Earlier this week, as part of SB Nation’s AHL Previews, I took part in an Atlantic Division preview, which you can find here. Today, as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins embark on their 21st season (the first on a brand-new 10-year lease agreed to by the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority back in May), let’s take a closer look at what the WBS Penguins will face entering the 2019-2020 American Hockey League season.
Those Who Left
- Ethan Prow - Without question, the departed player that angered me the most. It will forever be a mystery to me why Prow was not given a decent shot at a spot in the Pittsburgh Penguins defensive pairings, but WBS’s scoring leader last year (18 goals, 32 assists in 74 games) and their only representative in the All-Star Challenge is gone, having signed for two years with the Florida Panthers organization (and, therefore, the division rival Springfield Thunderbirds) on July 2. To be fair, though, the departure of Prow was lessened significantly after Pittsburgh traded Phil Kessel to Arizona, as part of the package obtained for Kessel was the 23rd overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, defender Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who looks to make his pro debut for WBS this season.
- Chris Summers - Another steady presence on the WBS blue line last season, playing 59 games and contributing 3 goals and 13 assists, Summers signed with the Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga on July 24. To replace Summers’s veteran presence on the blue line, WBS signed former Penguin David Warsofsky back to the organization for the third time. Warsofsky was named the new captain of the WBS Penguins on October 3, taking over the mantle from Garrett Wilson, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the summer but was sent to the AHL Toronto Marlies just before the season began.
- Patrick McGrath - This departure is more significant due to local representation than it is contribution to the team, as McGrath, the first player raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania to play for the WBS Penguins, signed with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL for the 2019-20 season after 94 games played for WBS in the last 5 years combined. With McGrath’s departure and Trucksville, PA native Craig Skudalsk assigned to Wheeling on September 29, WBS will have no local representation once again.
The New Faces In Town
- Mike Vellucci - The big addition for WBS this offseason was the Calder Cup-winning coach of the Charlotte Checkers, who resigned from Charlotte at approximately 3 pm on the afternoon of June 28, then signed with WBS later that night after previous coach Clark Donatelli announced his resignation, citing personal reasons. Vellucci was later given the general manager’s duties for WBS after previous WBS GM Bill Guerin signed on with the Minnesota Wild to be their GM on August 21.
- Dustin Tokarski - Over the course of recent WBS history, Penguin goaltenders have largely been prospects developing their game or mentors to those prospects. Rarely, if ever, had WBS had a stone-cold AHL veteran presence in its net. That changed on July 8, as two-time AHL championship goaltender Dustin Tokarski followed his former coach Vellucci to the WBS Penguins. Tokarski, a veteran of 343 AHL regular season games and 30 AHL playoff games, looks to take charge of the WBS net...while also mentoring the next generation of Penguins goaltenders, whether that’s Emil Larmi or Alex D’Orio.
- Andrew Agozzino/Stefan Noesen - WBS’s history of AHL free agent forward signings isn’t exactly sterling, but they gave it another shot this offseason, signing Andrew Agozzino from Colorado during the summer, then signing former New Jersey Devil Stefan Noesen to an AHL contract yesterday. Agozzino led the Colorado Eagles last year with 26 goals and 34 assists in 56 games, and Noesen, a veteran of 159 NHL games and former player under Mike Vellucci for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, scored 13 goals and 14 assists in 48 contests for the New Jersey Devils last season. Adding both of them to a forward group that returns almost all of their leading scorers from last year SHOULD prove dividends. But you never know.
In theory, this figures to be an exciting season for WBS, with a new ten-year lease in hand to play in Northeastern Pennsylvania and returning most of their forward prospects and production from last year. Looking at last year’s stats, 6 of the Penguins’ top 8 producers at forward will be back this year (Sam Lafferty, Ryan Haggerty, Adam Johnson, Joseph Blandisi, Sam Miletic, and Anthony Angello); Teddy Blueger is gone from WBS to graduation, and Jimmy Hayes is currenly unsigned. WBS hopes to get a full, healthy season from Thomas DiPauli, alongside contributions from the also-returning Ben Sexton and Joseph Cramarossa, plus the first full professional seasons for college signees Chase Berger, Jake Lucchini, and Kasper Bjorkqvist to fuel the offense alongside the additions of Agozzino and Noesen.
The weakness looks to be in defense, as after the returning Kevin Czuczman, Warsofsky, and the professional tryout of Steve Oleksy (who looks to be a stopgap for the start of the season until Zach Trotman gets healthy), the defense will feature a whole bunch of rookies and 2nd year players led by Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Matt Abt returns on the blue line for his second season, as does Jon Lizotte, who hopes to grow into his first pro season after joining as a college signee at the end of last year.
The Atlantic Division will not be a cakewalk, though. The heavily-imbalanced schedule facing WBS has them playing Atlantic foes 52 times in 76 games; some quick notes on the other Atlantic teams follow:
- Longtime AHL veteran Chris Bourque has moved on from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but they figure to still present a challenge with fellow AHL veteran Colin McDonald moving to the Islanders organization from the Flyers and Josh Ho-Sang (inconceivably) still in the minors.
- While the Charlotte Checkers no longer has their coach, they still have one of the AHL’s best in net with Alex Nedeljkovic. They don’t figure to be world-beaters again, with Martin Necas graduating to Carolina and Andrew Poturalski departing for Anaheim, there’s still enough young talent in Charlotte to make the annual trip there not a pushover.
- The braintrust at Madison Square Garden appears to finally be considering the Hartford Wolf Pack worthy of attention, with new coaches, high-level young talent like Vitali Kravtsov, Filip Chytil, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin, and their own wave of veterans. The games against Hartford won’t be the walkovers they once were.
- Hershey is still The Franchise, with an incredible turnaround last year from last in the league at Christmas to 3rd place in the division by season’s end. The Bears face considerable turnover from last year, but the vast resources at their disposal allowed them to bring in long-time NHL veteran Matt Moulson to complement their prospects. Between Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek in net, putting goals up against the Bears will still be a challenge.
- Lehigh Valley still has Greg Carey and TJ Brennan on its roster, along with prospects Nic Aube-Kubel and Mikhail Vorobyev, so their offense figures to be as dangerous as ever. Alex Lyon continues his development in the Phantoms net.
- Penguin-killer goaltender Zane McIntyre is finally out of the Bruins system, departing for Vancouver, and the Providence Bruins that are left are relatively young.
- Springfield picked up Ethan Prow, as discussed above, as well as former Bruin and Cleveland Monster Tommy Cross on defense. The Thunderbirds face the same story this year as they did last year, with plenty of danger on offense in the form of Owen Tippett and Aleksi Heponiemi as prospects, Paul Thompson and Anthony Greco as veterans, but last year’s promise eventually ended with a playoff miss.
It all starts again tonight for WBS, as they play their first of 12 against Hershey. If you want to check them out for yourself, the AHL is running a free preview of its AHL TV service for this weekend’s games. The TV service maintains its pricing structure from last year, with a full-season one-team-only pass costing $60, the full-season all-teams package costing $80, and the addition of a full-season all-teams regular-season-and-playoffs package for $100.