Photo: Jeremy Long/Lebanon Daily News
For the longest time the Capitals and their American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears were arguably the most successful parent and farm club duo in all of hockey, as years of stockpiling high draft picks and prospects combined to form one of the best spans of hockey organizational success in recent years. However, over the last few seasons, that success has been relatively one-sided, with the Bears dropping from the ranks of perennial contenders in the AHL Eastern Conference.
In the 14 seasons the two organizations have been affiliated, the two teams have combined for four league championships (three Calder Cups, one Stanley Cup), 13 division titles, and many of the Capitals’ star players over the years have come through Chocolatetown.
However, the Bears have not won a Calder Cup championship since winning consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010, although they have made one Calder Cup Final appearance (2016) and over the last few seasons, the once dangerous Bears have become a struggling team. This sudden decline in performance can be attributed to a number of things, but one glaring difference is the philosophical change in the Bears’ and to some degree, the Capitals’ front office.
For 18 seasons, Doug Yingst served as the President and General Manager of the Bears, and during those 18 seasons his team won three Calder Cup championships and helped develop players who went on to have tremendous success in the Capitals’ own success. Players including Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, and newer Capitals such as Christian Djoos and Travis Boyd, all of which led to Yingst’s induction into the AHL Hall of Fame in 2017. Yingst announced his retirement after the 2015-16 season, with the Bears making it to one final Calder Cup Final (which they lost) in his final season at the helm.
Yingst was succeeded by former Bears defenseman and Assistant Coach Bryan Helmer, who captained the Bears to their two most recent championships. Since Helmer took over, however, the Bears have finished third, last, and are currently second to last in the Atlantic Division. So what’s changed?
The biggest difference in many of Yingst’s teams and Helmer’s teams is the lack of established veteran players throughout the roster. The Bears are one of the AHL’s youngest teams, with an influx of Capitals’ draft picks joining the team over the last few seasons, with few holdovers from previous seasons. To put the Bears’ inexperience into perspective, the team has seven (of 27) players 26 or older, with recent signing Jordan Samuels-Thomas being the most recent player to join that club (aged 28).
All of that said, the Capitals as an organization drive much of the operations in Hershey, but if their farm club is to have success again as they did at the end of the previous decade, they must provide Helmer a strong veteran support system for the young, inexperienced players that are viewed as the next core of the Chocolate and White.
AHL commissioner Dave Andrews was asked about the balance of winning and development during his annual State of the League address last week at the AHL All-Star game:
When asked about balance of winning/development, Hershey used as an example with recent struggles. Andrews praised Bears development of players to #ALLCAPS & added “I don’t expect we’re going to see Hershey at the bottom of the league year over year. That’s not going to happen.”
— Zack Fisch (@zackfisch) January 28, 2019
During the Bears’ back-to-back championship run in 2009 and 2010, the young core consisted of players such as Chris Bourque, Carlson, Alzner, Garrett Mitchell, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth. All but Bourque and Mitchell have gone on to have success in the NHL. However, unlike the modern edition of the Bears, the team also had a plethora of veterans at every position to help the young prospects grow and develop their game, including Helmer, Tyler Sloan, and Patrick Wellar on defense, and Keith Aucoin, Quintin Laing, Alexandre Giroux, and Boyd Kane (to name a few) at forward. During the Bears’ most recent trip to the Calder Cup Final in 2016, the team had 13 of 31 players on the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs roster (42%) aged 26 or older, and had three rookie blueliners (Tyler Lewington, Madison Bowey, and Christian Djoos, with veterans such as Ness, Ryan Stanton, Erik Burgdoerfer, and Mike Moore as veteran leaders. When one compares that to the seven of 27 (26%) currently on the Bears’ roster, it’s clear the team is lacking veteran depth.
While the emphasis on player development is vital to any organization and completely understandable, the Bears simply don’t have a strong enough veteran backbone to support the youth. While the Bears are able to sign players to AHL contracts themselves, the front office works closely with the Capitals, who drive many of the personnel decisions in Chocolatetown. The Bears have struggled to return to contention the last two seasons in particular, and a number of the top prospects on the roster have struggled mightily this season, though the team’s recent five-game win streak may suggest otherwise. In the past, there would be a pole of experienced veterans to help guide the team’s youth through these struggles. That hasn’t been the case for Hershey for the last three seasons. And unlike Yingst, who would sign a player to bolster the team if the parent club did not, Helmer has not done so hardly at all.
If the Bears are to return to being perennial contenders (which both the Caps and Hershey front offices will undoubtedly want), the Capitals will need to commit resources to providing Hershey with a similar blueprint in terms of roster makeup to those of its most recent championship gloves, while ensuring Hershey continues to combine sound player development with remaining competitive as well. If that happens, the Bears’ core could be one dangerous group to contend with.
By Michael Fleetwood