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Wilkes-Barre Watch: Tom Kostopoulos, leader of prospects

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Tom Kostopoulos. - KDP PHOTOGRAPHY / WBS PENGUINS

The name Tom Kostopoulos has become synonymous with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins over his long career.

Kostopoulos, now 39 years old, made his debut in professional hockey in 1999 with Wilkes-Barre during the team's inaugural season. He's now on his way to finishing out his career where it started after 19 seasons of professional hockey.

He's long been the Penguins' all-time leader in goals (185), assists (282), and points (467). He's the franchise's all-time games played leader, reaching the milestone of his 650th game with Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday.

The captain's biggest contributions, though, won't show up on a scoresheet.

While he still has his eye on capturing his first-ever championship, Kostopoulos takes pride in his role in developing the Penguins' prospects and seeing them succeed.

"Pittsburgh has done such a good job of drafting and signing young guys that are good players but also good people," he told me this week. "To see them come into Wilkes-Barre and work as hard as they do and develop as fast as they are, a big group of them to go up and win two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, and now this next young wave of players coming up, it's very fulfilling to see them go up and play well in the NHL."

Most young players whom I've spoken to this season have raved about how influential Kostopoulos has been for their development and getting them acclimated to professional hockey.

Teddy Blueger has seen some time on a line with 'TK' this season, and told me what the captain has meant to him this season.

"Someone like 'TK', who's played so many games in the NHL, and knows so much about the game and has so much experience, you can learn something new from him every day," Blueger said. "Just from watching him staying out there after practice, little tweaks that he adds to his game, and how self-critical of himself he is."

Blueger called Kostopoulos a good "in-between" for the players and coaches, and spoke about how the team has benefitted with Kostopoulos in the lineup.

"If one of the guys or the team as a whole needs maybe a little bit of a jolt, get yelled at a bit, he'll do that," Blueger continued. "But at the same time, if we need a calming influence if things aren't going our way, he'll stand up in between periods and just be like 'We're doing a lot of good things, just stay with it, the goals aren't coming but keep working,' that type of thing. I think that helps the team a lot."

Rookie Adam Johnson has been enjoying being around Kostopoulos, and learning from his experiences.

"It's amazing the amount of knowledge and stuff he has for the younger guys," Johnson said. "I think that's a huge benefit for the team, and that's going to help a lot coming down the stretch."

Cody Wydo has only played a handful of games in Wilkes-Barre while recalled from Wheeling. Still, he said that he immediately learned from being around Kostopoulos.

"'TK' always is just trying to help the younger players and just develop them," Wydo said. "Everyone listens up when he speaks and he has a lot of knowledge about the game. It's really helpful."

Over Kostopoulos' long career, including his time in the NHL with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Montreal, Calgary, Carolina and New Jersey, he's been through a lot. He's one of only four players in history to play at least 600 games in both the AHL and NHL. He's able to share his own stories -- and those of players he's played with -- with today's players, and keep things in perspective when they're waiting for a callup or disappointed when they get sent back to the AHL.

"Mostly because of my age, I've just been around and seen so much more at the pro level than a lot of the young guys. Usually, they'll listen to me," he said. "I try to add some of my experience, and then some of the players that I've played with. You learn so much from all the players you play with. I've played with so many great players -- great players and good people. I just try to share their experiences with these young guys."

It isn't just the young guys that rave about Kostopoulos. Tom Sestito, who has played with the likes of Sidney CrosbyHenrik Sedin, and Chris Pronger, made a pretty bold statement during his first season in Wilkes-Barre.

"'TK', he's probably the best captain I've ever played for," Sestito said. "He's a great leader on and off the ice, and he gets a lot of respect in that room."

In recent seasons, Kostopoulos has received an invite to Pittsburgh's training camp. Kostopoulos doesn't have any desire to compete for a spot on an NHL roster at this point in his career, and the invitation is largely done out of respect for Kostopoulos given what he has meant to the organization.

The coaching staff is also well aware of how the players can benefit from being around Kostopoulos during camp. He caught the attention of Mike Sullivan during Sullivan's first training camp as Pittsburgh's coach in 2016.

"I can't say enough about the influence he has on our young guys," Sullivan said." I think he represents everything that it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin. For me, 'TK' is the consummate pro."

Some graduates of Wilkes-Barre and Stanley Cup champions expressed similar sentiments:

He doesn't want to seriously think about his post-hockey career until the time comes, but we may see Kostopoulos in the coaching ranks himself one day.

"I definitely like the coaching and developing side of hockey," he said of his future.

His most important contributions may happen off the ice now, but that doesn't mean that Kostopoulos has missed a step himself at all. Through 25 games this season, he's recorded four goals and 13 assists.

Kostopoulos has missed 44 games this season with injury -- the longest absence of his entire career. While it was hard for him to sit on the sidelines for that long, he still saw some positives from the experience. With Kostopoulos out of the lineup, it gave younger guys the chance to play more.

"It gave a lot of players more ice time, more opportunities to show themselves and prove themselves," he said. "A lot of guys stepped up when I was out and filled in as the leadership role. Coming back was tough but it's been fun."

Even though Kostopoulos was out of the lineup, he wasn't away from the team. He would watch games and practices and try to offer advice to the team based on what he saw -- sometimes breaking out the whiteboard to diagram a play as a coach would.

"I was trying to help out the team any time I could," he said. "It's tough when you see the guys battling every day in games or practices and you can't do much yourself. I was trying to add whatever I could, sometimes giving them a different perspective from what I saw from the stands."

Lukas Bengtsson was injured for much of the same stretch as Kostopoulos, and the 23-year-old Bengtsson drew extra motivation from the captain and his work ethic.

"It's exciting being a younger guy seeing how hard he works to get back," Bengtsson told me at the time. "That's probably one reason why he can still play. He works really hard. He's the oldest guy on the team, and he's still one of the guys first on the ice. It's really impressive how he fuels the young guys with how much work you need to do."

[caption id="attachment_595915" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Tom Kostopoulos in his sophomore 2000-01 season and the present 2017-18 season. - WBS PENGUINS[/caption]

Originally just seen as a step in his road to the NHL, Wilkes-Barre has now become a second home to Kostopoulos, his wife Lisa, and his two young children Lily and Luc.

"I think the beginning of my career it was just a place to try and develop my game, I was always trying to get to Pittsburgh and the NHL," he said. "The last five years, I thought each year would be the last season of my career. To be able to come back to Wilkes-Barre and play the last five years has been a lot of fun for me and my family as well."

Kostopoulos earned the team's IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his work in the community this season, and is eligible for the overall league Man of the Year award. He makes multiple visits to local schools and libraries throughout the year, and leads the team’s holiday gift giving program, where players purchase and deliver Christmas gifts to local children in need.

Giving back to a community that has given so much to Kostopoulos and his family is something very important to the captain.

"The community has been really great to my family and myself," he said. "We try and give back as much as we can. We're part of the community, my kids go to school, my wife volunteers at their school, and we try to do what we can to give back."

Heading into the playoffs, Kostopoulos feels that his team is ready to make a run and hopefully, finally earn a Calder Cup.

"We're a team that has a lot of depth, all four lines and all six D going, two strong goalies," he said. "Guys have come in and out of our lineup all season and provided lots of jump for us. If we can roll four lines and play hard and wear teams down, I think we're a tough team to beat in the playoffs."

Since returning to Wilkes-Barre, Kostopoulos enters every season and every playoff run believing that it's his last -- even putting the odds at 90 percent in 2016. He won't decide for sure until the offseason, when he can talk it over with his family, but he's entering this playoff run with the same mindset.

"I would imagine it would be my last run," he said. "Every year I try to wait until the season is over to really think about it, but I think this will be it."

A Calder Cup would cap off an incredible playing career for Kostopoulos. This may finally be the captain's last run as a player, but it likely won't be the last of his contributions to hockey.

MORE FROM WILKES-BARRE

• Mar. 28: vs. Providence, 5-2 win
• Mar. 30: at Hartford, 4-3 overtime win
• Mar. 31: vs. Providence, 3-1 loss

• Reports out of Sweden say that Lukas Bengtsson will return to the SHL next season after missing much of his first season with POTS and this season due to injury. More details on that, including a comment from Bengtsson, can be found here.

• This week's games against Providence provided a preview of a likely first-round matchup in the playoffs. In Wednesday's game, Wilkes-Barre didn't get off to the early start they wanted and trailed after the first period -- a problem the team has dealt with often this season that they'd like to try to rectify before the playoffs start. Two goals from Daniel Sprong, and a tally from Joseph Cramarossa gave Wilkes-Barre the lead after the second period, and goals from Teddy Blueger and Jarred Tinordi sealed the win in the third. Tristan Jarry made 27 saves on 29 shots to earn the win.

• Andrey Pedan received a two-game suspension as a result of an interference call in the first period of Wednesday's game. It is his second suspension of the season. Pedan is eligible to return on April 3 against Hershey.

• The Penguins got the start they wanted on Friday, leading after the first period thanks to a Christian Thomas goal. After three straight Hartford goals in the second period and a goal from Zach Trotman, the Penguins found themselves trailing entering the third period. Thomas' second of the game forced overtime, and Sprong scored the overtime winner in the last minute of three-on-three play.

• Friday's win was the Penguins' 40th of the season. They have had at least 40 wins for 13 consecutive seasons, the league's active record.

• On Saturday, the Penguins dug themselves into a hole early, going down 2-0 in the first period. Jean Sebastien-Dea got the Penguins on the board at the end of the first period, but it was the only time the Penguins would find the back of the net all game.

• Prospects Jan Drozg and Niclas Almari joined Wilkes-Barre following the conclusions of their seasons. For full primers on both players, you can read the "Beyond the AHL" sections of this story for Drozg, and this story for Almari.

• Pittsburgh's 2013 sixth-round pick, Dane Birks, signed an entry-level deal with Pittsburgh following the conclusion of his senior season at Michigan Tech. He also signed an amateur tryout agreement with Wilkes-Barre, and will finish out the year there.

• Lines and defense pairings from Saturday:

Garrett Wilson - Jean-Sebastien Dea - Daniel Sprong
Joseph Cramarossa - Sam Lafferty - Ryan Haggerty
Tom Sestito - Jarrett Burton - Christian Thomas
Adam Johnson - Teddy Blueger - Tom Kostopoulos

Chris Summers - Ethan Prow
Kevin Czuczman - Lukas Bengtsson
Jarred Tinordi - Zach Trotman

• After this week, the Penguins are back in second place in the Atlantic Division with a point percentage* of .683. The magic number to clinch a playoff spot is now down to three points. Wilkes-Barre can clinch on Tuesday with either a win vs. Hershey AND a Bridgeport loss of any kind vs. Providence, or an overtime loss or shootout loss vs. Hershey AND a Bridgeport regulation loss vs. Providence.

*The AHL standings are determined by point percentage. This is because the Pacific Division plays only 68 games (due to travel) and the rest of the league plays 76 games.

• The Penguins (40-21-6-2) will have four games this week, their next-t0-last week of the regular season. They'll host the Hershey Bears (29-33-4-5) on Tuesday, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (34-27-5-3) on Friday, and the Binghamton Devils (23-36-7-4) on Saturday for their final home games of the season. They'll play Bridgeport again on Sunday, on the road.

GOALS OF THE WEEK

This goal from Daniel Sprong on Wednesday might just be his best of the year:

His second goal of the night wasn't so bad either:

Teddy Blueger put on a show as well:

BEYOND THE AHL

Defenseman Clayton Phillips was the Penguins' third-round draft pick in 2017.

Phillips began the season in the USHL -- playing three games for the Fargo Force before being traded to the Muskegon Lumberjacks in October. In 16 total games, the 18-year-old recorded five goals and seven assists.

In December, the University of Minnesota brought in Phillips for the second semester of the season. Phillips, a forward in high school, had previously been committed to Minnesota, but was brought in earlier than anticipated to provide a boost to Minnesota's low-scoring team, and to replace a freshman defenseman who had left the program.

In a team release announcing the move, Gophers head coach Don Lucia said, "Adding Clayton to our roster bolsters our depth on the blue line. He’s a dynamic player, and we are excited to welcome him to the Gopher Hockey program.”

In the 11 games since the move, Phillips was scoreless and an overall minus-3 for Minnesota, and spent time quarterbacking Minnesota's power play.

Phillips is a fast, puck-moving defenseman, the type who fits well in the Penguins' system. Even though Phillips wasn't with the Gophers for the full season, he still burned through his freshman year of eligibility. If he chooses to stay in Minnesota for the remainder of his eligibility, he has three seasons remaining.

TOP PICK TRACKER

• Defenseman Zachary Lauzon (second round, 2017) and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies are facing the Phoenix de Sherbrooke in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs. The series is currently tied, 3-3, and Lauzon is currently an overall minus-2 and scoreless through five games. He participated in warmups in Game 6, but was forced to sit out of the game because of a lingering problem with his neck injury from earlier in the season.

Dea tweeted in support of his former team ahead of their upcoming Game 7:

• Forward Kasper Bjorkqvist (second round, 2016) and Providence College’s season ended last week. He set new career highs in goals (16), assists (7), and points (23) in 40 games this year.

• Defenseman Connor Hall (third round, 2016) will undergo shoulder surgery and miss the Kitchener Rangers’ playoff run.

WHEELING WATCH

I'm hoping to get assistant coach Jay Spess as the Nailers make a push for the playoffs.

PROSPECT FUN THING

Jordy Bellerive's seatmate for the bus trip during the WHL playoffs was a bit young:

Bus buddy 👶🏻

A post shared by Jordy Bellerive (@bellerive16) on

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