Penguins not bringing back AHL coach J.D. Forrest, assistant Kevin Porter: Why the changes now?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are making changes to their American Hockey League coaching staff. The team will not renew the contracts of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach J.D. Forrest and assistant coach Kevin Porter, the team announced Sunday.

This news comes less than 48 hours after the Penguins’ AHL affiliate was eliminated from the postseason.

Penguins assistant general manager Jason Spezza, who plays a significant role in overseeing the happenings in Wilkes-Barre, announced the news.

“Today’s decisions were not easy and we are grateful to J.D. and Kevin for their dedication and hard work over the past eight and four years, respectively,” Spezza said in a statement. “Both are good coaches and, more importantly, excellent people. These decisions come after taking the season to fully evaluate our minor league and development systems.

“As we enter into an era where each of those systems operating at an elite level becomes paramount to the future of our entire program, we felt it would be best to take this time to make the changes that our management team deems important to reaching our goal of having Wilkes-Barre become the premier developer of players and staff that can help the Pittsburgh Penguins win Stanley Cups.”

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Forrest was the coach in Wilkes-Barre in each of the past four seasons. His team missed the postseason twice and was eliminated in the first round during the other two seasons, though it should be noted that the Penguins’ minor-league systems have generally been barren of talent during his time behind the bench in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Jim Rutherford initially hired Forrest as an assistant coach in Wilkes-Barre in 2016.

Porter, who played in 43 regular-season games during the Penguins’ Stanley Cup seasons in 2016 and 2017, has been Forrest’s top assistant for the past four seasons.

The Penguins still haven’t offered any information regarding their NHL coaching staff.

Mike Sullivan is safe as the Penguins’ head coach, but it remains unknown if his entire staff will be returning. The Penguins’ coaches were told following meetings 10 days ago that they were free to head to their respective homes given that the season had concluded. However, the coaches weren’t told definitively whether they were returning to the Penguins next season.

Members of the staff include Todd Reirden, Mike Vellucci, Andy Chiodo, Ty Hennes, Madison Nikkel and C.J. D’Alimonte.

President of hockey operations and general manager Kyle Dubas spoke with Sullivan following the season. Sullivan is loyal to his coaching staff and a believer in bringing it back in its entirety.

It remains unknown if Dubas is interested in making a coaching change.

The Penguins are less than two weeks removed from missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

Why now?

Dubas wasn’t hired until last June. He hadn’t even made himself GM or been able to bring aboard Spezza until later in the summer. Basically, Dubas had no time to overhaul the AHL arm of the Penguins.

With a full offseason, Dubas now has that time.

Spezza is running the show with the AHL team, which will feature at least two of the prospects acquired in the trade that sent Jake Guentzel to the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline. The Penguins want those prospects — Vasili Ponomaryov and Ville Koivunen — fast-tracked to the NHL. Having their own coach in the AHL will probably give Dubas and Spezza greater confidence in that endeavor happening next season.

Also, with NCAA Frozen Four star Tristan Broz and former first-round defenseman Owen Pickering ticketed for the AHL next season, the Penguins will need a coach who is aligned with Dubas and Spezza. — Rob Rossi, Penguins senior writer

What Penguins want from next AHL staff

That remains to be seen, but Dubas said upon his hiring that he believed an AHL club should help prepare prospects for the NHL by placing them in growth situations and meaningful games. When he was GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dubas’ top minor affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, routinely pushed for deep Calder Cup playoff runs — something Wilkes-Barre/Scranton hasn’t done for years.

The Penguins have long required their AHL coach to run the same system as the NHL coach. They’ve also had a history — Michel Therrien (2005), Dan Bylsma (2009) and Sullivan (2015) — of making their AHL coach an in-season NHL replacement. Bylsma and Sullivan won the Cup after joining the Penguins at the NHL level.

Wilke-Barre/Scranton is not far removed from major arena renovations. Long a destination spot for fringe NHL players, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ideally would be that again.

The Penguins own their minor affiliates, so decisions regarding those clubs are motivated by on- and off-ice factors.

Dubas spent a decent amount on veterans who began last season in the AHL. He may do so again this summer, but not at the expense of the few prospects the Penguins have in their system — rather to help guide those players’ development. — Rossi

Required reading

(Photo: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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