Hello everyone! I hope your summers are going well.
With the release of the full 2018-19 American Hockey League schedule on Wednesday, let’s take a look now at what the WBS Penguins have been doing this summer to prepare for their 20th season in northeastern Pennsylvania.
KOSTOPOULOS RETIRES, THEN RETURNS...WITH AN OLD FRIEND
The first big shoe to drop after Charlotte swept the WBS Penguins out of the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs was the retirement of longtime captain and statistical leader in pretty much everything notable, Tom Kostopoulos, which became official following Charlotte’s 7-3 eliminator of WBS back on April 26. The second shoe to drop, though, was much, much less anticipated. The Pittsburgh Penguins announced on June 20 that they had hired Kostopoulos as a player development coach for the organization, as well as former WBS and Pittsburgh goaltender Andy Chiodo as a goaltender development coach.
I would refer you once again to my colleague Kaitlyn’s recap of this news, but I would add that seeing both TK and Andy in development roles for the Pittsburgh franchise warms my heart considerably, as both have contributed some of the fondest memories of my early fandom with the WBS franchise. TK’s accomplishments are self-evident, but the extent to which Andy lifted the team on his back and refused to concede defeat in 2004 as WBS surged to the Final, punctuated by his takedown and KO of Antero Niittymaki after a Round 2 playoff game against the then-Philadelphia Phantoms, gives him a permanent place in WBS lore.Take a look at that clip, as well as some more fascinating insights, here. It’ll be very interesting to see what the two WBS standouts can do in their new advisory roles.
Let’s take a quick run-through of the various signings made by Pittsburgh/WBS that would likely affect the WBS Penguins:
- May 18: Undrafted defender Jusso Riikola, six-year veteran of Kalpa in Finland’s top professional league; one-year entry level contract. Revisit our early analysis of him here.
- June 19: Forward Tobias Lindberg; one-year, two-way contract. Lindberg, you will recall (hopefully, because I sure didn’t), was acquired by the Penguins organization in the trade that sent forward Ryan Reaves to Vegas and brought Derrick Brassard to Pittsburgh; at the time, Pittsburgh loaned Lindberg back to his then-minor league team, the Chicago Wolves, for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. Lindberg finished last season with 10 goals and 13 assists in 64 games for Chicago, as well as one assist in two playoff appearances.
- June 25: Forwards Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon, and defender Kevin Czuczman; Sprong and Simon received two-year contracts, while Czuczman received a one-year, two-way contract. Admittedly, if either Sprong or Simon find themselves back in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton again, I will be very surprised. Czuczman, though, I’m very pleased to see return. He led all WBS players with 71 games played last season, and also led all defensemen with 31 assists and 35 points. Czuczman’s 31 assists landed him tied for sixth league-wide among defenders.
- June 28: Forward Jean-Sebastien Dea; one-year, two-way contract. Personally, I think Dea is more than ready for an extended NHL look; this upcoming camp will be very pivotal for him. Dea finished last season with 18 goals and 32 assists for 50 points, second only to the record-setting rookie season of Daniel Sprong for points and third behind Sprong and Teddy Blueger in goals. If Dea ends up returning to WBS, I expect him to play a starring role.
- July 1: Forward Jimmy Hayes, defenders Zach Trotman and Stefan Elliott, and goaltender John Muse; all one-year, two-way contracts. Trotman returns to WBS after finishing fourth among WBS defenders last season with seven goals and 10 assists for 17 points in an injury-shortened 49 games. Trotman’s seven goals finished behind only the nine goals of the departing Andrey Pedan, who signed a two-year contract with the defending Kontinental Hockey League champions Ak Bars Kazan in the offseason. Hayes comes to the Penguins organization from New Jersey; Elliott from HV71 of the top league in Sweden; Muse from Lehigh Valley, where he recorded 11 wins, a 91.9% save percentage, and a 2.46 GAA in 15 appearances for the Phantoms, including a 22-save victory over WBS on February 18.
- July 9: Forwards Ryan Haggerty, Patrick McGrath, and Cam Brown, and defender Will O’Neill; AHL contracts for 2018-19. O’Neill returns to WBS for his second stint after spending the last two seasons patrolling the blue line for Lehigh Valley. In his prior season, 2015-16, he led all WBS players with 42 assists and all defenders with 50 points. Haggerty returns to WBS for his third season in a row after posting new career highs last year with 16 goals, 21 assists, and 37 points, highlighted by a hat trick January 12 at Belleville. McGrath returns to his hometown team for his fifth pro season, though to this point he has only dressed in a total of 70 games across his prior four seasons. Brown dressed for the last game of the 2017-18 season for WBS, but he was nearly a point-per-game player for Wheeling with 53 points in 55 games for the Nailers.
A CHANGE IN VOICE
On June 4, the radio voice of the WBS Penguins for the last seven years, Mike O’Brien, announced his departure from the organization. Praises for his work flowed in when Mike made his announcement, and allow me to add mine as well. WBS did not have to look very far for his replacement, as a week later on June 11, WBS announced that radio analyst since the 2015-16 season, Nick Hart, will become only the fourth play-by-play voice of the Penguins in our 20 years of existence (Tom Grace, Scott Stuccio, O’Brien). I have no doubt that Nick will excel in this role just as he excelled in his analysis over the last three seasons.
WBS has announced its 2018-19 schedule in three parts. First, WBS announced its six guaranteed home games on June 26. Next, WBS formally announced its home opener on July 10; WBS will open its 20th season of AHL hockey on October 6 against the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Finally, in conjunction with the rest of the AHL, the Penguins announced their full schedule on Wednesday afternoon, July 11. As I previously reported here, WBS will play a heavily unbalanced 76-game schedule in 2018-19, featuring 54 games against Atlantic Division rivals, 16 against opponents from the North Division (including WBS’s first visit to Cleveland in a decade), and six games against three teams from the Western Conference. The schedule features an afternoon home start on Martin Luther King Day, January 21, 2019 against Lehigh Valley, and three morning starts on the road (November 14 at Springfield, January 23 at Bridgeport, April 2 at Bridgeport). WBS will play three games in three days on seven occasions during the season, including the final two weekends of the regular season, which concludes on April 14 at home against the Binghamton Devils.
As of this writing, the most recently posted meeting minutes of the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority, the governmental body overseeing the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza where the WBS Penguins have played for the last 19 years, are for their May 9 meeting. Tucked away on the last page of the minutes is what seems like a throwaway line from the chair of the Authority’s Board of Directors, Ed Harry, reporting that “negotiations for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins...are ongoing at this time.” Harry said the same during the Authority’s June meeting, as reported by Jerry Lynott for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader on June 13.
As a reminder, the lease agreed to between the team and the arena expires after the 2018-19 season. So the future of WBS Penguins hockey beyond this upcoming season is still very much undecided as of this moment.
Stay tuned to PensBurgh for more updates on signings for WBS through the offseason, as well as any potential finalization of the future or the end of WBS hockey.