The Hershey Bears reached the midpoint of the season with a 3-0 victory at Lehigh Valley on Saturday night. The Bears are not where they want to be in the standings, as they sit in last place in the Atlantic Division with 36 points (counting Sunday’s win over Lehigh Valley). They trail fourth place Lehigh Valley by seven points for the last playoff spot. Halfway through the season, there have been both positives and negatives for Hershey. Or to use hockey terms, pluses and minuses. Here is a look at the pluses and minuses for the Hershey Bears in the first half of the 2018-2019 season.
Plus: Vitek Vanecek. Heading into the season, all the buzz was about top Washington Capitals prospect Ilya Samsonov. Vanecek was the forgotten goalie. He has let his play do the talking. While Samsonov has struggled to adapt to life in North America, Vanecek has taken the reins as the number one goalie in Hershey. He has been steady in net, even when things have gone against him. The Czech goalie went 2-0-1 with a 1.62 goals–against average and a .949 save percentage in three games during the week ending October 21. This included a 40-save performance at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He then stole a point for his team in Charlotte when Hershey was outshot 33-13 and followed that up with a shut out against Charlotte the next night. He earned AHL Player of the Week honors that week. His goals-against average and save percentage took a hit this weekend, but overall he has be solid. Vanecek will be the lone Hershey representative at the AHL All-Star Classic in Springfield.
Minus: Even Strength Play. The Bears have scored 68 of their 101 goals at even strength. They have surrendered 93 even strength goals. That is a -25 goal difference. The even strength struggles can also be seen by looking at the plus/minus ratings of the Hershey Bears players. Hampus Gustafsson is the only forward on the roster who has played in more than half the games who is a plus player at +1. On defense, Tobias Geisser is a +1 in 20 games and Aaron Ness is even in 35 games. Plus/minus is not a perfect stat, but when almost the entire team is a minus, it is a good indication of a team’s play.
Plus: Home Special Teams. The Giant Center has been kind to the Hershey special teams. The Bears rank 10th in the AHL and fourth in the Eastern Conference in home power play percentage at 21.6%. They have scored 21 power play goals on home ice. The penalty kill has also been good at the Giant Center. Hershey has killed off 85.9% of the power plays they have faced at home. That percentage is good for sixth in the AHL. They have surrendered 12 power play goals against in 85 times shorthanded.
Minus: Road Special Teams. The Bears’ special teams have not experienced the same success on the road. The power play ranks 27th in the league on the road at 15.5%. Only two teams in the Eastern Conference have worse road power plays than Hershey. The unit has netted 11 goals in 71 opportunities. Similarly, the penalty kill has scuffled on the road. It is also ranked 27th in the AHL. The unit has surrendered 20 goals in 80 power plays against in 18 road games.
Plus: Riley Barber, Mike Sgarbossa & Liam O’Brien. The Hershey offense has been paced by the big three of Barber, Sgarbossa and O’Brien. The trio has accounted for 45 of the 101 goals that the Bears have scored. Sgarbossa leads the team with 17 goals and is second in scoring with 30 points. He is also second on the team with six power plays goals. Barber tops the Hershey scoring list with 33 points and also leads the Bears in power play goals, 8, and assists, 11. His 15 goals trail only Sgarbossa on the team. O’Brien leads the team with four game-winning goals and his third on the team with 13 goals. Sgarbossa, Barber and O’Brien are the only three Hershey players with more than 10 goals.
Minus: Secondary Scoring. When three players account for nearly half of the team’s goals, it is clear that the rest of the team is not scoring enough. After the big three, only Nathan Walker with nine goals and Jayson Megna with seven have more than five goals. Part of the problem has been the rookie forwards have struggled with the transition to the professional game. Rookies Shane Gersich, Juuso Ikonen, Beck Malentyn, Garrett Pilon, Brian Pinho and Maximilian Kammerer have combined to score 15 goals. That is not nearly enough. Gersich has started to come around offensively, as has Ikonen. Still, the Bears will need more from the youngsters offensively to make a run at the playoffs.
Plus: Aaron Ness & Connor Hobbs. The Bears have used 14 defensemen in 39 games this season due to injuries, call-ups and departures. They have dipped heavily into the ECHL for reinforcements. Ness has been the one steadying force. He is an even player on a team full of minuses. He has been vocal on the ice, showing new teammates where to be in the team system and constantly letting teammates know what play to make with the puck. Ness has also been a contributor offensively. He leads the Bears with 21 assists and his third on the team with 24 points. Ness plays in all situations, being on the team’s top power play unit and also seeing a ton of time on the penalty kill. Hobbs is far more confident than he was last season. He makes smarter decisions in his own end and does not try to force passes as much. His positioning is also better. He seems to have learned from the mistakes he made as a rookie. Offensively, he has 15 points in 30 games. That is one shy of his total last season. He has already equaled last season’s assist total, 13. Hobbs is also one of the few Hershey defensemen who can fake a shot at the point to create a shooting lane. He does this effectively and the Bears missed this skill when Hobbs was out with an injury.
Minus: Colby Williams & Lucas Johansen. Unfortunately for the Bears, young defensemen Williams an Johansen have taken a step backwards thus far. Williams got off to a promising start. He had two assists and was a +2 in the season opener and was playing with more confidence than he did last season. He was playing a smart game and making good decisions. Then, he suffered an injury in a game against Cleveland on November 17. He returned to the lineup on December 1 and his play has not be anywhere near where it was to start the season. He was a -11 for the month of December, after being a -3 through the first two months of the season. He gets caught out of position. His -13 is tied for the worst among Hershey defenseman with, Johansen. Speaking of Johansen, he has been hit by a sophomore slump. He improved his defensive play as the season went along last season, but was not able to build on that progress this season. He is a -13 in just 17 games played and his decision-making has been poor. He has tried to force passes out of the zone. Johansen has got caught running around in his own zone and has been out of position as a result. His even-strength play has not been good. Along with being a -13, he has scored only two of his nine points at even strength.
By Eric Lord