Coming off their worst season since 2002-03, change was inevitable for the Hershey Bears. It started with the Washington Capitals not renewing the contracts of Hershey head coach Troy Mann and assistant coach Ryan Murphy. (Mann and Murphy’s replacements have yet to be named).
A shakeup to the lineup is bound to happen as well, and that shakeup has begun with the signings of several key Capitals prospects. Other prospects have already been signed and more could be signed in the weeks ahead. The Bears hope these youngsters will help to turn their fortunes around next season.
Here’s a look at some of those prospects that are projected to likely make their way to Hershey for the 2018-2019 season:
Ilya Samsonov, G. The native of Magnitogorsk, Russia will be part of the goalie tandem in Hershey next season, likely partnered with Vitek Vanecek. The 2015 first round draft pick has professional experience, playing with his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) the past three seasons. That will serve him well moving to the North American game. Samsonov went 12-9-1 in 26 games with Metallurg. He posted a .926 save percentage and a 2.31 goals against average. He also appeared in four playoff games, including two starts in the first round. Samsonov is a premium talent. If he adapts to the North American game, he will be a big asset to the Bears. The last time Hershey paired a Russian goalie with a Czech goalie (Vanecek) was in the 2008-09 season when the Bears started the season with Seymon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth in net. That season ended with Hershey hoisting a Calder Cup. Samsonov signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Capitals on May 4th of this year.
Shane Gersich, C/LW. The former North Dakota Fighting Hawk has gotten a taste of the National Hockey League (NHL) with the Capitals. He played in three games at the end of the regular season, tallying one assist. With Tom Wilson suspended for three games against Pittsburgh in the second round of the Stanley Cup, Gersich saw action in games four and five of the series. He did not tally a point, playing on the fourth line. He was then a healthy scratch for game six. The Chaska, Minnesota native put up 29 points this season with North Dakota, including 13 goals. He netted 21 goals in his previous season with the Fighting Hawks. He clearly has tremendous speed and offensive ability, but will be better served beginning next season in Hershey than in a bottom six role with Washington. He needs ice time. He would get plenty of it with the Bears and have the chance to play in all situations. Gersich signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Capitals on March 23rd.
Garrett Pilon, C. In his third season in the Western Hockey League (WHL), Pilon continued his development as an offensive player. He netted 20 goals and 45 assists for the Kamloops Blazers during the 2016-17 season. This season, he took his offensive game to another level. He scored 18 goals and added 26 assists in 39 games with Kamloops to start the season. He was then traded to the Everett Silvertips. He continued to score. He put home 16 goals in 30 games with Everett and also chipped in with 20 assists. That gave Pilon 34 goals, 42 assists and 76 points for the season. He has continued to contribute offensively in the WHL playoffs. He has 11 goals and 16 assists in 20 playoffs games so far, as the Silvertips are currently playing in the WHL Championship Series. A player of Pilon’s offensive ability will be a welcomed addition to a Hershey team that struggled to score this past season. It is a team in desperate need of offense and Pilon could be a huge boost to the Bears. The Capitals signed Pilon to a three-year entry-level contract on March 30th, 2017.
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, LW. The native of Stockholm, Sweden is blessed with tremendous speed. That is one asset the Bears lacked this past season. If nothing else, Jonsson-Fjallby brings that element to the table. However, he is more than just speed. After scoring seven goals in 42 games for Djurgarden of the Swedish Hockey League, he had a coming out party in the playoffs. He netted six goals in 11 playoff games. He also helped lead Sweden to a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in January. He tallied two goals, both shorthanded, and two assists in the tournament. He was used in a defensive role and proved to be a solid forechecker and good penalty killer. He is defensively responsible and that will win the trust of any coach. The Capitals signed Jonsson-Fjallby to a three-year entry-level contract on May 2.
Brian Pinho, C. The captain of the Providence Friars signed with Washington in early April. He has not seen any game action since his inking his contract. Pinho is a solid two-way player. He was the second-leading scorer for the Friars this season with 32 points. He was also named the recipient of the Frank Jones Award as the top defensive forward in New England. That is quite an honor considering New England has some of the top collegiate hockey programs in the country. He was also named the Hockey East’s Best Defensive Forward. He also garnered Third-Team Hockey East All-Star accolades and was named Providence’s team most valuable player for the second straight year. He is built like and plays a similar game to that of two-time Stanley Cup champion Nick Bonino. If Pinho turns into a player like Bonino, that will be good for Hershey next season and for the Capitals going forward. The Capitals signed Pinho to a two-year entry-level contract on April 4th.
Beck Malenstyn, LW. Currently playing in the WHL finals with Swift Current, Malenstyn missed the first three months of the season with an injury. Once he started playing, Malenstyn put up solid numbers. He scored 17 goals and added 15 assists in 42 games, while playing on Swift Current’s top line for much of the season. In the playoffs, he has three goals and six assists. The offensive pedigree is there for the Delta, British Columbia native. He tallied 32 goals in the 2016-17 season. The Bears can use goal scorers after scoring only 201 goals last season. Riley Barber led the team with 20 goals and he missed the last month of the season. If Malenstyn can score at the American Hockey League level, he will be a welcome addition to Hershey. The Capitals signed Malenstyn to a three-year entry-level contract on April 10th, 2017.
Maximilian Kammerer, LW. The Capitals recently signed the undrafted free agent. Kammerer has played for Dusseldorf in the German Elite League (DEL) the past two seasons. After potting 15 goals and 11 assists, he was the named the DEL’s rookie-of-the-year following the 2016-17 season. His goal total dropped to six this season, but his assist total jumped to 25. He led his team in assists and finished second on the team in scoring. The 21-year has talent, but still needs to grow. The question is how much ice time will he get in Hershey, if he starts the season there? Kammerer needs ice time to continue his development. Last season, Hampus Gustafsson did not get the ice time he needed to continue his development. His game suffered. Gustafsson’s game started to come around after being sent to the ECHL. Sending Kammerer to South Carolina to start the season will allow him the opportunity to play in a top-six role. That could be the best move for his development. Let him start there and find his game in North America. Then, Hershey can recall him when he plays well. The Capitals signed Kammerer to a three-year entry-level contract on May 9th of this year.
Juuso Ikonen, C. A small, shifty forward, the 23-year old Ikonen possesses plenty of upside. He was projected to be drafted in the first three rounds of the 2013 draft, but was not selected, likely due to his size. His size is not issue for the NHL now, as the success of smaller skilled, smart and speedy forwards like Johnny Gaudreau, Cam Atkinson and Viktor Arvidsson have changed the views on small players. Playing this season for Brynas IF Gavle in the Swedish Hockey League, the Espoo, Finland native finished fourth on his team in scoring with 26 points. His 12 goals were tied for the third most on the team. Looking deeper at those numbers, Ikonen did all of that without receiving a lot of ice time. He was 11th on Brynas in ice time among forwards. That is fourth line ice time. He found a way to contribute in the limited time he received. That is always a good attribute. Ilkonen is not afraid to mix it up physically, even though he is smaller than his opponents. He has Nathan Walker like fight in him. He works hard and plays with determination. The key for Ilkonen is can he fight through bigger and stronger opponents. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the North American game. He could start the season in South Carolina to play a lot and learn the ins and outs of the North American game. He could also start the season in Hershey because of his hard work and his speed. If he does, it may be necessary to start him on a line with a bigger forward, Liam O’Brien for example, to offer him a little protection at the start of his career. The Capitals signed Ikonen to a two-year contract on May 2nd.
These young players can help the Hershey Bears bounce back next season. However, they cannot be expected to carry the whole load. It is imperative for their development that the Capitals and Bears surround them with quality veterans to aid their growth. Every young player goes through their ups and downs. It is important to have good veteran leaders to help them through their struggles.
The Bears did not have enough veterans, especially on the blue line, this past season to help the development of the youngsters. This hurt the team. When the Bears have been successful, they have had a good blend of prospects and veterans. When Hershey made the Calder Cup finals in 2016 with rookies Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey and Tyler Lewington on defense, they had veteran defensemen Erik Burgdoerfer, Ryan Stanton, Mike Moore and Aaron Ness to guide the youngsters along. The 1996-97 Calder Cup Championship team had veterans Mike McHugh, Eric Veilleux, J.F. Labbe, Rich Brennan and Doug Friedman to guide along younger players Christian Matte, Josef Marha, Pascal Trepanier and Eric Messier. Give the prospects the veteran leaders they need to develop into the best players they can possibly be.
For more on Capitals and Bears prospects, check out our “Prospects” page here.
By Eric Lord