24 in 24: Wilkes-Barre Scranton Knights
September 13, 2018
The 24 in 24 series features a look at all 24 teams in the NAHL for the 2018-19 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. 24 in 24 looks into each NAHL team and will include video interviews with 24 coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the season, including taking a look at their strengths as a team and thoughts on the league. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.
Head Coach: Tom Kowal (4th Year)
2017-18 record: 30-24-6, 66 pts. (3rd in the East Division)
2017-18 leading scorer: Jack Olmstead (53 pts.)
2018 Playoffs: Won the East Division, Lost to the Shreveport Mudbugs in the Robertson Cup Semi-Finals, 2 games to 0
2018-19 Division: East
First regular season game: Friday, September 14th vs. Johnstown Tomahawks
Home opener: Friday, September 14th vs. Johnstown Tomahawks
Last year was another consistent season for the NAHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights. For the second consecutive season the team won 30 games during the regular season and made the playoffs, and it was the playoffs where the Knights found lightning in a bottle and gave everyone an experience they won’t soon forget.
After going the five-game distance in the East Division Semi-Finals against the New Jersey Titans, which saw the Knights come back from a 2-1 series deficit, the Knights then took on the Philadelphia Rebels, who were the two-time defending East Playoff Champions. The Knights rode hot goaltending a timely scoring to a series sweep of the Rebels and spot in the Robertson Cup. At the Robertson Cup, the Knights were matched up against the Shreveport Mudbugs and the teams battled in a thrilling defensive struggle, which kept the score close in both games. However, the Knights only managed one goal in the two games, while only giving up four, but fell to the eventual Robertson Cup Champs in two thrilling games.
“No words can describe the experience that we had last year. It has changed our culture, recruiting, and our expectations as an organization moving forward into the future. We were proud to represent our division and show what we are all about. Once you get to that point, there is nothing better than to have the opportunity to win a Championship,” said Knights head coach Tom Kowal, who is heading into his fourth season in 2018-19.
On top of representing the East at the Robertson Cup, the Knights had an outstanding year of advancement and commitments with 16 NCAA total commitments during the 2017-18 season, including 11 NCAA Division I commitments. The appearance at the Robertson Cup directly affected that total with four players making an NCAA commitment following the Knights performance at the annual event.
However, with the on-ice and commitment success came a large turnover on the roster as the Knights prepped and built for the 2018-19 season. “We had to find some more scoring. We lost our entire first line. We also lost both goaltenders. I think our goaltending was a big part of us getting to the Robertson Cup and having success in the playoffs. I think we looked all over for players, but we definitely made use of the Draft and our camps to try and build this year’s team,” said Kowal.
The Knights return just six players from last year’s Robertson Cup team. There are three returning forwards who include Gabe Temple (14 pts.), Lincoln Hatten (10 pts.), and Jake Fuss (2 pts.). In addition, the Knights added veteran forward Sacha Guillemain in a recent trade with Kenai River. Guillemain, who is also an NAPHL grad, had 29 points last season for the Brown Bears. The other three returning players are defensemen Luke Robinson (16 pts.), Blake Kryska (14 pts.), and Joey Verkerke (8 pts.).
The other big hole to fill was between the pipes as both Christian Stoever and David Tomeo did not return. As a replacement and starter, Kowal went out and got goalie Zach Stejskal who is committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Stejskal spent last season in the USHL and decided to play this season in the NAHL. The other goalie on the roster is Sam Vyletelka, a native of Slovakia, who spent last season with the Little Caesars 18U team.
“Our first priority is developing our players and getting committed to the NCAA. We had a really good season last year of NCAA commitments and that’s something we want to be consistent from year to year,” said Kowal. “After that, I think all of us would like to get back to the Robertson Cup because of what we experienced last year. We got a taste of that candy and all of us would like the opportunity to try and defend our East Division playoff title and get another opportunity to try and win the Robertson Cup. Both are a big priority now that we have proven we can take that next step.”