As training camp approaches, the Hershey Bears have a lot of forwards in their den. Currently, there are 12 players with NHL contracts, five with AHL contracts and one on a professional tryout agreement. That is 18 forwards headed to Chocolate Town, looking to play their way into the Hershey lineup. How will the lines shake out for the Bears? Here is a line projection and analysis.
Liam O’Brien – Mike Sgarbossa – Brett Leason
The top line is led by center Mike Sgarbossa. He led Hershey in scoring last season with 65 points and in power play points with 34. He was second on the team in assists with 35 and in goals with 30. Last year, Riley Barber was Sgarbossa’s running mate on the first line. With Barber off to the Montreal organization, someone else will have to step up.
Who will take Barber’s place on the right wing? Rookie Brett Leason. The 6’4, 201 pound Leason is coming off a monster year with the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL, where he netted 36 goals and dished out 53 assists. He then added 25 points in the playoffs as Prince Albert won the title. Yes, it is a risk to put a rookie on the top line. However, a player with Leason’s offensive talent should thrive with a veteran center like Sgarbossa feeding him. Also, he will not get pushed away and is not afraid to dig in and win puck battles.
Then, add another veteran to the line on the left side in the longest tenured Bear, Liam O’Brien, and there is plenty of insulation for the rookie Leason. O’Brien, entering his sixth season in Hershey, will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing second half last season. He scored only three of his 15 goals in 2019. If O’Brien can get back to his play of the first half last year, the Bears will have a rugged and high scoring top line.
Shane Gersich – Philippe Maillet – Matt Moulson
With the departures of Jayson Megna (43 points) and Nathan Walker (39 points), Hershey needed to add reinforcements for the second line. The Bears raided the Ontario Reign for those reinforcements. On July 1, the Washington Capitals signed center Philippe Maillet to a two-way contract. There has been some speculation of Maillet playing on the right wing, but that does not make sense. The Bears need his offense down the middle and playing him on the wing would weaken the center depth. He will step into the second line center role. Maillet posted a career high 54 points with the Reign last season which was second on the team. The 26-year old also led Ontario in assists with 38. One of Maillet’s wingers last season was veteran Matt Moulson.
Hershey signed Moulson to an AHL contract on July 24. The North York, Ontario native has played 650 NHL games and has 176 career NHL goals to his name. Last season, he led the Reign in goals (28) and points (62) with Maillet as his center. The Bears now have the opportunity to take advantage of the duo’s natural chemistry. Moulson is a natural left winger, but has the ability to play on the right side. With Hershey’s lack of experience on the right wing, it makes more sense to play Moulson there on Maillet’s line.
As for the left side, Shane Gersich seems like a good fit. Gersich is speedy and that would be a good asset on the line. The North Dakota product is coming off a season where he did not put up the offensive numbers (potted only eight goals) that were expected. He did, however, create plenty of chances with his speed and if he buries some of those, could turn into a quality scorer.
Beck Malenstyn – Garrett Pilon – Kody Clark
Second year pivot Garrett Pilon anchors the third line, giving the Bears a good one, two, three punch at the center position. The son of former NHL defenseman Rich Pilon, Garrett recorded 22 of his 33 points from January on. If he continues that progression, Pilon will give Hershey three scoring centers.
Joining Pilon on the third line is left winger Beck Malenstyn. The White Rock, British Columbia native quickly established himself as one of the team’s top penalty killers during his rookie season. He also established himself as a fan favorite with his hitting and hustle. He blocked shots and won puck battles. He did all the little things and provided energy. Malenstyn will look to improve his offensive numbers from a 16 point season, but he will be a fixture in the lineup because of all the things he brings to the team.
Another second generation player could very well line up on Pilon’s right wing. Rookie Kody Clark is the son of former NHL winger Wendell Clark and comes to Hershey after playing for the Ottawa 67’s last season. Clark was limited to 57 games due to a shoulder injury, but still posted 17 goals and 46 points. He combines offensive skill with toughness and that is a combination that should endear him to Hershey fans.
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby – Brian Pinho – Riley Sutter
There will be a battle for the fourth line center spot between Brian Pinho and Chris McCarthy. The two may well end up splitting the role, but Pinho will likely get the first go around because he is property of the Capitals, while McCarthy is on an AHL contract. Pinho’s calling card is being a good defensive forward, but the Bears will be looking for more than four goals out of the second year pivot.
The fourth line left wing spot belongs to Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. The Swede with the flowing blonde locks bolted Hershey for home last season after just 16 games. He had three points in his brief tenure with the Bears and struggled to adapt to the North American game. Jonsson-Fjallby had a good performance at the Capitals Developmental Camp and will look to translate that into the regular season.
The right wing spot on the bottom line likely will go to rookie Riley Sutter. The son of former NHL center Ron Sutter will face competition from veteran Steven Whitney, but his skill and status as a Washington draft pick gives him an edge. He compiled 41 points in only 37 games played last season for the Everett Silvertips. He missed nearly three months of the season with a leg injury.
There are plenty of options to be the extra forwards for the Bears. Center Chris McCarthy will be one and should see plenty of time for Hershey. He joined the team late last season and quickly earned the trust of head coach Spencer Carbery. The product of Collegeville, Pennsylvania had a goal and three assists in two regular season games and played in all nine Hershey playoff games, contributing two goals. Playing with Reading, McCarthy netted 20 goals and totaled 54 assists to finish third in the ECHL in scoring with 74 points. He is a hard worker and is not afraid to throw his body around.
Right wing Steven Whitney played 60 games for the Bears last season and scored 9 goals and added 17 assists after making the team out of training camp. Like McCarthy, Whitney will get his share of playing time.
On the left side, Herndon, Virginia native Joe Snively adds depth. The Yale University alum played nine games with Hershey at the end of the season and showed grit and speed. He netted two goals and dished out five assists in his brief tenure. Snively has potential, but the Bears’ are deep on the left wing and that hurts his chances of cracking the lineup. The question becomes whether he would be better starting the season in South Carolina to get top six minutes in the ECHL rather sitting in the press box in the AHL.
This is where Casey Bailey comes in. Hershey signed him to a professional tryout agreement on July 30. He struggled with HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL last season, scoring five points in 45 games. However, the Penn State product amassed 41 points with Bridgeport in the AHL two seasons ago. The Anchorage, Alaska native can play both right wing and center. He has offensive ability and is a hard worker who is not afraid to battle for the puck. Bailey could not only force his way onto the roster in training camp, but also into the lineup.
Headed to South Carolina
Inevitably, some forwards will head to Hershey’s ECHL affiliate in South Carolina. Rugged winger Kale Kessy is one such player. He played 15 games in the AHL last season with the Colorado Eagles, but spent most of his season in the ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads. He had 289 penalty minutes in 35 games, but also scored 11 goals and had 22 assists. Kessy is a good depth option to stash in South Carolina.
Another player probably head to the ECHL is center Matthew Weis. The Madison, New Jersey native suited up for 60 games with the Chicago Wolves last season. He posted 11 points and then added four points in 22 Calder Cup playoff games. Weis can play at the AHL level, but he is sixth on the depth chart at center and that means starting the season in South Carolina.
These are just initial projections. A lot can change between now and the start of the season. Washington can make trades that impact their forward lines, as well as Hershey’s forward lines. Injuries can happen for the Capitals and a player originally destined for the Bears can end up in the NHL. Likewise, Hershey can suffer injuries to their own players.
By Eric Lord