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WBS Penguins 2018-19 Season Preview

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Has it really been 20 years? The top farm team of the Pittsburgh Penguins embarks on its 20th season tonight; here’s what you need to know to start the AHL season.

via WBS Penguins Twitter

Fresh off a new naming rights agreement with the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino that will keep the Mohegan Sun name on its arena until January 2030, the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza will celebrate the 20th year of its existence with, among many other events, the 20th season of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey. As the new season begins tonight against the Springfield Thunderbirds, here’s what you need to know.

The Dearly Departed

The Penguins will be missing the following from the team that finished 45-22-6-3 in 2017-18, second in the Atlantic Division, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and fifth overall before getting swept out of the playoffs in Round 1 by the Charlotte Checkers.

  • The captain, Tom Kostopoulos. Limited to only 31 regular season games last year due to injury, TK managed to score 5 goals and 14 assists in his regular season before retiring for good at season’s end. TK is now the player development coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, though, so it’s not like he’s completely gone.
  • The deterrent, Tom Sestito. Big Tom dressed in 37 games for WBS last season, finishing with six goals, nine assists, and 95 penalty minutes. After agreeing to a mutual departure in June, Sestito ultimately retired from the sport in early September.
  • The sniper, Daniel Sprong. In his only full season with WBS, Sprong set the WBS rookie record for goals in a debut season with 32, adding 33 assists in his 65 games to finish as a point-per-game player. It has been the intention of Pittsburgh all summer and all preseason to start Sprong in Pittsburgh, so the farm team will have to find ways to make up for his scoring prowess.
  • The all-around, Jean-Sebastien Dea. Dea finished second to Sprong in assists and overall points in 2017-18, finishing with 18 goals and 32 assists for 50 points in 70 games. Dea is no longer with the organization, having been claimed by the New Jersey Devils. Watch out for Dea this season in New Jersey, though; if Jersey decides that Dea is not a good fit and waives him, Pittsburgh would have a chance to claim him back. If Pittsburgh should be the only team to claim him in such a scenario, they would have the chance to send Dea to WBS outright.
  • The Olympian, Christian Thomas. In 51 games for WBS, littered around various international duties for Canada (including the bronze medal in Pyeongchang), Thomas scored 18 goals and 16 assists for 34 points. Thomas signed with Rögle BK of the Swedish Hockey League for the 2018-19 season.
  • The big defender, Andrey Pedan. The (listed) 6-foot-5 defender from Lithuania, with the booming slap shot, played in 52 games for WBS last season, contributing nine goals and 17 assists, including five power play goals. Pedan was also suspended twice for a total of five games. Acquired from Vancouver in the trade that sent former No. 8 overall draft pick Derrick Pouliot to the Canucks, Pedan signed for the KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan in the offseason.

So, WBS has to account for the departure of 88 of last season’s 252 goals with those six players. In addition, scattered among those 88 goals are a total of 21 power play goals, a whopping 56-percent of last year’s 41 power play goals for WBS that contributed to a league-second-worst conversion percentage of 13.8-percent.

The Current Team

That said, here’s a look at who’s returning.

The WBS roster, to start the year at least, will include the following names:

  • Forwards: Anthony Angello, Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Cam Brown, Jarrett Burton, Joseph Cramarossa, Thomas DiPauli, Ryan Haggerty, Jimmy Hayes, Ryan Horvat, Adam Johnson, Troy Josephs, Sam Lafferty, Tobias Lindberg, Patrick McGrath, Sam Miletic, Linus Ölund, Garrett Wilson
  • Defenders: Matthew Abt, Dane Birks, Kevin Czuczman, Tim Erixon, Joe Masonius, Will O’Neill, Ethan Prow, Kevin Spinozzi, Chris Summers, Jeff Taylor, Zach Trotman
  • Goalies: John Muse, Anthony Peters, Tristan Jarry

The roster is compiled from the training camp roster as of the first round of camp cuts on Monday. Not included above is the signing of Renars Krastenbergs to an AHL contract on Friday. Per the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader’s Tom Venesky:

Cramarossa and Czuczman are injured to start the year; Czuczman, in particular, will be missed to open the season, as his 31 assists last season led all defenders and finished third on the team behind Sprong and Dea.

The biggest name to join WBS this season is arguably Will O’Neill, returning to the Penguins after spending the last two seasons with Lehigh Valley. In his lone season with WBS, 2015-16, O’Neill posted a remarkable 42 assists in 74 games, and of his eight goals in that season, half were power play goals. O’Neill’s production tailed off significantly during his two seasons in Lehigh Valley, posting three goals and 28 assists in 57 games during 2016-17, then six goals and 13 assists in 59 games last season. O’Neill’s return, as well as the addition of Jarrod Skalde to the coaching bench to replace the departing Tim Army (now the head coach of the Iowa Wild), are expected to prop up a frankly pathetic power play.

Up front, despite the departures of Sprong, Dea, and Thomas, WBS looks to be loaded. Aston-Reese scored nine goals and 20 assists in 41 games last season before being promoted to Pittsburgh, and Blueger, Wilson, and Haggerty finished 3-4-5 in scoring for WBS last season (Blueger 21 goals and 45 points in 70 games; Wilson 17 goals and 42 points in 69 games; Haggerty 16 goals and 37 points in 47 games). Adam Johnson looks to build upon a solid rookie season, scoring 11 goals and 31 points in 70 games.

I think the offense will be fine.

On defense, O’Neill rejoins a blue line that returns Czuczman, Summers, Trotman, and Prow from last season’s defense. Tim Erixon also returns, having joined WBS camp without a contract and being signed to the roster on a tryout. Once Czuczman returns to full health, the blue line should be OK, especially if O’Neill regains the form that led him to finish third in points on WBS during 2015-16. It also won’t hurt at all if defenders such as Spinozzi, Taylor, Birks, and Abt show developmental progress.

The plan in net for the Penguins organization during 2018-19 appeared to be as follows:

  1. Matt Murray as The Guy in the Burgh
  2. Casey DeSmith as the second goalie in the Burgh
  3. Tristan Jarry as The Guy in WBS, ready at a moment’s notice to be The Guy in the Burgh should something happen to Murray
  4. Have Anthony Peters and John Muse contend in camp to be the second goalie in WBS

When Jarry got hurt against Columbus near the end of preseason, it looked for a while like Jarry would be stuck in Pittsburgh as non-roster-injured and therefore ineligible to be sent to WBS, but that changed on Friday with Jarry’s reassignment. So at least to start the year, WBS figures to begin with three goalies.

Peters did well enough last year to parlay a professional tryout into a full AHL contract with a 12-7-3 record, a 2.71 GAA, and a .907 save percentage in 24 appearances for WBS last season. In 16 WBS appearances over a stunted, travel-heavy season, Jarry managed a 9-5-2 record with a 3.05 GAA and a .901 save percentage. In 15 appearances for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms last season, Muse posted a sterling 11-2-2 record with a 2.46 GAA and a .919 save percentage.

The starting job is Jarry’s to lose, and he’s got as good an opportunity as ever to show that he can be a capable starting goaltender.

I don’t know if you can ever truly replace Tom Kostopoulos as a captain, but the captain’s C has to fall on somebody, and on Thursday, the Penguins announced that it would fall on Garrett Wilson this season. Chris Summers will serve as one alternate captain, while the second alternate captaincy will rotate among several players.

The Division Rivals

Around the rest of the Atlantic Division:

  • The Penguins were not the only franchise to fall victim to the waiver wire during training camp, as Philadelphia/Lehigh Valley lost the services of forward Danick Martel to a Tampa Bay waiver claim. The Phantoms will have to make up for Martel’s 25 goals and 15 assists from last season, but they will have the AHL’s second leading scorer last year in Phil Varone returning, as well as Cole Bardreau, Greg Carey, Tyrell Goulbourne, former Penguins Colin McDonald and Chris Conner, Nic Aube-Kubel, Taylor Leier, Reece Wilcox, and T.J. Brennan. That’s before we get to the highly anticipated rookie season of goalie Carter Hart and the very late signing of former WBS Penguin defender Phil Samuelsson this past Thursday. Once again, Lehigh Valley will pose a great challenge to the Penguins this season.
  • The Bridgeport Sound Tigers will be fighting the AHL veteran limit all season, with longtime Hershey Bear Chris Bourque joining the Sound Tigers this offseason to skate alongside his brother Ryan. Josh Ho-Sang also figures prominently for the Sound Tigers this season, so long as New York Islanders management seeks to keep him in the minors. Bridgeport looks dangerous.
  • Charlotte looks to be significantly weaker this season, as last year’s playoff stars Lucas Wallmark, Valentin Zykov, Warren Foegele, and Haydn Fleury will start the season with Carolina. Furthermore, forward Andrew Miller departed North America entirely, signing with HC Fribourg-Gotteron of Switzerland’s National League.
  • Providence may take a significant step back this season as well, as they lost Austin Czarnik, Kenny Agostino, Adam Payerl, Tommy Cross, and Paul Postma to Calgary, Montreal, Augsburger Panther (German league), Columbus, and Ak Bars Kazan respectively. Providence also benefitted last season from the assignment of Jordan Binnington by St. Louis to the P-Bruins, but with the Blues now having their own affiliate in San Antonio this season, Binnington will head there.
  • Springfield features three returning WBS Penguins forwards: Harry Zolnierczyk, fan favorite Bobby Farnham, and captain Paul Thompson, as well as a plethora of offseason signings. The Thunderbirds will host the 2019 All-Star Classic in late January, and at least to start the year, they look to be well positioned to improve upon their sub-.500 season finish last season.
  • Hershey looks to rebound from a surprising last-place division finish last year while still basking in the glow of their parent club winning the Stanley Cup. The Bears will likely return forwards Riley Barber and Liam O’Brien, defender Tyler Lewington, and goaltender Vitek Vanecek, as well as possibly Aaron Ness and former Penguin Jayson Megna, who cleared Washington’s waivers earlier this week but has not yet been sent to the Bears, but the most decorated franchise in the AHL will feature a lot of new faces this year under first-year head coach Spencer Carbery.
  • Hartford will also feature an opening roster dotted with longtime AHL names such as Dustin Tokarski in net and Bobby Butler, Peter Holland, and Cole Schneider at forward, but once again, the Wolf Pack will probably spend the majority of the season developing new names.

How to Follow

If you missed the second half of my summer recap, I will once again point you towards the new AHLTV for a new, purportedly better way to watch the AHL this season. For $80, you get all league games all season; for $60, you get all games for a chosen team; for $40, you get all home or road games for a chosen team. All games in a month are $20 per month; all games on one day, $7 per day. The AHL is offering a free preview of AHLTV for this weekend’s games if you want to give it a try.

Elsewhere, radio for all WBS games will be handled by WILK News Radio in the WBS area (103.1 FM, 980 AM, 910 AM), or online at wilknewsradio.com, with last year’s analyst Nick Hart now promoted to the play-by-play seat. In the early part of the season, over-the-air radio may be subject to Penn State football.

What to Expect

What else can you expect out of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in their 20th season but another playoff berth? They’ve only made the playoffs in each of their last 16 seasons and 17 times in their first 19 seasons. As far as who else might survive the Atlantic Division grind to continue playing beyond the season finale April 14, I’ll take Lehigh Valley, Springfield, and Bridgeport.

So...make the playoffs, get a few players ready for injury or merit-based callups to Pittsburgh, and it’ll be a productive regular season.

With negotiations still ongoing between the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority and the Penguins towards renewing the team’s lease, though, let’s hope the 20th season is not the last.