HERSHEY, PA – With all of the insanity swirling in Washington and Hershey during this off-season, many in the area are wondering how the Caps potential roster will impact Hershey in 2017-2018. Here are five big questions that are hopefully going to get a bit clearer once Training Camp ends if the Bears are going to bring home a 12th Calder Cup this season.
1 – How to fill the scoring holes left by the departures of Stan Galiev, Paul Carey, and potential departures to Washington?
If Travis Boyd and Christian Djoos happen to crack Washington’s opening night roster, the Bears would be left with just two of their top seven scorers back from a year ago (Chris Bourque and Chandler Stephenson). In all likelihood, Stephenson stands the better chance at center over Boyd due to NHL experience, but the doors are wide open for some of the young guns to move on.
Bourque, whose 60-point regular season was only second to Boyd’s 63, will definitely be looked to heavily by the Bears. But, there should be some help in the form of Mason Mitchell and Kelly Zajac to name a few.
Mason Mitchell recorded 14 points in 31 games last season for the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Of those points, 12 were goals, so the kid definitely knows how to put the puck into the net. How the native of Calgary, Alberta reacts to the faster game in the AHL remains to be seen, but Hershey has seen its share of successful newcomers and the 6’2″, 206-pound forward should be no exception. The left-handed shot could find a spot on the roster if Jakub Vrana and Nathan Walker end up in Washington.
Kelly Zajac was pretty impressive last season in nine appearances in Hershey, recording seven points. He was even more impressive in South Carolina, notching 52 points in 59 regular season contests and 17 points in 22 games during the Kelly Cup run.
Additionally, Wayne Simpson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Anthony Peluso, John Albert, Tyler Graovac, and Mathias Bau Hansen, all off-season signings, could play a role in Hershey as well.
2 – Who will “Mann” the blueline?
With the expectation that two of Aaron Ness, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and Tyler Lewington are likely to be in Washington, the Bears are not in as bad of shape as some would like to think. Ness and Djoos are both LD, but waiting in the wings there are Lucas Johansen, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Hubert Labrie who inked an AHL-only deal recently. RD provides more of an issue with Lewington, Bowey, and Colby Williams returning. However, Hershey has Connor Hobbs, Kris Bindulis, and new signee, Paul Geiger. Johansen, Siegenthaler, and Hobbs could be the new Djoos-Bowey-Lewington trio.
Hobbs, who can put up the points (109 in 90 regular season and playoff games last season with Regina) will fill in nicely for Djoos as a scoring defenseman if Djoos is in Washington. Johansen who blessedly turns 20 in November and won’t require an additional season in the WHL, will also be fun to watch. In a total of 85 games in the regular season and playoffs last year for Kelowna, he had six goals and 43 assists. Labrie will be relied heavily upon to be the veteran presence, along with the guys who do not crack Washington’s opening night roster, but it will be exciting to see what the youth once again bring to the table.
3 – How will Hershey stack up in the Atlantic Division this year with the addition of Carolina?
All five contenders from a year ago (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Lehigh Valley, Hershey, Providence, and Bridgeport) return to the Atlantic Division after scraping it out to the final night last year to determine the four qualifiers. Add to the mix the Charlotte Checkers who secured the fourth playoff spot in the Central Division last season. Additionally, Springfield and Hartford return and should be improved teams from a year ago. This one could be even more crazy that last season and there will be little room for any glitches. Expect Troy Mann to continue to tell his club the importance of winning the week – EVERY week!
4 – Is this Chris Bourque’s last hurrah and will he head to the Olympics?
Bourque signed a one-year deal with the Bears that included an option for a second year. It’s clear he wants to retire as a Bear, but it will be under his terms. He’s already had seven AHL seasons with over 60 points and there is no reason to expect that there can’t be more. If the Bears were to bring home the organization’s 12th Calder Cup trophy this season, would he go out on top or try to bring back the back-to-back magic of the 2009 and 2010 championship seasons?
With all of the conflicting information being reported regarding players under two-way contracts, one thing is certain. Players like Bourque, who are under AHL only contracts, could play in the 2018 Olympics. Previously, the NHL took an Olympic break, but since the AHL already released their schedules without any break for the PyeongChang Olympics, players who get released to play for their countries will miss AHL games at a time when the playoff push is ramping up. It has been reported that some AHL teams have been contacted in regard to players. If Bourque were offered a spot, it would definitely be a huge decision for him to step away from his team, but at the same time it would be such an honor that it may be impossible to pass up.
5 – Goaltending?
Pheonix Copley’s lower body injury doesn’t seem to be an issue since Washington offered him a two-year contract that is a one-way deal next season, presumably paving the way for him to be Braden Holtby’s back-up next season. One key question will be who will step in as Hershey’s goaltending coach since Mitch Korn is taking a step back from the day-to-day operations to oversee the organization’s goaltending coaches. Scott Murray was promoted from Hershey leaving a spot for a new Assistant Goaltending Coach for Hershey and South Carolina.
Since the addition of Copley at the trade deadline allowed Vitek Vanecek to slide back into the back-up role last season and be brought along according to Hershey’s plan, the Bears may be back into an every-other game situation of a few years back. With only 11 three-in-threes on the schedule, it should allow Mann some flexibility in who starts which games, especially since Copley is most definitely a better mentor for Vanecek than what Joe Cannata proved to be last season.
By Julie Beidler