On Saturday, June 8, 2019, the Charlotte Checkers defeated the Chicago Wolves 5-3 to win the Calder Cup in five games. The Cup has sat unclaimed since then, as the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the AHL playoffs in the spring of 2020 and forced a shortened, playoffs-optional 2021 season. This weekend, the 2021-22 season is set to bring the American Hockey League back in full force, with 31 teams and a full schedule of games. Here’s everything you need to know about the return of the top developmental league in North America, as well as how the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are set up to start season 23.
What’s New in the AHL
The AHL is up to 31 teams now, with the Abbotsford Canucks opening for business to take over as Vancouver’s top affiliate. Vancouver’s previous affiliate, Utica, now services the New Jersey Devils, as the city of Binghamton finds itself without an AHL franchise. With the Seattle Kraken becoming the NHL’s 32nd team, the AHL will be one team short of a full 1 to 1 affiliation this season, as Seattle will send its prospects to Charlotte this season until their full-time affiliate in Palm Springs opens next season.
Also of note: This season, for the first time in its history, ten women will join the ranks of AHL referees and line officials…seven referees and three line officials. The first of these to officiate a game will be Katie Guay, scheduled to referee WBS’s season opener tonight against Lehigh Valley.
A total of 1,118 games will be played this season to trim the 31 teams down to 23 for a super-sized Calder Cup playoffs. The bottom two teams in each division will be eliminated at the end of the regular season. First round series will be best of three games, division semifinals and division finals will be best of five, and conference and league finals will be best of seven, broken down as follows:
- The eight-team Atlantic Division will qualify six teams for the playoffs. The third seed will play the sixth seed in a best of 3, as will the fourth and fifth seeds. The top two seeds from the regular season will advance straight to the division semifinals.
- The seven-team North and Central divisions will send five teams each to the playoffs, with seeds 4 and 5 playing a first-round series to join the top 3 teams in the division semifinals.
- The nine-team Pacific Division will send seven teams to the playoffs. The regular season division champion goes straight through to the division semifinals, with seeds 2 and 7, 3 and 6, and 4 and 5 playing first round series against each other.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will be coached by J.D. Forrest, with assistant coach Kevin Porter. Both Forrest and Porter signed extensions earlier this month and are set to coach through the 2023-24 season.
The Penguins will play a full schedule of 76 games, the last season they will be able to do so before the AHL consolidates its schedule to 72 games for everyone starting in 2022-23. Some teams will play 76 games this season, some only 72, while others will play as few as 68. Of the 76 games, 56 will be within the Atlantic Division (Bridgeport, Charlotte, Hartford, Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Providence, Springfield), while 20 will be against North Division opponents Rochester, Syracuse, Toronto, Cleveland, Belleville, Utica, and the All-Star Game hosts Laval.
One can make a strong argument that the next generation of young, dynamic Penguins forwards is here in the WB to start off their pro careers. All statistics provided here are courtesy of Elite Prospects.
- Samuel Poulin, draft pick #21 overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, comes to the WB from Sherbrooke and Val-d’Or of the Quebec Major/Junior Hockey League. Poulin recorded 88 goals and 141 assists over 192 regular season games, along with 24 goals and 15 assists in 36 playoff games. Poulin was ranked #3 in Pensburgh’s Top 25 Under 25 last month.
- Nathan Legare, draft pick #74 overall in the same 2019 draft as Poulin, also comes to the WB from the Q, playing for Baie-Comeau and Val-d’Or over his four junior seasons. Legare recorded 106 goals and 119 assists over 224 regular season games, along with 17 goals and 6 assists in 27 playoff games. Legare was ranked #7 in Pensburgh’s Top 25 Under 25 last month.
- Filip Hållander was drafted #58 overall by Pittsburgh in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, sent away to Toronto in the Kasperi Kapanen trade in 2020, then reacquired this past summer in the trade that sent Jared McCann to Toronto before his expansion draft claim by Seattle. Hållander has played in the Swedish Hockey League for the last three seasons, recording a total of 25 goals and 34 assists in 123 regular season games for Timrå IK and Luleå HF. Hållander also recorded 5 goals and 3 assists in 7 relegation playoff games for Timrå in 2018-19, along with 2 goals and 1 assist in 7 playoff games for Luleå last season. Hållander was ranked #4 in Pensburgh’s Top 25 Under 25 last month.
- Valtteri Puustinen was drafted #203 overall by Pittsburgh in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. In three seasons for HPK in the Finnish Elite League, Puustinen recorded a total of 48 goals and 46 assists in 152 games. Puustinen was ranked #5 in Pensburgh’s Top 25 Under 25 last month.
These four look to figure prominently on a WBS team returning several young forwards from last season, such as Jordy Bellerive, Jan Drozg, Kasper Bjorkqvist, Anthony Angello, and Radim Zohorna. Jamie Devane returns to WBS to provide some size and toughness when needed, and Michael Chaput comes to town following stints in Tucson, Laval, Utica, Lake Erie, and Springfield for some experience up front. Don’t discount fellow prospects Justin Almeida, Felix Robert, Kyle Olson, and Jonathan Gruden.
With stud prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph currently up to Pittsburgh, the WBS defense looks to be led by Juuso Riikola and a number of experienced veterans. Pittsburgh native Matt Bartkowski brings over 600 games of professional experience from Boston, Vancouver, Calgary, and Minnesota of the NHL, plus Providence and Iowa of the AHL, to Pittsburgh’s top affiliate. Taylor Fedun, previously of Texas, Rochester, Utica, Worcester, and Oklahoma City brings over 350 games of AHL experience to the WB. Chris Bigras jumps to the northern side of the PA Turnpike rivalry after 2 seasons with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, bringing 239 games of AHL experience. Also joining WBS is Mitch Reinke, who played his first two seasons with San Antonio before spending the shortened 2021 season with Utica.
Behind these top five, a number of prospects will be fighting for ice time, including Will Reilly, Niclas Almari, Cam Lee, and rookie Chris Ortiz.
The WBS hierarchy of goalkeepers looks to be much more established as this season begins simply by the arrival of Louis Domingue. Domingue comes to the WB after stops in Portland, Springfield, Syracuse, Binghamton, and most recently Stockton during the shortened 2021 season. Due to shuffling between the Calgary taxi squad and Stockton, Domingue only appeared in 3 AHL games last season, conceding 12 goals. Before that, Domingue appeared in a total of 11 games for Binghamton and Syracuse in 2019-20, allowing a total of 30 goals. After signing for Pittsburgh in September, Domingue hopes for a career renaissance tending the WBS net.
Domingue will be supplemented by the much-improved Alex D’Orio, who overcame a shaky start to last season to finish with a record of 6-3-1 in 11 appearances, a 2.18 GAA, and a .915 save percentage. Also in the organization (if needed) are Tommy Nappier and Filip Lindberg (#8 in Pensburgh’s Top 25 Under 25), should injuries strike or goalies ahead in the ladder start to falter.
It’s becoming harder and harder to predict things in the American Hockey League to start the season. What might look like a promising roster starting out can dissolve in a matter of weeks due to injuries to or poor performance from the parent club.
That said, looking at this starting roster, I have a hard time seeing them finishing outside of the Atlantic’s top six for the playoffs. How quickly Poulin, Legare, Hållander, and Puustinen adapt to the North American professional game will go a long way towards WBS’s finishing position. Even if they stumble out of the gate, though, I see enough scoring ability and experience on defense to at least survive the regular season and get to the playoffs.
Led by captain Taylor Fedun and alternate captains Jordy Bellerive, Michael Chaput, and Matt Bartkowski, the WBS Penguins open the season tonight, 6:05 pm, against Lehigh Valley. Note that all Saturday night home games for WBS this season will be 6:05 pm Eastern time starts, a change from prior years. Charlotte comes to town tomorrow, Sunday, October 17, for a 3:05 pm start.
All radio broadcasts will be available through WILK News Radio, with AHL TV once again providing online streaming for all games. Following their free preview of all games this weekend, AHL TV subscriptions are available at the following USD price points:
- $104.99 - All teams, all games, regular season and playoffs
- $84.99 - All teams, all games, regular season
- $64.99 - Team of your choice, all games, regular season
- $44.99 - Team of your choice, your choice of all home or all road games, regular season
- $22.99 - All teams, all games, one month
- $7.99 - All teams, all games, one day