Photo: JustSports/Hershey Bears
With the start of training camp just around the corner, battles for roster spots and playing time loom for the Hershey Bears. Here are five key battles to keep an eye on.
1. Fourth Line Center. The free agent signing of Philippe Maillet altered the Hershey depth chart down the middle. Maillet slots in on the second line behind Mike Sgarbossa and pushes Garrett Pilon down to the third line. As a result, Brian Pinho and Chris McCarthy are now competing for the fourth center spot.
Pinho’s strength is his defensive play. He is a smart player and is a good penalty killer. However, the Bears will be looking for more offense out of him. Pinho tallied four goals and had eight assists last season.
McCarthy came to Chocolate Town late last season after signing when his ECHL season ended. He quickly earned the trust of the coaching staff. The Collegeville, Pennsylvania native scored two goals and added an assist in two regular season games. He then played in all nine of Hershey’s Calder Cup playoff games and netted two goals. McCarthy finished third in the ECHL in scoring last season with 74 points while playing for Reading. He is a hard worker and is not afraid to throw his body around. Pinho will likely get the first shot at the role, as he is a Washington Capitals prospect (McCarthy is on an AHL contract). However, McCarthy will likely see a lot of playing time.
2. Third Pairing Right Defenseman. Veterans Tyler Lewington and Erik Burgdoerfer are firmly entrenched on the right side of the top two defensive pairings for the Bears. That leaves three defensemen to battle for the third line, right-handed defenseman spot. Connor Hobbs will enter camp as the front runner for the job. The Regina, Saskatchewan native improved his decision-making last season and made better passes out of his own zone. He has a good shot and does a good job of faking his shot to create a shooting lane, but he does not take the shot enough. With the losses of Aaron Ness and Ryan Sproul, Hobbs will need to contribute more on offense. He also needs to do a better job of defending players on the edge.
Competing with Hobbs is fourth year blue liner Colby Williams. After a solid rookie season, Williams has had two poor seasons. He was a team worst -15 last season and his defensive play was simply not good enough. He chased the puck far too often and made poor decisions with the puck in his own zone. Williams needs to pick up his play if he wants to force his way into the lineup.
The final defensemen vying for the spot is veteran Tommy Hughes. Hershey signed Hughes to an AHL contract in the off-season. He played last season for the Nottingham Panthers in England and posted 18 points. The London, Ontario native played 10 games for Hershey in the 2017-18 season. Hughes previously spent four seasons with the Hartford Wolfpack, playing in 226 games. He is a good insurance policy in case Hobbs and Williams falter.
3. Right Wing. Hershey has four natural right wingers under contract and three of those are rookies. They have another forward who is a natural left wing, but who can play right wing. Finally, they have a right wing coming to camp on a tryout. The way the team lines up on the right wing is up in the air and will be decided in camp.
The veteran of the group of natural right wingers is Steve Whitney. The Boston College product won a job out of training camp last season and spent the entire season with the Bears. He netted 9 goals and posted 16 points in 60 games. He is a steady player, but is not a dynamic offensive force. Whitney is better suited for a bottom six role than being forced into a big offensive role.
Brett Leason heads the trio of rookies on the right wing. The 6’4, 201-pound native of Calgary, Alberta is coming off a big year 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 championship. He has a good wrist shot and is not afraid to use his body to win puck battles. Leason is reported to be a savvy player and could very well find himself lining up on the top line next to Sgarbossa.
A pair of second-generation players are the other two rookie right wingers. Kody Clark, son of former Toronto Maple Leaf Wendall Clark and Riley Sutter, son of former Philadelphia Flyer Ron Sutter, are set to make their professional debuts with the Bears this season. Clark put home 17 goals and totaled 46 points for the Ottawa 67’s in a season that was limited to 57 games due to a shoulder injury. He plays a game that combines toughness with offensive skill and that should make him a fan favorite. Sutter was also slowed by an injury last season. He missed nearly three months of the season with the Everett Silvertips with a leg injury. When on the ice, he contributed 41 goals in 37 games.
The lack of experience on the right side could make the signing of veteran Matt Moulson even more important. The veteran of 650 NHL games is a natural left wing, but he has experience playing on the right. Moulson led the Ontario Reign last season in goals with 28 and in scoring with 62 points. His center in Ontario? Maillet. It is a safe bet that Moulson plays with Maillet again this season with the Bears, but the question is what wing will he be on? With Hershey’s depth on left wing, playing Moulson on Maillet’s right side makes the most sense.
There is a player who can change everything on the right side and that player is headed to training camp on a professional tryout agreement. Former Penn State standout Casey Bailey is that player. He struggled last season with HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL, but he amassed 41 points with Bridgeport the previous season. The Anchorage, Alaska native has the ability to not only force his way onto the roster, but also into the starting lineup. If he does that, it opens all sorts of line possibilities for the Bears, as Bailey can slot into any line.
4. Extra Defensemen Spots. Hershey has 13 defensemen under contract. There is no way that the team will carry that many blue liners. Tyler Lewington, Erik Burgdoerfer, Alexander Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Lucas Johnasen and Connor Hobbs figure to have secured spots. That leaves seven players battling for two or three spots.
Colby Williams or Tommy Hughes figure to earn one of the extra defensemen spots. The Bears will want to have an extra right-handed defenseman and Williams and Hughes are the only ones that fit that category. As a Capitals draft pick, Williams has the edge there, but his play must improve to hold off the veteran Hughes.
The battle for roster spots among the left-handed defensemen is more intriguing. First, there is Tobias Geisser. The Swiss blue liner played 41 games during his rookie campaign last year with Hershey. Geisser does not bring much offensively, but he is a smart player in his own end. He does not try to do too much. Geisser does need to get stronger.
Smooth skating Bobby Nardella is another candidate for a roster spot. The Notre Dame alum signed with the Capitals organization after his collegiate season finished. He played in two games at the end of the regular season. He did not score in those two games, but his skating ability showed through. Nardella has offensive ability. He finished his Notre Dame career with 103 points in 147 games. The Rosemont, Illinois native enjoyed his most productive campaign last season with career highs in goals (8), assists (26) and points (34).
Kris Bindulis is a familiar face to Hershey fans, but his season was cut short last season with a shoulder injury. He only appeared in four games. The Latvian defenseman will need playing time to get back into the groove after his injury and he is unlikely to find that in Hershey. Starting the season in South Carolina could be beneficial to Bindulis.
Another option on the left side is Tariq Hammond. He was signed to an AHL contract by the Bears during the summer. The former Denver University captain played 43 games for the Binghamton Devils last season. He is more of a defensive defenseman, having scored four points in 48 career AHL games.
The final competitor for a roster spot on the back end is former Springfield Thunderbirds defenseman Ed Wittchow. The Wisconsin product played in Finland last season, posting nine goals and nine assists in 47 games for KooKoo. Wittchow scored 15 points for Springfield during the 2017-18 season and is a veteran of 97 AHL games.
Williams, Geisser and Nardella are the most likely candidates to begin the season on the Hershey roster with the other defensemen heading to South Carolina to provide the Bears quality depth at the ECHL level in case of injuries and callups.
5. Extra Forward Spots. With 18 forwards under contract and Casey Bailey coming to a camp on a tryout, there is simply not enough spots for everyone. How many forwards will head coach Spencer Carbery keep? Only he knows that, but it is likely that the number will be 15 or 16. Mike Sgarbossa, Liam O’Brien, Philippe Maillet, Matt Moulson, Garrett Pilon, Beck Malenstyn, Shane Gersich, Brett Leason, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Riley Sutter, Kody Clark, Brian Pinho, Chris McCarthy and most likely Steve Whitney will be on the roster. That leaves one or two spots open.
The above-mentioned Bailey is a prime candidate to earn a spot. If he can return to his form in Bridgeport, Bailey should play his way onto the roster and could prove to be a steal of a signing for the Bears.
After Bailey, Yale product Joe Snively is in a good position to make the opening night roster. He joined Hershey late last season and promptly scored the game-winner in his first game. The Herndon, Virginia native played in nine games with the Bears. He netted two goals and dished out five assists in his brief tenure. A left winger, he plays with speed and has some grit. The question with Snively is playing time. As a young player, is it better for him to be playing every game then sitting in the press box? Hershey is deep at left wing with O’Brien, Gersich, Malenstyn and Johnsson-Fjallby lined up on that side. This does not even include Moulson who could play on either wing. It is possible that Snively gets sent to South Carolina to start the season in order to play top six minutes.
If Snively gets sent to the ECHL, Kale Kessy could be the beneficiary. The 6’3, 212-pound left wing amassed 289 penalty minutes for the Idaho Steelheads in the ECHL last season. He also scored 11 goals and had 22 assists. Kessy could be kept around for his toughness.
Finally, Matthew Weis will be trying to force his way onto the roster. He will likely need an injury in Hershey or Washington to earn that spot and that is not an indictment on him as a player. Weis is a solid player, having played 60 games with the Chicago Wolves last season. He had 11 points during that span and then added four points in 22 Calder Cup playoff games. The problem for the Madison, New Jersey native is that he has five centers ahead of him on the depth chart. It is unlikely that the Bears will keep six centers. That is why Weis likely starts the season in South Carolna.
These are five battles that are forthcoming for the Hershey Bears in training camp. The way they turn out will impact the way the Bears line up when they open their season at home against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on October 5.
By Eric Lord