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WBS Penguins Summer Update, Part 1

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First in an ongoing series chronicling the goings-on of Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate this offseason.

As you will recall, the 18th season of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey came to a sudden, perhaps not so surprising end on Sunday, April 30, with a 2-1 loss at home to the Providence Bruins to lose out of the Calder Cup playoffs in round 1. The Bruins, incidentally, would go on to knock off the Hershey Bears in the Atlantic Division finals in seven games, winning Games 6 and 7 in Hershey. Providence’s run came to an end at the hands of the Eastern Conference champion Syracuse Crunch, who themselves fell to the skates of the eventual Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins in six games.

But that’s not why we’re here today.

We’re here to take a look at what WBS has been doing since that fateful day in April.

Kostopoulos Returns

The first big shoe to drop took place on the morning of May 8, as the WBS captain, Tom Kostopoulos, decided to forego retirement for one more year to sign another one-year contract with the WBS Penguins. The 38-year-old Kostopoulos appeared to turn back the clock during the 2016-17 season, recording 24 goals and 30 assists in his 74 games to post 54 points, leading all other Penguins and finishing tied for 26th among all AHL players. Kostopoulos enjoyed two career milestones during the 2016-17, recording the 500th AHL point of his career against the Binghamton Senators on January 28, the 91st player in the history of the American Hockey League. Just two games later, on February 4, Kostopoulos suited up for his 600th game in a WBS uniform against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, only the 14th player in the history of the AHL to play that many games for a single team.

New Alignment, Opponents Breakdown

In association with the AHL, just three days after Kostopoulos returned, the WBS Penguins announced their opponents for 2017-18. The regular division opponents of Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Hartford, Providence, Springfield, and Bridgeport appeared on the list again, as well as new member of the Atlantic Division Charlotte, expanding the Atlantic to eight teams for the upcoming season. In addition, WBS will continue to face the former Binghamton Senators, relocating to Belleville; the former Albany Devils, relocating to Binghamton; and the former St. John’s IceCaps, relocating to Laval and rebranding themselves as the Rocket, as well as their fellow North Division combatants Toronto, Syracuse, Utica, and Rochester. Finally, WBS will travel to Milwaukee for the first time in 16 years, to the defending champions in Grand Rapids for the first time in 9 years; and to Rockford to face the IceHogs for the first time ever. The full WBS schedule, with breakdown of opponents and dates, will be announced later this summer.

Departures to Vegas

As the Vegas Golden Knights take aim at the various NHL rosters for their expansion draft next week, they will already have taken two key figures from the WBS Penguins organization. Announced first on May 31 was the departure of WBS strength and conditioning coach Doug Davidson; one week later, on June 6, WBS announced the departure of head athletic trainer Kyle Moore to become the Knights’ associate head athletic trainer.

McGrath Returns

One day after the departure of Moore, WBS announced a retention within their ranks, signing Shavertown, PA native and two-time-running Fan Favorite Award winner Patrick McGrath to a contract for 2017-18. McGrath dressed in only 30 games for WBS during the 2016-17 season, scoring his first AHL goal on April 8 at Hartford and contributing 3 assists. As expected going into the season, McGrath’s most notable contribution was in the penalty minute ranks, finishing with 89 minutes of penalties to rank second on the Penguins behind Tom Sestito’s 121 and tied for 60th among all AHL players.

Home Opener, First Six Guaranteed Home Dates

On June 13, as the Penguins organization was celebrating the successful defense of its Stanley Cup championship, the WBS Penguins announced six guaranteed home dates. WBS will open its 19th home season on October 7, 2017, against an opponent soon to be announced, and they will also play home games on December 2, December 23, January 27, February 17, and March 17 against opponents to be determined.

The New General Manager

Finally, to close this section of the Summer Update, we must acknowledge the departure of Pittsburgh associate general manager and WBS general manager Jason Botterill, who departed Pittsburgh for Buffalo in May. Understandably busy with other concerns, Pittsburgh waited until yesterday morning to announce their new general manager for the WBS franchise, and boy, was it a doozie.

Until attending Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final this year, I’ve never heard an arena get as loud as it did that night for Billy Guerin’s tying goal against the Bruins with 0.4 seconds to go. That was the season after Guerin, acquired via trade from the Islanders, helped elevate the Penguins to the third Stanley Cup in their history, and following that year, Guerin retired as a player in 2011. Pittsburgh clearly had won his heart, though (as it does for so many others, including yours truly), as the Penguins quickly hired him as a player development coach after his player retirement. Guerin quickly climbed the management ladder, serving as an assistant general manager under Jim Rutherford since JR’s hire in 2014 until being tasked with leading the WBS franchise.

Guerin’s got ideas, too. Per the official team news release:

It’s absolutely critical that we have success in Wilkes-Barre...The culture in Wilkes-Barre, the winning attitude, the winning that’s done on the ice, being able to compete in the playoffs every year, and not just competing, but giving yourself a chance to win every year, that’s part of development, in my mind. Development is not just about going out and playing hockey, playing a lot of minutes. It’s about playing the right way. It’s about playing with a purpose, and that purpose is to win.

There are high expectations...There’s a good history there, and I plan on following in those footsteps. Not much is going to change in terms of the expectation level. We’re still going to compete for the Calder Cup, we’re still going to develop players for Pittsburgh. I expect our team and our organization to continue to be one of the model organizations of the American Hockey League.

I’m already sold on the idea of winning as a path to player development. One of these days, it might even lead to winning in May and June, not just January and February.

There is still a lot of business to tend to this summer, including the full schedule release, the AHL Board of Governors meeting from July 2-6, free agency, and the NHL draft, so keep an eye tuned right here for future editions of the Summer Update.