With the loss of veteran defenseman Aaron Ness in free agency and the pending departure of Ryan Sproul, Tyler Lewington was left as the lone veteran presence on the Hershey Bears’ blueline. The Hershey back-end has a lot of young players that are likely not yet ready to carry such a heavy load, leaving the team in need of another veteran to help lead and mentor the youngsters. That need was filled on Thursday when Hershey inked Erik Burgdoerfer to an AHL contract and added Tommy Hughes to a deal for depth on the blueline.
Burgdoerfer returns to the Bears after three years away from the organization. The 30-year old (31 in December) spent the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons in Chocolate Town, suiting up for 132 games in the Chocolate and White, recording seven goals and 20 assists during his tenure. After leaving Hershey, Burgdoerfer moved to the Buffalo Sabres organization and earned his first NHL call-up, playing in two games with the Sabres in 2016-17. The New York native spent the last two seasons in the Ottawa Senators organization, seeing time in six NHL games. He served as the Belleville Senators’ (Ottawa’s American Hockey League affiliate) captain last season, recording 18 points. He will join Lewington, Mike Sgarbossa and Liam O’Brien among the Bears’ leadership group.
A right-handed defenseman, Burgoerfer will almost certainly slot in on the right side of the second defense-pairing. The Bears will have rookie, left-handed defensemen Alexander Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary joining the team and Burgdoerfer will likely be paired with one of them (Lewington with the other) to provide an example on the ice. Having two veterans who have been through the rigors of a professional hockey season around to help the young players through the ups and downs of a season will help Alexeyev and Fehervary settle into their freshman seasons as professionals. The importance of having that kind of mentoring cannot be overlooked or overstated.
The Burgdoerfer signing likely signals the end of Sproul’s tenure in Hershey. Sproul was an important player for the Bears last season and was a key part of their turnaround. The Mississauga, Ontario native tallied 10 goals and 19 assists in 64 games played, playing well in his own end. Hershey likely would have brought him back on another AHL deal, but Sproul is likely looking for a two-way contract, with an eye on getting a chance to make his way back to the NHL (he played 43 NHL games in the previous two seasons).
Like Burgdoerfer, Hughes is no stranger to Hershey. He played in 10 games for the Bears during the 2017-18 season and spent the rest of the season with the organization’s East Coast Hockey League affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays. The London, Ontario native played in England last season for the Nottingham Panthers, with whom he scored five goals and added 13 assists for 18 points.
Hughes’ path to playing time on the Hershey back-end is not as clear cut as Burgdoerfer’s. Also a right-handed defenseman, he sits behind Lewington, Burgdoerfer and Connor Hobbs on the right side of the depth chart. The Bears could also have Colby Williams on the depth chart on the right after he signs. Hughes could ultimately start the season in South Carolina and called up when needed in Chocolatetown.
The Hershey defensive depth chart is at 11 players (counting Williams) with the signings of Burgdoerfer and Hughes and further additions to that depth seem unlikely barring an opening happening in Washington due to an injury or trade. Below is how the defense stacks up heading into next season.
Depth: Nardella, Geisser, Williams, Hughes, Bindulis
By Eric Lord
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DEPARTURE: @thenottinghampanthers defenceman #52 Tommy Hughes 🇨🇦 has left the club to join @thehersheybears of the @theahl. He iced 65 @eliteicehockeyleague games scoring 24 points. #EIHL #Hockey #IceHockey #Departure #Nottingham #NottinghamPanthers #TommyHughes #AHL #HersheyBears