WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – Hockey season is upon us once again, and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are looking to bounce back after a fifth-place finish and a .500 record in the shortened 2020-21 season. The Penguins are looking to capitalize on some offseason additions and the success of some young players to compete in the postseason this season. Wilkes-Barre has a lot of roster decisions to make before dropping the puck on the new season, and it looks like the start of a new era at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Record and Playoff Appearance: 13-13-4-2, 32 points, fifth place in the North Division. Did not participate in any postseason tournaments.
Season Summary: The Penguins had plenty of positives to take from the shortened 2020-21 season, including the emergence of a few exciting young players, but the team struggled on the ice with a lukewarm campaign. Still, one highlight was the success of goaltender Alex D’Orio, who finished fourth amongst AHL goaltenders with a 2.18 goals against average and a 0.915 save percentage in 11 games played. The season ended similarly, with the Penguins taking three of their final five games. It was a much-needed bright spot after the team lost regular starter Max Lagace on recall to the NHL, and it was a foundation for the team’s success.
Stats: The Penguins were led by forward Josh Currie with 23 points (ten goals, 13 assists) in 24 games. Wilkes-Barre’s 92 goals for ranked 20th in the league, and 107 goals against ranked 17th overall. The team’s power play had 18% efficiency, good for 16th in the league, while their penalty kill finished 13th overall at 82.1%.
Key Acquisitions: The Penguins are looking to benefit from the debut of Pittsburgh’s first-round choice in 2019, Samuel Poulin, as he makes the full-time transition to the professional ranks. The forward brings a lot of skill and scoring to Wilkes-Barre’s lineup, which they’re hoping to pair with some new talent like Michael Chaput, defensemen Matt Bartkowski, Taylor Fedun, and Chris Bigras. In that same draft, forward Nathan Legare, a third-round choice of Pittsburgh’s, will look to factor in after tallying in Wilkes-Barre’s preseason finale. The team added toughness in forward Jamie Devane, back for another tour of duty in Northeast PA. The Penguins are balancing a substantial amount of young talent with some veterans, and every player will be counted on to contribute.
Key Losses: Wilkes-Barre saw players like goaltender Maxime Lagace and Emil Larmi depart to join new teams in the summer, with Lagace joining the Tampa Bay organization and Larmi moving overseas. Longtime Penguins Chase Berger and Kevin Czuczman also left in free agency, creating a lot of openings for new faces joining the team and marking a shift away from some of the more tenured players in the organization. Forwards Jordan Nolan, Tim Schaller, and Nick Schilkey are key contributors from a season ago who departed the team and left a void for the Penguins.
2021-22 Schedule Breakdown
The Pennsylvania rivalry is a huge part of the season schedule, and it can bury a team that is unable to keep up. Wilkes-Barre plays 24 of their 76 game slate against the Hershey Bears and Lehigh Valley Phantoms. There’s never a shortage of animosity between the three teams, and it should be a highlight of the AHL calendar to watch as the Penguins play the Bears in three straight games in early December as an early playoff preview. The Penguins will play every team in the Eastern Conference, including six games against the Syracuse Crunch, who became a key opponent due to proximity a season ago.
Wilkes-Barre plays a unique schedule, playing several homestands as well as some long road trips. The Penguins have six sets of three or more games in a row at home, with the most extended being a five-game homestand in March, as well as nine sets of three or more games in a row on the road. Like a lot of their rivals based in Pennsylvania, most of the team’s road trips consist of trips to take on their northeastern-based rivals in Providence, Bridgeport, and Springfield, or a few trips north of the border to take on Canadian teams. Adding in trips to Cleveland and Charlotte to the mix makes for plenty of time spent away from home, mostly in weekend sets of three games away.
Top Storylines For 2021-22
The big story in the early going of the season will be sorting out a very crowded blue line. The Penguins entered training camp with 15 blueliners on their roster before Bartkowski was assigned, and it’s safe to say there’s room for that group to be trimmed down a bit before the Penguins hit the ice for their season opener. Wilkes-Barre’s head coach J.D. Forrest and his staff will have to make some important decisions before the season opener on which players will create the backbone of the blue line for the season. The team will undoubtedly have solid depth to build on, but finding their core group early with several new faces will be pivotal. Fortunately, many of the offseason acquisitions have a lot of experience for the Penguins to help ease the transition.
The development of the two top prospects for the Penguins will be a key storyline to watch out for, as their success is key to the team’s success this season. Wilkes-Barre is relying on a number of young players to step up and deliver, and it’s time for players like Poulin and Legare to prove their worth to the coaching staff. Their performances will be high on the radar for Penguins general manager Ron Hextall for an NHL look as their squad deals with injuries in the short term and in a long-term sense as the team looks to continue icing a Stanley Cup contender.
It’s a big season for D’Orio in goal, fresh off of his first AHL season in which he impressed and will split time with Louis Domingue. Domingue, a well-traveled NHL backup goaltender, will provide a veteran element to the tandem and undoubtedly help D’Orio hone his game. It’s a potent duo that, if the defensive group comes together nicely, should be among the league’s best and will be perhaps the Penguins’ biggest strength. It will be worth watching to see if they live up to that high potential.
Prediction Sure To Go Right
The Penguins will surprise the AHL’s Atlantic Division, improving on the solid foundation from a year ago, and make a return to the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Prediction Sure To Go Wrong
Wilkes-Barre will struggle a bit with offensive production in the first half of the season, which could derail their playoff hopes if the new pieces don’t click right away.
How will the Penguins fare this season? Will they find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff bracket, become a victim of the league’s new playoff format, go deep in the playoffs, or win the Calder Cup? Let us know your thoughts.
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