On March 11, 2020, Riley Barber scored in overtime to give the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins a 2-1 victory over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. That would be the last time the Penguins would take the ice that season, as it was postponed the next day as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, then cancelled entirely two months later on May 11.
Now, nearly nine months later, the WBS Penguins are set to retake the ice for their 22nd season amidst an ongoing pandemic that has caused significant disruption or cancellation to nearly every major professional league that has tried to operate during it without locking everyone into an airtight bubble.
There is a lot to catch up on prior to this season beginning, so here are the most important things to know.
Who’s even playing?
Of the 31 AHL franchises, 28 have chosen to take part in the 2020-2021 season, the first under the leadership of new league President and CEO Scott Howson. The franchises in Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Springfield have decided not to try; they’ve opted out.
The remaining teams have been reshuffled into five divisions for this season only in order to minimize travel. WBS will share a new North division with Binghamton, Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica. Like the NHL, the AHL has created an all-Canadian team division for Toronto, Belleville, Manitoba, Laval, and Stockton (relocating to Calgary for this season). Due to local restrictions in Ontario province, that division hasn’t started playing games yet.
Elsewhere, the new-look Atlantic Division only has three teams: Providence, Bridgeport, and Hartford. Texas, Chicago, Iowa, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, and Rockford will constitute a Central Division. The Pacific Division holds San Diego, Bakersfield, Ontario, Colorado, Tucson, San Jose, and the brand-new Henderson Silver Knights.
Who’s playing who?
The AHL has utilized uneven scheduling for several years, with its Pacific division playing 68 games and the rest of the divisions playing 76. The AHL has also used unbalanced scheduling, putting a heavy priority on divisional matchups.
So when I tell you that the 2020-2021 AHL schedule is the most uneven and unbalanced I’ve ever seen, know that it’s not a completely foreign concept.
Rather than the maximum of 76 games, teams in the AHL will play a minimum of 24 games this season. For its part, WBS will only play 32 games this season; the most any team is going to play against any other team appears to be 44.
Moreover, those 32 games for WBS will be played against only four opponents. The split of 16 home and 16 road games will feature ten matchups against Hershey, ten against Lehigh Valley, six against Binghamton (who have relocated to Newark for the season), and six against Syracuse, all on varying days of the week and random start times (only 10 of the 32 games are set to start at 7 pm or later).
Of course WBS would heavily feature its in-state rivals, even in a shortened season. That’s about the only normal thing out of anything in this schedule.
The answer to this one could change by the hour, with NHL clubs running a taxi squad in addition to their NHL roster and, as of this writing, over 90 NHL players spending time on the COVID list in just the first month of the NHL season. Despite that, WBS fans can look forward to seeing returning names such as Jan Drozg, Justin Almeida, Jordy Bellerive, Chase Berger, Sam Miletic, Jon Lizotte, and Emil Larmi, as well as plenty of fresh new faces.
New head coach J.D. Forrest takes command, promoted from his assistant coach position last year after the ascension of Mike Vellucci to the Pittsburgh bench. Also returning to the WBS organization this year is Kevin Porter, who will be behind the bench as an assistant coach.
The biggest new names for WBS this season on the ice would have to be the newly elected captain, Josh Currie, as well as Jordan Nolan. Currie comes to the WB from Bakersfield, where he spent his first five professional seasons. In 297 games for the Condors, Currie tallied 103 goals and 85 assists, as well as at least 20 goals in each of the last four seasons. This feat has matched only by Chris Terry, now in the KHL.
Nolan comes to the WB after two years in San Antonio, putting up 28 goals, 34 assists, and 124 penalty minutes for the Rampage in 119 games over two seasons. The son of former Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders coach Ted Nolan, Jordan (listed at 6’3” and 235 pounds) claimed the Stanley Cup twice as a member of the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014.
When do we start?
Funny you should say that, the WBS season was supposed to start this yesterday against Binghamton. But due to COVID issues ravaging the Devils organization, the season opener was moved to today, Monday, February 8, at 5 pm. WBS’s full slate of games and start times can be found here.
From there, it’s 32 games to the finish line, tentatively scheduled for Sunday, May 16 at Hershey. But that’s all that is known for now, as the AHL hasn’t yet solidified a playoff structure for the season.
I don’t know if there will be playoffs. Neither does new head coach Forrest. I don’t know if there will be a championship raised in the AHL season; Iowa head coach Tim Army and Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery are two names who went on record during training camp to state that they have heard that there will be no Calder Cup awarded this season.
Which leads me to one final question for this preview, and perhaps the most important one to ask.
Why are we doing this?
With no fans allowed into the WBS arena to start the season, some players taking a pay cut of more than half just to be able to play, and the possibility of no champion at the end, I have to wonder why we’re even bothering with this. Especially when the mere act of getting close to someone else without wearing a mask brings the risk of spreading a pandemic that, has taken over 2.3 million human lives away from this planet in the last year.
But the AHL is going to try.
I’ve conceded that there are a lot of people out there, many of whom share my internet space as part of the SB Nation network, who make their living off this crazy business called professional sport. So that eases my conscience somewhat. I’ve also conceded that this can be a way for professionals on the fringes of the top league on the continent to make a name for themselves or just keep themselves sharp in case their parent clubs need them.
I just hope no one, from players to support staff to media to supporters, dies as a result of this latest attempt to give a form of entertainment during these times. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it in the safest way possible.