Photo: Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Before COVID-19 brought the hockey season to a screeching halt, the Hershey Bears were pushing for an Atlantic Division title and were among the top teams in the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference. That push to the top was driven in large part by emergence of the team’s second-year players.
The development and contributions from sophomores Brian Pinho, Garrett Pilon, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Beck Malenstyn and Shane Gersich significantly boosted Hershey’s offense, as well as strengthened all facets of the Bears team game during the 2019-2020 season.
Coming into this season, the Bears needed to replace four of their top five scorers from last season. Veterans Matt Moulson and Philippe Maillet were brought in as free agents to help backfill for the departed scorers and support holdover Mike Sgarbossa. The veteran trio has done their part, leading Hershey in scoring this season. However, the Bears also needed their young players to take a step up in order for the Bears to be successful this season.
The sophomore class has responded. Each of the second-year players has surpassed or was on pace to surpass all or part of their offensive output from a year ago when the season was suspended on March 12. Defensively, all five players were a plus five or better, and four of the five were seeing significant time on the Hershey penalty kill, which was second in the AHL.
Of the five second-year players, Garrett Pilon seemed like the most likely to take a step forward, offensively. He had a strong second half last season, tallying 22 points after January 1, and scored five of his 10 goals in March. He amassed 33 points in his rookie campaign and looked like he was positioned to carry that momentum into this season.
The Mineola, New York native started slowly again this season, but turned on the offense starting in December. At the time of the stoppage, Pilon had already surpassed his offensive totals from his rookie campaign. He netted 18 goals and dished out 18 assists for 36 points in 61 games played. He ranks third on the Bears in goals and fifth in scoring. Defensively, Pilon’s game has also improved. He was a minus four last season, but was a plus seven so far this campaign. The son of former NHL defenseman Rich Pilon has played both his natural position of center and right wing for the Bears this season.
While Pilon’s step forward could be foreseen, few saw the emergence of Brian Pinho coming. The Providence College graduate was a solid penalty killer, but was not an offensive threat during his first professional campaign. He scored four goals and added eight assists for 12 points. Pinho also added a goal and an assist in the playoffs last spring. The goal was a big one, it was the overtime game winner in the fifth and decisive game in the first round against Bridgeport. Still, Pinho did not seem to be poised for an offensive breakout.
Heading into training camp, Pinho’s role was far from defined. Based on last season, he was ticketed for a battle with Chris McCarthy for the fourth line center spot. Pinho had other ideas. He had a strong prospect tournament and training camp with the Washington Capitals, and brought that confidence with him down to Hershey. The North Andover, Massachusetts native has obliterated his point total from his rookie campaign.
Splitting time between center and right wing, Pinho has emerged as an offensive weapon. Playing right wing on a line with Maillet and Moulson in December and January, he compiled 16 points in the two-month span. That is four points more than he scored all of last year. On the season, Pinho has potted 20 goals, the second most on the team, and ranks fourth on the team with 37 points, more than tripling last seasons scoring. Pinho is also tied for the team lead with four game-winning goals and leads all Hershey forwards with a plus 16 and is second on the team in that category.
Defensively, Pinho remains one of Hershey’s top defensive forwards. He is usually one of the first forwards over the boards on the penalty kill and is a key component of that unit’s success. He also leads the team with three shorthanded goals.
Similarly to Pinho, Shane Gersich had a underwhelming rookie year. He came to Hershey as a highly touted offensive player. The North Dakota product posted 24 points, but converted on only eight of his 125 shots, for a season shooting percentage of 6.4%. His offensive game was simply not at the level that was projected by many. On the other end of the ice, Gersich did play a responsible game and became a part of the team’s penalty kill by season’s end.
It was not clear where Gersich would slot into the lineup heading into the season. In actuality, the Chaska, Minnesota native has played up and down the lineup. He has also split time between left wing and center. Gersich has improved his shot from last season. He has 10 goals on 76 shots for a shooting percentage of 13.2%. That is a significant improvement from his 6.4% shooting percentage as a rookie.
Gersich has six less points than last season and his assist total is down, but Gersich has eclipsed his goal total from his rookie season. Defensively, Gersich has been a reliable player in his own zone. He sees a lot of time on Hershey’s highly ranked penalty kill and is second on the team with two shorthanded goals.
Unlike Gersich, Beck Malenstyn had a clearly defined role heading into this AHL season. In his rookie campaign, the Delta, British Columbia native established himself quickly as a top penalty killer, and was the Bears’ best penalty killer and shot blocker last season. Malenstyn also brought a physical presence to the team, while scoring seven goals and adding nine assists. He was a high energy, defensive forward and was ticketed to resume that role this season.
Malenstyn has continued to fill the role he did during the 2018-19 season. He usually hops over the boards first with Pinho when the team is shorthanded and the duo is the team’s top penalty killing forward pair.
Malenstyn continues to bring a physical presence. He has been limited to 46 games due to a pair of injuries, but has almost equaled his offensive output from last season in that time. He has compiled 15 points, just one point less than his rookie total. He has matched his goal output from last year with seven and three of those goals have been game-winners.
Malenstyn, along with Pilon, Pinho and Gersich, all played a full season in Hershey last season. The final member of the sophomore class did not. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby used an opt-out clause in his contract to return home to Sweden after playing 16 games for the Bears last season. He had two goals and an assist in his time in Chocolate Town and it was unknown what his contribution in Hershey would be this season.
Technically still considered a rookie by the AHL, Jonsson-Fjallby announced his presence early on. He tallied four goals and added an assist in October to outpace his point total from last season. The native of Stockholm, Sweden posted 12 points in the first three months and has 11 points in the last two months (plus a week) of the season.
Jonsson-Fjallby has been a steady player. His speed has been an asset for Hershey and it has helped the Swede excel on the penalty kill, as he has been an integral part of the penalty kill’s success. He has also shown considerable improvement defensively. He was a minus five in the 16 games he played during his brief stay with the Bears last season. This time around, he is a plus nine which is the third best rating among Hershey forwards.
Jonsson-Fjallby, Malenstyn, Gersich, Pinho and Pilon have been key cogs in the success of the Hershey Bears this season. They have contributed in multiple ways and have been good at both ends of the ice. Their surge has helped Hershey overcome their offensive losses from a season ago, and If the AHL ever season resumes, the quintet will play important roles in the potential playoff success of the Bears.
By Eric Lord