Training camp is still a few months away, but the Hershey Bears already have a battle for ice time brewing on defense. The Bears have eight defensemen under contract who figure to start the season in the minors and that does not include one restricted free agent and any potential veteran free agent blue line signings. With two highly touted prospects likely coming to Chocolate Town, incumbent players will have to step up their game. How will the defense battle play out? Here is a break down.
First, there are four locks. Let’s start with Tyler Lewington. A stay-at-home defenseman, Lewington was part of Hershey’s top defensive pairing last season, playing the right side alongside free-agent-to-be, Aaron Ness. The 24-year old has showed steady improvement in his career and is a smart defensive player. He is a good penalty killer, who contributed 15 points offensively for the Bears last season and made his NHL debut for Washington. He is likely to be the first defenseman recalled to the NHL if the Capitals suffer an injury on the back end. Lewington is a leader, who always stands up for his teammates. He is a top candidate to become the team’s captain if Spencer Carbery elects to name one this season.
Another certainty on the Hershey blueline is 2018 first round pick Alexander Alexeyev. The Capitals selected Alexeyev with the 31st overall pick in the 2018 NHL entry draft. He spent last season in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Red Deer Rebels. He posted 10 goals and 33 assists in 49 games. The native of St. Petersburg, Russia had his season cut short by a knee injury he suffered in a knee-on-knee collision on March 8. He’s a puck-moving defenseman who is a good skater. The 19-year old will see plenty of ice time.
A third lock for the Bears on defense should be Martin Fehervary. A 19-year-old from Bratislava, Slovakia, Fehervary played last season for HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League. He recorded seven points in 45 games. Fehervary is known as a physical defenseman who is not afraid to throw his body around to separate his man from the puck. His offensive game still needs developing, but he will get the time to do that in Hershey.
Finally, Lucas Johansen will continue to get playing time with the Bears, even though he is coming off a poor sophomore season,. Washington is not going to give up on their 2016 first round pick after two seasons. Still, Johansen will need to bounce back from his lackluster season. The 21-year old was a liability defensively. He was consistently out of position and chased the puck far too often. He also made poor decisions with the puck in his own zone and had the second worst +/- rating on the team at -14. Johansen needs a bounce-back performance, or he will find himself sliding down the organizational depth chart and will see himself lose playing time.
With those four locks for playing time on defense as of now, it leaves four players to fight for the remaining ice time. That number can increase with free agent additions and if Colby Williams is tendered a contract by the Capitals.
Of the players currently under contract, Connor Hobbs is the leading candidate to gain ice time. Hobbs showed improvement in his decision-making in his own zone last season, opting to make the easy play instead of trying to force it. He still gets beat on the edge too often and needs to improve in that area. He also needs to shoot more. The Regina, Saskatchewan native has a good shot and does a good job of creating a shooting lane by faking a shot, but only took 88 shots last season. This is the final year of his entry-level contract and thus, an important year for Hobbs.
Bobby Nardella will be pushing Hobbs and maybe even Johansen for playing time. The puck-moving defenseman was signed late last season by Washington as an undrafted college free agent. After finishing his season at Notre Dame, the Rosemont, Illinois native played two regular season games with the Bears. He is a good skater and passer. Nardella had 34 assists with Notre Dame. He is a small defenseman at 5’9 and will need to play a game similar to Torey Krug (also 5’9) of the Boston Bruins. He is not going to be an overly physically defenseman. As a result, Nardella will have to play to his strengths and not try to get too physically involved.
A third defenseman who will vying for ice time is Tobias Geisser. The Swiss born blue liner played in 41 games for Hershey as a rookie last season. He did not provide much offense, recoding only a single assist. Defensively, Carbery put Geisser in situations where he was more likely to succeed. He was not asked to do too much. Now, the Swiss native needs to grow and take the next step. The biggest thing for Geisser is to get stronger. He stands 6’5, but only weighs 206 pounds. If he can get stronger, he has a chance to be a solid defenseman. The problem he faces is he needs ice time to improve. He could be a candidate to head to South Carolina to get more playing time.
A defenseman in a similar situation to Geisser is Kris Bindulis. The Latvian saw his season cut short last season with an upper body injury after having played just four games for the Bears. Like Geisser, Bindulis does not bring much offensively. He does play smart in his own end and does not take unnecessary chance. A trip to South Carolina to start the season might be good for Bindulis because he is going to need to play to get back into the swing of things after missing so much time with his injury.
That is the blueline battle as of now, but that can change. The Capitals have until June 25 to tender a contract to Colby Williams. It is not a certainty that Williams gets tendered. He is coming off his second straight poor season. He was a team worst -15 and made poor decisions in his own zone. He was also out of position a lot and chased the puck too often. With the additions of Alexeyev, Feharvary and Nardella, Williams has dropped down the organizational depth chart and Washington could opt to move on from Williams. If he does get tendered, Williams will have to show marked improvement over his last two seasons to find his way in the lineup.
Lastly, more names can enter the picture on the Hershey defense through free agency. The Bears have eight defensemen under contract, but with the exception of Lewington, there is not a lot leadership there. Another veteran presence is likely needed to help mentor the young blueliners. Washington could try to bring Aaron Ness back. Ness played in every situation for Hershey last season, was on the top defensive pairing and led the team in assists. He also led the AHL in defensemen scoring and assists by a defenseman. Coming off a season like that, Ness is likely going to have several offers and one of those could include an opportunity to get more NHL time (Ness played no games in the NHL last season).
If Ness moves on, Ryan Sproul is a candidate to be the veteran presence. Sproul joined the Bears in December on an AHL contract and made an impact. He tallied 10 goals and added 19 assists in 64 games played and had a settling influence on the defense. He has a good shot and is an all-around solid defenseman. Sproul played 43 total NHL games in his previous two seasons and will likely be looking for a two-way contract. If Washington wants a good influence on their young prospects if Ness moves on, Sproul is a good option and the Capitals should consider giving him a two-way deal.
Aside from Ness and Sproul, there are a few veteran options on the free agent market to come in and serve as mentors while helping out Hershey at the same time. These include Stefan Elliot, Kevin Czuczman, Julian Melichiori, Dan Warsofsky and former Bears Erik Burgdoerfer, Cameron Schilling and Ryan Stanton. However, the free agent that stands out the most is Tommy Cross. The long-time Providence Bruin played for Cleveland last season. He was the captain for three years in Providence and mentored current Boston defensemen Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton during his tenure. Having Cross mentor their defense prospects would be a good move for the Capitals.
Adding a veteran defenseman in free agency would add another body to an already crowded blue line group. However, the positives that a Ness, Sproul or Cross would bring to a young defensive corps outweigh the negatives of having trying to finding enough ice time for all the defenseman. These situations tend to work themselves out. Injuries happen. Players get called up or sent down. Trades happen. Defensive depth is a good thing.
By Eric Lord