies and players lacking AHL experience but, as Jarrett Burton pointed out, some of those players also stepped up late in the season and kept them in contention until the final weekend.
They also played 58 games without their team captain. As big a presence as Garrett Wilson has been in the dressing room, however, Ethan Prow said the team had great leadership from players like Hayes, Joseph Cramarossa, Kevin Czuczman and Chris Summers.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had plenty of injuries and roster turnover, but so does every other team year to year.
Perhaps all it took was one good 10-game hot streak that never seemed to materialize.
“You just kind of think about the what-ifs, what if this, what if that,” defenseman Matt Abt said. “It sucks we didn’t make the playoffs because I thought we did have a really good team.”
Looking ahead, that should be the case again next year.
Sam Lafferty, Sam Miletic, and leading scorer Ryan Haggerty will be back with the organization, and the addition of talented youngsters like Jake Lucchini and Jordy Bellerive — who will turn 20 in May and be eligible to turn pro — should give the team some offensive firepower.
There could also be familiar faces that don’t return. Blueliners Summers, Czuczman and Zach Trotman, as well as forward Hayes, are all unrestricted free agents. Thomas Di Pauli and Prow qualify as Group 6 unrestricted free agents.
That’s something that wasn’t lost on Lafferty.
“Disappointing that we didn’t get in, but I think, right now, just enjoy time with your teammates,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s probably the last time that we’ll probably get to spend with each other for some of us. Just try to enjoy that.”
Second-round draft pick Calen Addison still has a full season of juniors to prepare himself for the pro game.
However, his first taste of the AHL left reason for optimism. Addison, who turned 19 on Thursday, had an assist in each of the Penguins’ final two games and played in three total.
“I think it just comes down to the more you play, the more comfortable you get, the more confidence you get,” Addison said. “It was just good for me to get into these games and get some experience and see how fast and hard the hockey is.”
Addison is coming off a pair of identical 65-point seasons (11G-54A) with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. Bellerive was his teammate and second on the squad with 83 points.
While Addison’s offensive numbers jump out, he said he focused on his defensive game during his short time on the team. His message from management was “be myself and play my own game.”
In addition to the speed of play in the AHL, he said getting a sense of the typical hockey IQ among the league’s skaters was something he took away from the experience.
“It’s a lot different, but I’ve got to say that they were so good at welcoming me here,” Addison said. “They make you feel like you’re at home. I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Not done yet
While Monday may have been the official cleanout day for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, a good number of stalls were still occupied with pads and helmets.
Players set to be named “Black Aces” for Pittsburgh are expected to stick around through at least Wednesday. There is a scheduled practice at the Toyota SportsPlex, but that could change if the Penguins are eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs tonight.
Among the players who had yet to empty their stalls were Prow, Czuczman, Summers, Haggerty, Cramarossa, Lafferty, Miletic, Di Pauli, Adam Johnson, Joseph Blandisi and Alex D’Orio.
A few Penguins have more than hockey on their itinerary going into the summer.
Lucchini, who scored six goals in his late-season stint with the team, is returning to Michigan Tech. He needs to finish three classes to graduate in early May with a degree in sports and fitness management, and he’s also planning to complete a minor in coaching. And, of course, he’ll be at Pittsburgh development camp.
A number of others have weddings to attend, or are planning to get a few rounds of golf in.
And, finally, Hayes didn’t tip his hand regarding potential names for the son he and his wife are expecting in late August.
“I’m sworn to secrecy,” he said.
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