Projecting the Hershey Bears’ Opening Night roster is not an easy task. There are still moving parts with players still in attendance of the Washington Capitals’ training camp. Another factor that can affect the lineup is a potential waiver claim of a player trying to be sent down by the Capitals (something that fortunately did not happen to Liam O’Brien and Riley Barber). Still, there are players currently in the Hershey training camp that will definitely be on the Opening Night roster.
Goaltending is one area that is set for Hershey. The Opening Night roster goalie tandem will be, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Vitek Vanecek, in his third year in the American Hockey League (AHL), and highly-touted rookie Ilya Samsonov. Parker Milner is the third goalie, but will start the season with South Carolina of the East Coast Hockey League.
Up front, there are three locks to man three center slots. Veteran Michael Sgarbossa and rookie Garrett Pilon will likely be the top two centers, while rookie Brian Pinho is a solid two-way player and will also be penciled in at center. That leaves one center spot open and there are several candidates to fill that role. Rookie Shane Gersich, who had a strong camp with the Capitals, could be the fourth-line center, but he could also line up at left wing. Veteran Jayson Megna would be another option if he does not make the Washington roster and then clears waivers. Megna can also play right wing and is an option there, especially with depth questions at the position. Then, there is Maximilian Kammerer. The German rookie could very well end up as the final pivot. Hampus Gustafsson is also in camp, but it is hard to envision him playing ahead of Gersich, Kammerer or Megna.
The Hershey centers will need to find chemistry with the wingers on their line. On the left side, the Bears have a lot of options. Rookie Beck Malenstyn has been a goal scorer in juniors and has a good chance to be on one of the top two lines. The rugged Liam O”Brien will certainly slot into the lineup. He is coming off a good showing in the Washington preseason and will be expected to be a veteran leader on the team. Another rookie, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby brings a solid two-way game and speed to the left wing. Placing him on a line with Pinho would give the Bears a good defensive line. The previously-mentioned Gersich played a lot of center in college, but has been used as a left wing by the Capitals. The parent club could want him to play in that spot and that would ensure him a spot on the left wing. Grant Besse is on an AHL-only contact and is an option on the left side and can play both wings. Veteran Jeremy Morin is in Hershey on a tryout and has a chance to make the roster. He scored in Saturday’s preseason loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and like Besse, can play both wings.
On the right wing, the Bears have been aided by recent re-assignments from the parent club . The assignment of Russian rookie Sergei Shumakov is a huge influx of talent on the right side for Hershey. He scored 40 points in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) last season and was a Top 15 scorer. He will see top six minutes and will see power play time. After Shumakov, Riley Barber steps in to give Hershey a good one-two punch on the right wing. Barber had a good training camp with the Capitals and was the Bears’ leading goal-scorer with 20 last season and will need to stay healthy after suffering major injuries the last two seasons. Moving down the depth chart, speedy Jusso Ikonen is next. The diminutive Finnish rookie produced last season in limited minutes with his Finnish team and has the potential to increase his production with more ice time. After Ikonen, there are some questions. Mathias Bau has not skated this preseason due to an upper-body injury and is also coming off a ruptured spleen suffered at the World Championships. He will not be ready for the start of the season and that leaves an opening. Megna, if he makes it to Hershey, could slot into that spot. Morin or Besse could provide depth on the wing, at least until Bau gets healthy.
Moving on to the defense, the Bears are set on the right side. Tyler Lewington is back as the number one right-handed defenseman. He is a good stay-at-home blueliner and is the team’s most experienced right-hander. Conner Hobbs showed his potential in camp with the Capitals this season and looks to build off of an up-and-down rookie season. Third-year pro Colby Williams is slated to be the third defenseman on the right side. Williams had a rough sophomore campaign and will be looking to rebound. Cancer survivor Logan Pyett and 22-year-old John MaCleod are the depth right-handed defensemen. Pyett brings 362 games of AHL experience to the team and could serve as an additional mentor to the young Hershey blueliners. MaCleod is in his first pro season after finishing his career at Boston University. He may start the season in South Carolina to get experience.
On the left side of the defense, Hershey’s Opening Night lineup is still up in the air. Both Aaron Ness and Jonas Siegenthaler remain in camp with the Capitals and with Michal Kempny out with an apparent concussion, at least one will likely make the Washington roster. One of those two may yet be re-assigned to the Bears. Siegenthaler has had a very good preseaon with the Capitals. He struggled last season with the physical aspect of the North American game, but has come back stronger. Ness, if in Hershey, would be the top left-handed defenseman on the roster. As it currently stands, that falls to second-year pro Lucas Johansen. Johansen’s defensive game improved as the season went on and played very well while paired with Lewington last season. That is a pairing that Hershey Head Coach Spencer Carbery could utilize. If Ness or Siegenthaler return, that gives Hershey their two top left-handed defenders. That would allow youngsters Tobias Geisser and Kris Bindulis to battle it out for playing time on the third-pairing. Geisser is a 19-year old rookie from Switzerland who is 6’3″. He is a mobile defenseman, who is good in his own zone, but is skinny and could struggle with the physical aspect of the game. Bindulis, a second-year pro, is a steady player. He knows his limitations and while he is not an offensive player, he is going to play a simple, smart game. After Bindulis, the depth chart is thin on the left side. If both Siegenthaler and Ness stay on the NHL roster, both Geisser and Bindulis will both be in the lineup and that would give the Bears a lot of inexperience on the left side of their defense and would be challenging in a tough Atlantic Division.
The Hershey Bears will begin their quest to return to the Calder Cup Playoffs at home on October 6. There will be a lot of new faces in the Opening Night lineup and once again, the Bears will be a young team. How quickly these youngsters develop will determine the success of the team in what could be a potentially trying season.
By Eric Lord