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WBS Penguins Season Preview

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The 18th season of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey starts tonight. Here's what you need to know to get started.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Rosters in minor league sports fluctuate like few other sports, save perhaps the National Football League.  The ebb and flow of prospects either flaming out or being promoted and veterans looking for their final shot at glory or deciding to hang up the skates make it truly a fool’s errand to put names on any pro shop-purchased jerseys.

Such is the case for the WBS Penguins entering their 18th AHL season, as their opening night roster for the 2016-17 season is expected to feature as few as seven holdovers from their opening night roster for 2015-16.

Departures

  • Will O’Neill - free-agent signing for the Philadelphia Flyers, expected to start season with Lehigh Valley
  • Bryan Rust - promotion to Pittsburgh
  • Kael Mouillierat - free-agent signing with Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League
  • Scott Wilson - promotion to Pittsburgh
  • Tom Sestito - promotion to Pittsburgh, though Sestito cleared waivers and can join WBS within 30 days or 10 PIT games
  • Dominik Uher - free-agent signing with HC Sparta Praha of the Czech Republic
  • Niclas Andersen - free-agent signing with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg of the KHL
  • Conor Sheary - promotion to Pittsburgh
  • Derrick Pouliot - promotion to Pittsburgh
  • Matt Murray - promotion to Pittsburgh

With that in mind, let's take a look at who's still here and who will be joining the WBS Penguins as they take their 18th shot at the Calder Cup.

Forwards

The forward lines are expected to be led by the trio of the returning team captain, Tom Kostopoulos, winger Jake Guentzel, and their center Carter Rowney.  The trio was devastating in the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs, combining for 14 goals and 24 assists in their 10 playoff games. Kostopoulos recently:

I expect big things from this line for as long as they are together in the WB.

Last year's rookie sensation Dominik Simon returns for his second North American professional season, joining holdovers Jean-Sebastian Dea, Josh Archibald, Jarrett Burton, Sahir Gill, Adam Krause, Oskar Sundqvist, and Shavertown, PA's own Patrick McGrath.  The forward core was also bolstered by Pittsburgh returning Kevin Porter on Tuesday of this week.  New to WBS this season:

  • Garrett Wilson (Florida/Portland); Wilson recorded 20 points in 37 games for the Pirates last season, while also dressing for Florida in 29 games, recording no points
  • Ryan Haggerty (Rockford); 13 points in 36 games for the IceHogs last season
  • Reid Gardiner (Prince Albert of the WHL); undrafted, Gardiner recorded a remarkable 43 goals and 49 assists in 71 games, as well as 3 goals and 2 assists in 5 playoff games for the Raiders last season, and he was signed to an AHL contract for 2016-17 on Thursday.

Defensemen

The big departure from the WBS blue line is O’Neill, whose offensive talents from the top of the zone will undoubtedly be missed.  The tough-as-nails Steve Oleksy will return to WBS, fresh off his championship stint as a Pittsburgh "black ace", and he will be joined by David Warsofsky, who started last season with WBS, was promoted, got injured, but was claimed off waivers by New Jersey upon his return to full fitness.   Stalwart Barry Goers will also return, growing steadily into a reliable defensive presence on the blue line; the rugged Reid McNeill will also come back, never afraid to lay the big hit or throw hands as necessary.  Also returning are Ethan Prow, the 2015-16 Hobey Baker award finalist who joined WBS on a PTO at the end of last season and the playoffs; and Tim Erixon, acquired alongside Phil Kessel last summer and returning for his second season as a Penguin.

The returning six will be supplemented by three free agent acquisitions:

  • Chad Ruhwedel (Buffalo/Rochester); scored 10 goals and 16 assists in 59 games for the Americans, and took part in one game for the Sabres
  • Stuart Percy (Toronto/Toronto); scored four goals and 20 assists in 58 games for the Marlies last season; also dressed for three Maple Leafs games, scoring no points
  • Cameron Gaunce (Portland); two goals and 35 assists in 75 games for the Pirates last season

With six returning veterans, as well as three new acquisitions just rounding into the peaks of their careers, the WBS blue line looks to be as stout as ever.

Goaltenders

Until Tuesday of this past week, the goalies for WBS looked to be the weakest part of the team, with Matt Murray graduating to Pittsburgh as the goalie of the future, helping to lead Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup last season, and Tristan Jarry following Murray to Pittsburgh following Murray’s unfortunate injury in the World Cup of Hockey.  For a while, it looked as though Jarry was going to serve as the backup to Marc-Andre Fleury while Murray recovered, leaving October in the young hands of Casey DeSmith and Doug Carr, but the Montreal Canadiens did the Penguins a HUGE favor by placing goalie Mike Condon on waivers.  Pittsburgh promptly claimed Condon to serve as the PIT backup, released Carr, and returned Jarry to WBS, leaving Jarry in the exact position he was in at the end of season…running neck and neck with DeSmith to tend the WBS net.

I expect Jarry to get the majority of starts, as he could very well become a second "goalie of the future" alongside Murray; in 33 starts last season, Jarry posted a 2.69 GAA, a 90.5% save percentage, and five shutouts in the regular season, though his performance deteriorated as the season dragged on.  Jarry posted a 2.24 GAA and a 90.2% save percentage in his three playoff appearances, while his new counterpart DeSmith posted a 2.44 GAA and a 91.9% save percentage in the playoffs, including a WBS-playoff-record 59 saves in a clinching Game 3 against Providence…a series of performances that were rewarded with an AHL contract for this season.

Streaks

The WBS Penguins enter their 18th season maintaining two separate, yet very impressive streaks.  They have recorded 11 straight seasons with at least 40 victories, and they have qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs in each of the last 14 seasons.  With the roster being fielded by WBS to start this season, both appear to be solid bets to continue this season, despite the usual heavy competition within their division by Lehigh Valley and Hershey.

Rivals

Lehigh Valley will be a formidable opponent this season, especially on defense.  Philadelphia's #11 overall pick from the 2013 draft, all 6'7" of Samuel Morin, returns for his second professional season; joining him on the blue line is not just the aforementioned Will O'Neill, but also the 2015-16 Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL's best defender, T.J. Brennan. Bolstered by former WBS Penguins Colin McDonald and Chris Conner on the forward lines, as well as the dynamic Petr Straka and All-Star goalie Anthony Stolarz, the Phantoms will give the Penguins a great matchup each of the 12 times they are scheduled to play.

The defending Eastern Conference champions from Hershey are always formidable, and 2016-17 figures to be no different. Longtime Bear Chris Bourque figures prominently into the Hershey attack, and joining him from last year's team will be a significant cadre of holdovers, including Jakub Vrana, Ryan Bourque, Riley Barber, Garrett Mitchell, Liam O'Brien, Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Nathan Walker, Dustin Gazley, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and Tyler Lewington. WBS will play Hershey a total of 12 times.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic Division, the Providence Bruins suffered three significant losses as Seth Griffith was lost to Toronto on waivers, Austin Czarnik was promoted to Boston, and Rookie of the Year Frank Vatrano will be out for several weeks after tearing ligaments in his foot training for the upcoming season.  While there is still a team in Springfield, they are now the Thunderbirds, affiliated with Florida instead of Columbus, and will feature another former WBS Penguin in Paul Thompson. The division will also feature the Hartford Wolf Pack (including former Penguin Tanner Glass) and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but I would expect WBS, Providence, Lehigh Valley, and Hershey to spend a lot of time jostling for the top four positions throughout the season.

Prediction

At the start of a season, I usually have no idea how things will go. Especially for the AHL, with roster turnover, promotion, demotion, and injury a daily way of life. My expectations, therefore, are rather simple for now...that the Penguins continue their streak of 40-win seasons, and that they get into the playoffs. Once into the tournament, you never know what will happen.

Let's lace them up and get going.  WBS hosts Hartford tonight at 7:15 pm EDT.