As 2018 came to a close, a 5-7-0-1 December saw the Hershey Bears sitting in last place in the Atlantic Division with 30 points. They were seven points out of the last playoff spot and a second straight season without a playoff berth seemed almost certain. Then, 2019 dawned and the Bears looked like a completely different team. The play improved in all areas and Hershey climbed into playoff position. The man behind the turnaround is head coach Spencer Carbery and the bench boss deserves serious consideration for the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award given to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Coach of the Year.
The criteria that determines the Coach of the Year varies from voter to voter and from year to year. Last season, Pascal Vincent of the Manitoba Moose earned the honor for orchestrating a 20-point improvement and earning a playoff berth. The previous season, Roy Somner of the San Jose Barracuda who led his team to the second-highest win percentage in the AHL with the fewest losses in the league. If voters lean towards a coach who led his team to a big improvement, Carbery is near at the top of the list.
Carbery inherited a Hershey team coming off its worst season in 25 years. The Bears finished in last place and played with no identity. The team had young players who struggled and accountability was lacking. Carbery had a big job on his hands. Immediately, he created an identity for his charges. Hershey would play fast and hard at all times. They would be hard to play against.
The identity took early on, but the results did not follow. The Bears went winless in their first five and some of the same issues from last season cropped up. The lack of offense still was a problem with only Riley Barber and Mike Sgarbossa scoring consistently. The youth on defense continued to make the poor decisions in their own zone that plagued them last season. Goalie Vitek Vanecek was a bright spot and kept Hershey in the hunt with his solid play and injuries and recalls decimated the defense. On top of that, forwards Sergei Shumakov and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby left the team. Things looked bleak for a playoff run.
However, Carbery kept the team together and continued to hold his players accountable by limiting their ice time if they were not doing the little things right. 2018 turned into 2019 and things started to move in the right direction. The defense got healthy and started to gel. Carbery put Aaron Ness and Tyler Lewington back together, giving the team a solid top defensive pairing. Rookie forward Shane Gersich also came back from injury, adding an element of speed to the lineup. Other players started to help Barber and Sgarbossa offensively. Prized goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov went from a goalie who looked like he needed time in the ECHL to a level where it showed why he was a first round pick. Rookie center Garrett Pilon went from a -6 in December to a +3 in January and that improvement in his own end saw Pilon gain more ice time because he had gained Carbery’s trust.
As all these things came together, the Bears went on a huge run. They recorded points in a franchise record 17 straight games and had an 11-game winning streak during that run. Hershey racked up 33 points during the point streak. That is three more points than the Bears recorded during the first 34 games of the season. By the time the streak ended, Hershey went from last place to third place in the Atlantic Division.
The streak ended in Bridgeport on February 24 and often teams go into a bit of a down stretch after a long streak ends. Carbery did not allow his team to do that. He kept the team focused. The Bears have points in nine of 12 games since, giving them points in 26 of their last 30 games. The team has reached the 79 point mark, 10 more than they had all of last season. Hershey has 36 wins, six more than they had all of last season.
It is impressive the difference Carbery has made in the organization. The growth the team and players have shown under his guidance not only from last season to this season, but within this season has been noticeable. He has taken the Bears from cellar dwellers to a playoff team and all within a few months. All of these accomplishments are Coach of the Year worthy.
By Eric Lord