The calendar may still read November, but Christmas came early for the Hershey Bears on Wednesday. Veteran defenseman Aaron Ness was assigned to the Bears by the Washington Capitals after clearing waivers. That assignment was a Christmas gift for Hershey. The return of Ness is a huge boost for the Hershey blueline and his presence impacts the Bears in several ways.
The first and most obvious impact Ness has on Hershey is defensively. He is a proven number one defenseman in the American Hockey League (AHL). He plays in every situation and his return allows the other defensemen to slot into more comfortable spots in the lineup. He will likely be paired with right-handed blueliner Tyler Lewington. Both have played a lot together in the past and give Hershey a solid top-pairing. This allows Hubert Labrie to play on the second defense-pairing, a spot he is better suited for. The team has needed another veteran on the backend and Ness gives them that.
Ness also gives the Bears the ability to play offensive-minded defensemen Lucas Johansen and Colby Williams with Labrie and Jonas Siegenthaler, who are both more defensive-minded players. These pairings allow Johansen and Williams to jump into the play more in terms of offense, because both Labrie and Siegenthaler will stay back to cover for them.
Another way Ness impacts Hershey is in a mentoring role. The Bears’ blueline is much younger than in recent seasons, as Siegenthaler, Johansen, Connor Hobbs and Kris Bindulis are all rookies and Williams is in his second season. Labrie is the only defenseman with more than 150 games played in the AHL and is the only veteran the younger players can look for guidance when things go wrong. Labrie has filled this role admirably, but having another veteran presence to mentor the young defensemen is a positive for Hershey. Ness brings 393 games of AHL experience and 47 games of National Hockey League experience to the table. He has been through just about everything. When a young player goes through a difficult period of their season, such as inconsistency or scoring drought for the first time, Ness may be able help him through because he has gone through it himself.
In a similar vein, Ness adds leadership to the Bears as a whole. The Hershey leadership core of captain Garrett Mitchell, veteran Zach Sill, and lifetime AHLer Chris Bourque has done a solid job of keeping the team together after a rough start to the season. Ness becomes a leader on the blueline and meshes in with that group seamlessly. He is a former captain in the AHL (while in another organization) and has served as an alternate captain at times in Hershey for the past two seasons. A team can never have enough leadership.
Finally, Ness helps the Bears on their already strong penalty kill. The Hershey penalty kill unit has been very good. The unit ranks second in the Eastern Conference, killing penalties at a rate of 84.9%. That number places them sixth overall in the AHL. However, adding a top-end (AHL) defenseman to the unit is not a bad thing. It increases the depth on the unit and considering Lewington leads the league in penalty minutes, it gives head coach Troy Mann another defenseman to deploy on the penalty kill. Ness’ addition to the penalty kill should make an already strong unit even better.
For all these reasons, Ness is a welcome early Christmas gift to the Hershey defensive corps, and should everything fall into place, one that will ultimately pay dividends down the stretch.
By Eric Lord