Photos: Tori Hartman
The Hershey Bears came out of the gate slowly in the 2017-18 season, winning just one of their first seven games. The slow start was not totally shocking considering the Bears had several new faces, a young defense and most importantly, their top two goalies both out with injuries.
Since the slow start, Hershey has rebounded and put themselves right back into playoff contention. There have been many contributors to this turnaround. Here’s a grade breakdown of the performance of each player thus far this season.
Chris Bourque: A. The active career scoring leader in the American Hockey League (AHL) has done what he always does, score. Bourque leads the Bears and the AHL in scoring with 25 points. He is also leads the league with 18 assists. He is Hershey’s top goal scorer with seven. He has also been a key component of a Hershey power play that has been top 10 in the AHL most of the season. Bourque is tied for the team lead in power play goals with three. On a team that lost a lot of offense from last season, Bourque’s production as been vital to the team’s success.
Pheonix Copley: A. The number one goalie from Alaska missed the first seven games of the season with a leg injury. His first start was a wild one. He gave up six goals in the second period to Rochester and eventually lost in a shootout. In his next five games, Copley surrendered a total of seven goals and the Bears won all five of those starts. He is doing exactly what a number one goalie is supposed to do. He gives his team a chance to win every night and gives his defense confidence. He has steadied the team and Hershey has been much better since he returned from injury.
Travis Boyd: A. Hershey’s leading scorer from last season has picked up where he left off. Boyd has contributed 18 points, second only to Bourque on the team scoring list. His 15 assists are also second on the team, again only behind Bourque. He only has three goals. That’s because he is too unselfish. He often passes up wide-open shots trying to set up his teammates. He has a good shot and should shoot a little more. A few more goals would also open the passing lanes and Boyd could take advantage of that with his passing ability.
Mathias Bau: A. The 6`7 rookie forward from Denmark has taken off after being a healthy scratch six times early in the season. In the last nine games, Bau has five goals and two assists. Three of his goals came on the power play, where he is usually parked right in front of the opposing goalie (making use of his size). That ties Bourque for the team lead in power play goals. He also has three game-winning goals, which ties him for the AHL lead in that category. His emergence has given Hershey necessary secondary scoring.
Chandler Stephenson: A. One of the last cuts by the Washington Capitals in training camp, Stephenson came down to Hershey and showed the Capitals why he belonged in the National Hockey League (NHL). In six games, Stephenson scored five goals and added an assist. Washington recalled him when Andre Burakovsky went down with an injury. He has taken advantage of the opportunity and has played his way up the Capitals depth chart. His days in Hershey are over.
Lucas Johansen: B+. Much like the team, the rookie defenseman got off to a slow start. He was a -8 through his first four games, including a -4 in the season opener, and had one point in that stretch. Now, Johansen has come into his own. He got an assist on Chandler Stephenson’s game-winning goal in Hershey’s win at Grand Rapids. Since then, he has chipped in with three goals and five assists and has filled an important role on the power play. He has stepped into Christian Djoos’ role as the power play quarterback and has thrived. His defensive game has steadied as well and he’s a +2 since his slow start.
Colby Williams: B+. The second-year defenseman has been thrust into a larger role due to the youth of the Hershey blue line. He’s the third most experienced defenseman on the roster. Williams has responded. He leads all-Bears defense in +/-, as he is even on the season. He and Bau are the only Bears who have played more than 10 games that are not minuses. Williams has also chipped in offensively. He trails only Johansen in scoring among defensemen with nine points and is third on the team with eight assists.
Riley Barber: B. Now in his third season, Barber got off to a bit of a slow start. It took the talented forward until the seventh game to net his first goal. He’s been better since and has four goals and six assists on the season. The Bears needs more from him offensively if they are to make the playoffs and be successful. On the flip side, Barber has seen his time on the penalty kill increase and he has done a solid job in that role. He has helped the Hershey penalty kill be the third best unit in the Eastern Conference and ninth in the AHL.
Wayne Simpson: B. The forward scored the game winner in game seven against the Bears for Providence in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs last May. Simpson was signed in the off-season to provide offense. He’s tied for second on the team with five goals and sits third on the team in scoring with 11 points. Playing on a line with Boyd and Bourque, Simpson should continue to get scoring chances and could put up career highs in goals and points.
Jeremy Langlois: B. The center does not provide much offense, but Langlois’ play is important to the Bears. He is a top-notch penalty killer and his prowess in that area has been vital to Hershey’s success on the penalty kill. He wins faceoffs and is always in the right position to make a play. The Bears have needed Langlois a lot because they have been shorthanded 95 times thus far this season. Only Springfield has been shorthanded more. Langlois has been a key reason why Hershey ranks ninth in the AHL on the penalty kill.
Liam O’Brien: B. The rugged forward has played a better and smarter all-around game this season. He has cut down on his trips to the penalty box, with only six minutes of penalties in 14 games. He still brings the same energy he always has, but without going over the line. O’Brien has contributed on the power play with two goals on the man-advantage. He had a total of three power play goals in his first three seasons in Hershey. His strong play earned him a recall to Washington earlier in the season.
Jonas Siegenthaler: B. The rookie defenseman from Switzerland has settled in after a little bit of a shaky start. Siegenthaler’s decision-making in his own zone has improved as the season has progressed. His positioning has also gotten better. He does not provide a lot of offense, but his improved defensive play allows him to be deployed in all situations. Siegenthaler has played well on the penalty kill. Also, he can play with an offensive defenseman and can cover if his defense partner joins the rush.
Adam Carlson: B. The second-year goalie was not expected to be in Hershey to start the season, but injuries to Copley and Vitek Vanecek forced Carlson to begin the season in the AHL. He filled in admirably. He went 2-2 and had a save percentage of .903. He was in net for the Bears first win of the season.
Tyler Lewington: B-. The stay-at-home defenseman has been his steady self on the blue line. He has been solid in his own zone and has not been a minus player in his last ten games. Lewington has been a big part of Hershey’s successful penalty kill unit, when not in the penalty box himself. Those trips to the penalty box are the reason this grade is not higher. The third-year defenseman has spent far too much time in the sin bin. He leads the AHL in penalty minutes with 60. The Bears need Lewington’s experience on the ice and he has to cut down on the penalties he takes.
Garrett Mitchell: C+. The captain has been one of the team’s top penalty killers and sees a lot of time on that unit. Mitchell has helped the penalty kill be one of the best in the Eastern Conference. He also helped keep the team together after a rough start. However, Hershey needs more from Mitchell five-on-five. He has three goals and no assists on the season. The Bears will need more secondary scoring from Mitchell moving forward.
Zach Sill: C+. The veteran center is similar to Mitchell. He has been one of Hershey’s top penalty killers and leaders, but has not produced much offensively. Sill’s ability to win faceoffs and his defensive positioning has been crucial to the success of the penalty kill. However, Sill has not tallied a goal yet and only has two assists on the season. Sill is not going to be a top end scorer, but he has been able to chip in some offense in the past. He is getting his shots. He needs to convert more. Similarly to Mitchell, the Bears will be looking for more offense out of Sill as the season progresses.
Hubert Labrie: C+. The heart and soul defender has been asked to take on a larger role this season. Labrie is more of a second pair defenseman, but has been forced to be a top pairing guy due to the age of the Hershey defensive corps. As the only defenseman with more than 150 games played in the AHL, Labrie has had to take on a mentoring role with the young defensemen. He has done that well. The defense has improved as the season as gone along and Labrie’s leadership on the back-end is a big reason for that. He still brings the physical play to the table and does all the little things right. His +/-, -8, is not where it needs to be, but he has been even through his last five games.
Dustin Gazley: C. The usual heart and hustle is there for Gazley. The Bears can count on that every game. Much like Mitchell and Sill, the winger needs to provide more offense. Hershey does not need him to turn into a 20 goal scorer, but could use more than the one goal that he has thus far. The good news is that Gazley is getting his chances. He just needs to bury more. Gazley has been a strong penalty killer during his entire time in Hershey, but has not seen as much time on that unit due to the Bears penalty killing depth.
Kris Bindulis: C. The rookie defenseman from Latvia has been steady in his five games. There’s been nothing flashy about Bindulis’ game, but he also has not made any glaring mistakes. His game should get better with more playing time.
Anthony Peluso: C. Not known for his offense, Peluso was brought into the Capitals organization for his physical play and toughness. The physical play really has not been there. Still, Peluso has not been a liability on the ice. He has not taken bad penalties or penalties at all for that matter (only has two penalty minutes). Peluso can be counted on to take his shift without doing anything that will hurt his team.
Parker Milner: C-. The two-time national champion out of Boston College was supposed to be Hershey’s insurance policy in goal this season. When Copley and Vanecek were unable to start the season because of injuries, Milner was forced to be the team’s number one goalie. It was a difficult spot for Milner with a young defense in front of him trying to learn the pro game. Milner played fairly well and made some great saves, but the results were not there because the team as a whole struggled at the start of the season.
John Albert: D. The forward was signed in the off-season to help make up for the offense lost from last season. The offense has not been there. Albert has netted only one goal and three assists thus far. More concerning is that he only has 11 shots on goal. He is now out with an upper body injury. When he returns from injury, the Bears need Albert to pick up his offensive game and create more chances.
Hampus Gustafsson: D. The Swede has not been visible in his 11 games. Gustafsson has size and can skate for a big guy, but he needs to be more engaged. He has no points and only two shots this season. This is his first season in North America and has to find a way to translate his game to this continent if he wants to stay in the lineup.
Connor Hobbs: D. It has not been a good start to the rookie defenseman’s first professional season. Hobbs has struggled defensively and has yet to find his offensive game. He is a team worst -9 and still needs to improve his decision making. The offensive ability is there, as he scored 31 goals last season for Regina. He just needs more confidence. Unfortunately for Hobbs, he is out with a fractured wrist and will have to wait to improve his play.
Mason Mitchell: D. The biggest issue for Mitchell is ice time. He needs to play more. He has not noticeable in the eight games he has played. He has one assist this season. It would probably benefit him to go down to South Carolina to find his game. Mitchell scored 12 goals for Alaska-Anchorage last year and a trip to the ECHL could help him find his scoring touch.
Tyler Graovac: Incomplete. The center has played three games for Hershey on a long-term conditioning assignment after being injured in Washington. Graovac contributed with a two-point game on Friday in a 4-1 win at Providence. His long-term future in Hershey is up in the air. After his conditioning assignment is complete, the Capitals will have to decide if they want to recall Graovac or keep him in Hershey. If they want him to remain with the Bears, Washington will have to expose Graovac to waivers. If he would clear, he would be an asset to Hershey.
Paul Geiger: Incomplete. Geiger was recalled from South Carolina to serve as an extra defenseman. He was inserted into the lineup when Hobbs went down with an injury. He has been splitting time with Bindulis on the third defense pairing. Geiger has only played four games. He was solid in the first two and has struggled in the last two.
Vitek Vanecek: Incomplete. Vanecek missed the start of the season with an injury. He has only played one game since coming back and it was not a very good one. He gave up some soft goals and had trouble picking up the puck in a loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. However, Vanecek cannot be judged on one outing. Head Coach Troy Mann expects Vanecek to be fine and that likely will be the case. Vanecek needs more game action.
By Eric Lord