The final lineup for the end of the Wilkes-Barre Penguins (AHL) season in 2022-23 was pretty sad listing of players. It was a fitting ending for the last place WB/S team, a once proud franchise that found itself sinking to unimaginable levels near the bottom of the whole AHL.
Even before Kyle Dubas was hired, Mike Sullivan spoke early in the off-season about theorganization needing to make Wilkes a focus once again and beef up the organization by improving things for their AHL affiliate.
It only takes looking at the lines for the AHL Penguins’ debut game on Friday night against the Charlotte Checkers to see how far they’ve come.
The moment everyone’s been waiting for…— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) October 13, 2023
Our first lineup of the season! pic.twitter.com/RnOC4vmtcc
Players like Colin White (last seen in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final) and Rem Pitlick (he of 52 NHL points since 2021-22) have boosted the Pens in a major way. Throw in free agent additions who wouldn’t be out of place in the NHL like Magnus Hellberg, Vinnie Hinostroza, Radim Zohorna and Joona Koppanen and the commitment to changing and improving Wilkes-Barre has been made. All of those players except Koppanen and White are making NHL-caliber one-way money (White has a $500k guarantee, and even Koppanen has a $450k downside guarantee and a one-way salary for next season).
The above listing of expensive but quality players doesn’t even include Andreas Johnsson, with his $800k salary that ended up being pushed into scratch territory this weekend due to the rules the AHL has about limiting the number of veterans around.
Add in fringe NHL players like Alex Nylander and Mark Friedman who numbers have pushed down to the AHL and the amount of talent and quality in Wilkes-Barre is brimming right now to start the season.
The financial commitment from ownership has set the stage for a vastly improved product. It will also serve the NHL team well to have quick a pick for a range of options on mid-season call-ups for a variety of quality players that could fill in many roles up in Pittsburgh, depending on what the club might need.
It’s win/win to strengthen the organization, and quite eye-opening for how much money the Pens have spent and just how much better their AHL club got in a six-month span.
The investment paid off in WB/S’s opening game, a 4-2 win on the road in Charlotte on Friday. Hellberg made 26 saves in the win and four different Pens chipped in goals in the season opener (including two empty net goals).
With all these veterans and added AHL quality players, it was nice to see Jonathan Gruden stand out with the goal. He was a key player for Wilkes last year, but might not have as big of a role with all the new faces around, which makes it interesting for if a player like that and fringe-type of NHL prospect will get lost in the shuffle a little bit or continue to still make an impact. So far, so good for Gruden to do what he can to keep standing out.
Saturday’s rematch against Charlotte didn’t go as well for the Penguins, who lost 4-1 and saw their offense dry up. White scored the team’s only goal, and even that came late in the third period and when the game was already 3-0.
Joel Blomqvist stopped 21 shots and gave up three goals in his season debut. As a top prospect for Pittsburgh, Blomqvist will be another key AHLer to watch this year as his introduction to the North American pro ranks kicks off in earnest.
The AHL Penguins might have only split a road set to start the 2023-24 season, but from roster construction to general team strength and ability, coach J.D. Forrest will have to be very satisfied with what he will have to work with this fall and winter.