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The 2016 WBS Offseason...so far

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Lots of things have happened since the Cup was raised in Pittsburgh a month ago. Let's take a quick spin around Coal Street.

Hello again, everyone...your friendly neighborhood WBS writer here again, hoping you all are well and enjoying the glorious reflections of sunlight off of Lord Stanley's Cup.  It's been an interesting few weeks since the NHL season concluded and the official start to hockey's "silly season" of insane trades (hello, Nashville/Montreal/Edmonton/Jersey) and contracts for all the money, so let's take a step back and summarize everything that has happened to the WBS Penguins since they left the ice in Hershey in late May.

Player Signings

The Captain Returns

The biggest question mark facing the WBS Penguins once the final horn rang in Hershey concerned its captain.  For the entirety of the playoffs, we had heard that the 2015-16 run had roughly a 90% chance of being Tom Kostopoulos's last ride.  Thankfully for all of us who count ourselves WBS fans, on May 24 TK took the 10%, signing a one-year AHL contract for 2016-17.  At 37 years old, Kostopoulos will look to expand on his regular season total of 19 goals and 33 assists in 75 games (second best behind Carter Rowney's 56 points among players who spent all of last season in the Penguins organization), as well as his 12 points in 10 playoff games that seconded only Jake Guentzel for the team playoff lead.

Coming Back for More

In addition to Kostopoulos's return, the Penguins organization will welcome back six seven contributors to its ranks for the 2016-17 season.  Defender Tim Erixon was the first to come back, signing on June 27 after 20 points in 65 regular season games and 6 points in 10 playoff games for WBS.  Following Erixon were alternate captain Steve Oleksy (19 points in 63 games, one assist in 9 playoff games) and the tough-as-nails Tom Sestito (14 points in 41 games, 4 points in 7 playoff games) on July 1, goaltender Casey DeSmith on July 5, forward Adam Krause (4 points in 15 games, no points in 3 playoff games) on July 6, forward Sahir Gill (14 points in 21 games, no points in 2 playoff games) on July 7, and defender Barry Goers on the morning of July 8.

New (Old) Faces in the Crowd

Sitting at my desk on July 1, watching the dollars fly, I was simply baffled at just how many defenders the Penguins organization signed as free agency opened.  Perhaps it wasn't a surprise to see David Warsofsky, plucked off waivers by the New Jersey Devils last season, return to the Penguins, but after former Toronto first-rounder Stuart Percy, Rochester defender Chad Ruhwedel, and Portland All-Star and alternate captain Cameron Gaunce signed as well on July 1, I couldn't help but think how happy the WBS goalies would be seeing all this defensive ability in front of them.  The Penguins also added forward Garrett Wilson, formerly of Portland and Florida, to their ranks on July 7, as well as former Cornell Big Red captain Christian Hilbrich (all 6'7" of him) on June 28 and former Barrie Colts captain Michael Webster on June 27.

League News

Realignment

As a result of the sudden sale and relocation of the Springfield Falcons to Tucson, becoming the Roadrunners, as well as the subsequent relocation of the Portland Pirates to Springfield to become the Thunderbirds, the AHL announced its 2016-17 alignment on July 7.  The league remains a 30-team, four-division league, with Portland departing the Atlantic, Springfield staying put under a new affiliation, and Tucson joining the Pacific.  All teams will play 76 games, except for the five California teams and Tucson, which will play 68 each.  The new divisions break down as follows:
  • Atlantic: Bridgeport, Hartford, Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Providence, Springfield, WBS
  • North: Albany, Binghamton, Rochester, St. John's, Syracuse, Toronto, Utica
  • Central: Charlotte, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Iowa, Lake Erie, Manitoba, Milwaukee, Rockford
  • Pacific: Bakersfield (68), Ontario (68), San Antonio, San Diego (68), San Jose (68), Stockton (68), Texas, Tucson (68)
Yeah, I don't get the logic of having six 68-game teams and two 76-game teams in the same division either.  The league's going to make it work through points percentages again, but...yeah, OK.

Laundry

Kind of a small thing announced by the AHL at the end of its summer Board of Governors meeting, but the AHL announced a change to its jersey rules.  Previously, in direct contrast to their NHL counterparts, AHL teams would wear light jerseys at home and dark jerseys on the road except for special circumstances such as promotional nights.  Now, for 2016-17, teams will wear their light jerseys at home only until the league breaks for the Christmas holidays, at which time teams will switch to their dark jerseys for home games.  I quite liked the light jerseys at home, but we'll see how this goes.

Ice Stuff

As if the penalty for icing (not being able to change lines) wasn't punishing enough for teams who just wanted to get the puck the hell out of the zone, the AHL enacted a rule change for 2016-17 in which teams that ice the puck now are forbidden from using their time out.  Considering most time-outs in the AHL appeared to be taken following icing calls last season, this should make the use of the time-out, and the related coach's challenge, much more interesting.  Personally, I'll be waiting for the first time a challenge is used, even for the most trivial thing, following an icing.

Stop Fighting!

Perhaps the most seismic and important rules changes coming out of the summer Governors' meetings concern fighting.  Back when Big Tom Sestito re-signed with the Penguins organization on July 1, I said on Twitter two things: 1) Sestito's physical, non-fighting contributions to the WBS playoff run in 2015-16 cannot be overstated, and 2) The AHL is still a league where enforcers have a place; even though I may not like it, I understand it, and until fighting is eliminated altogether, we might as well have one of the best.  Well, apparently the league heard me, as they introduced four new fighting rules for 2016-17 (from TheAHL.com):
• Players who enter into a fight prior to, at, or immediately following the drop of the puck for a faceoff will be assessed an automatic game misconduct in addition to other penalties assessed.

• During the regular season, any player who incurs his 10th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for one (1) game. For each subsequent fighting major up to 13, the player shall also be suspended automatically for one (1) game.

• During the regular season, any player who incurs his 14th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for two (2) games. For each subsequent fighting major, the player shall also be suspended automatically for two (2) games.

• In any instance where the opposing player was assessed an instigator penalty, the fighting major shall not count towards the player’s total for this rule.

So, that fight at the start of Game 5 of the Atlantic Division finals between Sestito and Liam O'Brien? Yeah...under these new rules, both players would have been kicked out of the game.

Or, remember this skirmish between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers a few years ago?

The box score from that night has Ryan Carter, Eric Boulton, and Cam Janssen for NJ and Mike Rupp, Brandon Prust, and Stu Bickel for the Rangers all getting five-minute fighting majors and nothing else.  Under these new AHL rules, all six players would have been ejected from the game on game misconducts.

I'm all for the elimination of fighting from hockey.  Let's get that straight.  Often, during this most recent season I found myself doing anything and everything to distract myself from the ice whenever a fight took place.  I don't pay for a 22-game WBS ticket package to watch fights; I pay for a 22-game WBS ticket package to see players like Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Brian Dumoulin, Matt Murray, and so many others through the years hone their skills for promotion to and success in the big show.  Fights have been a sadly necessary evil for me in the AHL lately, so anything the league can do to eliminate them is just great by me.

Big Tom, your thoughts?

Ummmmmmmmmmmm...

...I'll...just be over here, waiting for more WBS news to happen...enjoy your summer, everyone...

EDIT: Article updated to include the return of Barry Goers to WBS, announced by the team on the morning of July 8.