Photos: Bridgeport Sound Tigers
The offensive outlook for the Hershey Bears took a turn for the better when the Washington Capitals re-signed Mike Sgarbossa to a two-year, two-way contract on June 29. The top scorer for the Bears last season will likely return to his top line role. Sgarbossa also provides much-needed offense to a team that is set to lose Riley Barber, Jayson Megna and Nathan Walker in free agency. Their potential departures, along with the possible loss of scoring defenseman Aaron Ness and Ryan Sproul, puts Hershey in a spot where they need to replace five of their top seven scorers.
Currently, there are 13 forwards under contract with either Washington or Hershey for the 2019-20 season. Here is a breakdown, by position, of the forward situation for the Bears. (Breakdown of the Bears blueline can be found here.)
With the recent re-signing of Mike Sgarbossa, Hershey now has four centers under contract for the upcoming season.
Sgarbossa’s return is huge. He steps right back into the number one center spot, a role he thrived in last season, leading the Bears in scoring with 65 points. The native of Campbellville, Ontario was also the team leader in power play points with 34 and in power play goals with 20. Sgarbossa was second on Hershey in goals with 30, in assists with 35 and in power play assists with 20. Obviously, his return helps the power play unit. The veteran pivot was part of the team’s leadership core and was one of the players who wore an “A” during the season. He will likely be one of the team leaders again this season.
Garrett Pilon returns after a solid rookie season in which he was named Rookie of the Year for the Bears. The son of former NHL player Rich Pilon came on strong during the second half of the season. He only had two goals and nine assists through the first three months of the season, but netted eight goals and added 14 assists after the calendar turned to 2019. He finished the season with 33 points. Early in the season, Pilon’s ice time was limited due to his deficiencies in his own zone. Once he corrected those, his ice time increased and his offense followed. Pilon will be asked to be take on a bigger role this season.
Like Pilon, Brian Pinho returns for his second campaign in Chocolate Town. Unlike Pilon, Pinho did not provide much offense last season. He scored four goals and dished out eight helpers in 73 games. His biggest offensive contribution came in the fifth and deciding game of Hershey’s first round Calder Cup playoff series against Bridgeport. Pinho potted the overtime game winner to clinch the series for the Bears. The goal was one of two points he had in the playoffs. The North Andover, Massachusetts native is a solid defensive forward and a good penalty killer. While Pinho will likely never be an elite scorer, Hershey could use some more offense out of him.
The final center that is presently under contract is Chris McCarthy. He joined the Bears at the end of the regular season in April and made an immediate impact. The product of Collegeville, Pennsylvania had a goal and three assists in two regular season games. He then played in all nine Hershey playoff games, contributing two goals. McCarthy spent most of last season with the Reading Royals of the ECHL. He netted 20 goals and totalled 54 assists to finish third in the ECHL in scoring with 74 points. The Bears hope he will bring some of that scoring touch to the team this coming season. McCarthy is a hard worker and is not afraid to throw his body around. Hershey signed him to an AHL contract on May 31.
2018 Washington seventh round pick Eric Florchuk could figure into the mix if he signs a NHL contract. Currently, he is slated to return to the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL, but would be eligible to play in Hershey if he turns pro. Florchuk, who can also play left wing, scored 21 goals and had 29 assists for the Blades last season.
If the organization decides to add another center, they could bring back Jayson Megna. He had 20 goals and 23 assists last season and was one of the team’s best penalty killers. The son-in-law of 1980 United States Olympic team goalie Jim Craig played in all situations and was a leader.
There are also several options in free agency. Carter Verhaeghe led the AHL in scoring last season with 82 points while playing for Syracuse. He shared the AHL lead in goals with 34 and was named an AHL First Team All-Star. Verhaeghe was non-tendered by the Tampa Bay Lightning and is just 23 years old. After Verhaeghe, there is T.J. Tynan of the Chicago Wolves. He tied for third in the AHL in scoring with 71 points and led the league in assists with 59. Other options include Lehigh Valley’s Greg Carey (61 points), Syracuse’s Andy Andreoff (55 points), former Bear Tyler Graovac (50 points with Stockton), Rochester’s Danny O’Regan (48 points) Providence captain Jordan Szwarz (46 points) and Grand Rapids’ Wade Megan (37 points).
Riley Barber was Hershey’s top right winger last season, but he is an unrestricted free agent and is unlikely to return. The current crop of right wingers features a returning player on an AHL contract and three rookies.
The lone returning right winger is Steven Whitney. The Boston College product made the team out of training camp and spent the entire season with the Bears. He saw action in 60 games and scored nine goals and had seven assists. Three of his goals were game winners. Whitney was used on all four lines at one point or another during the season and saw time on the penalty kill as well. He is a steady player who is smart in his own zone, but is better suited in a bottom six role.
If the season started today, the right wing spot on the top line would be filled by rookie Brett Leason. The 20-year old put up big numbers for the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He tallied 36 goals and had 53 helpers for 89 points in 55 games played. He was also a +55. In the playoffs, Leason tallied 10 goals and added 15 assists to lead the Raiders in scoring en route to an Ed Chynoweth Cup championship. According to McKeen’s Hockey, the 2019 second round pick “has an NHL caliber wrist shot, with a super quick release.” The Canadian prospects website Future Considerations praised Leason’s smarts, “Savvy with and without the puck, his hockey IQ is the backbone of his game.” The 6’4, Calgary, Alberta native will likely be given a chance to play a big role in the Hershey offense.
Another rookie right winger for the Bears is Kody Clark. The son of former NHL winger Wendel Clark, the 19-year old Kody played for the Ottawa 67’s in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last season. He missed time in December due to a shoulder injury, but still put up 17 goals and added 29 assists for 46 points in 57 games played. He then compiled five goals and nine assists in 18 playoff games. Clark inherited his dad’s toughness. He combines offensive skill with toughness and that is a combination that should endear him to Hershey fans.
The final rookie on the right side is also the son of a former NHL player. Riley Sutter is the son of Ron Sutter, who played as a center in the NHL for 17 seasons. Riley’s regular season with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL was cut short by injury. He suffered a leg injury and nearly three months of action. He returned to play three playoff games. In the 38 games he did play, Sutter potted 14 goals and had 27 assists for 41 points. He had more success in his previous season. The Calgary, Alberta native tallied 25 goals and dished out 28 assists and then added 19 points as Everett advanced to the Chynoweth Cup final. He is seen as a power forward who plays hard and tough.
The Bears could stand pat with their current right wing crop or they could delve into the free agent market to try to replace Barber’s production. The top right winger on the market is Charlotte’s Andrew Poturalski. The University of New Hampshire product led Charlotte in scoring last season with 70 points (23 goals and 47 assists). He finished fifth in the AHL in scoring and then scored 23 points in the playoffs as Charlotte would win the Calder Cup. The Capitals could opt to sign Scott Kosmachuk who they acquired in the Andre Burakovsky trade. He had 23 points in 53 games with the Colorado Eagles. The other options in free agency, like Bakersfield’s Mitch Callahan are more depth options. However, there are centers who can also play on the right side available. Megna fits that profile, as does O’Regan.
The left wing position for Hershey is the opposite of the right wing position, experience wise. All four of the left wingers that are under contract spent time with the Bears last season.
Liam O’Brien is slated to return for his sixth season in Chocolate Town. The longest tenured Bear tallied 15 goals last season, but only three of them came in 2019. He was very streaky. He netted six goals in October, followed that with one in November and then scored five in the first five games of December. After that, his goal production dried up. He had three streaks of 10 or more games without a goal, including the final 16 games he played in the regular season. O’Brien needs to be more consistent. The native of Halifax, Nova Scotia saw a lot of time on the penalty kill and wore an “A” during the season. He will once again be part of the leadership core in Hershey.
Also returning on the left side is Shane Gersich. He was touted as a top six forward coming into his rookie season last year, but played more like a bottom six forward. The North Dakota product played a solid defensive game and was smart in his own zone. He was a useful penalty killer. His offensive game never lived up to the hype. Gersich created plenty of chances with his speed, but he did not take advantage of them. The Chaska, Minnesota native took 125 shots, but only converted eight. He needs to improve his shot and control of the puck. With the chances he creates, Gersich can be an offensive threat if he figures out how to finish.
Another left winger who is set to return to the Bears is Beck Malenstyn. The White Rock, British Columbia native became a fan favorite in his rookie season. He did all the little things. He delivered the big hit. He threw his body in front of shots to block them. He hustled to clear pucks and did whatever it took to win a battle. Malenstyn quickly established himself as the team’s top penalty killer. When Hershey was facing a 5-on-3 power play, the 21-year old was the first forward over the boards to kill off the penalty. That is a lot of trust given to a rookie by the coaching staff. Malenstyn scored seven goals and had nine assists offensively. He has the ability to contribute more, as he scored 32 goals in a season in juniors.
Finally, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is back for a second go-around with the Bears. His first go-around lasted all of 16 games before he headed home to Sweden for the remainder of the season. The Swede had two goals and an assist during his time in Hershey. He struggled to adapt to the North American game. Jonsson-Fjallby did not produce much more in 36 games with with Djugardens IF in the Swedish Hockey League. He had one goal and nine assists during the regular season. He came to life in the playoffs with 12 points in 19 playoff games. Jonsson-Fjallby is fast and is a good skater. He put up a good showing at the Capitals Developmental Camp and will hope to continue that momentum once the season starts.
If the organization wants to add to this group, there are left wingers available in free agency that could add some offensive punch to the lineup. Daniel Carr posted 71 points in 52 games played with the Chicago Wolves. He was tied for third in the AHL in scoring. Andrew Agozzino had 60 points with the Colorado Eagles and he can also play center. Kerby Rychel scored 43 points for Stockton and Taylor Leier compiled 42 points in a season split between Lehigh Valley and Rochester.
This is how the forwards lineup for the Hershey Bears as of now, but the roster can change between now and opening night. There could be free agent be added or a player can come via trade. A player can have a great camp and make the Washington roster. A player can be moved in a trade or suffer an injury. One thing that is certain that the Bears will need players to step up offensively to fill the void of the departing players.
By Eric Lord