Following the conclusion of last season, Hershey Bears forwards Nathan Walker and Riley Barber became Group VI unrestricted free agents, with both players eventually departing the organization. Walker inked a deal with the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and Barber headed north to Montreal. Now, with the American Hockey League (AHL) 2019-2020 season on hold, three current Hershey Bears are set to follow Walker and Barber into Group VI free agency. Tyler Lewington, Colby Williams and Liam O’Brien are those three players.
The trio were set to be restricted free agents at the end of the current season and that would have given the Washington Capitals control over the players. However, all three players meet the criteria to become an unrestricted free agent.
The criteria is as follows:
- the player must be 25-years old or older,
- the player has played three professional seasons, and
- the player has played fewer than 80 games in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Lewington turned 25 in December and has played eight NHL games. The Edmonton, Alberta native is in his fifth professional season, which gives him all three of the criteria to become an unrestricted free agent. He has blossomed into a better player than was expected.
Drafted in the seventh round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Lewington was the least heralded of a trio of rookie defensemen in the 2015-16 season. Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos got the press because of their skating and offensive ability, but Lewington is the last one remaining in the organization. He has developed into the quintessential defensive defenseman. During his Hershey tenure, he is a +46 in 283 games and has become a leader, always stands up for his teammates and has been an assistant captain the past two seasons and is the Bears’ on-ice leader.
Last season, Lewington established himself as a shutdown defenseman. He teamed with Aaron Ness to form a formidable top defense pairing. The duo was a key part of Hershey’s turnaround from last place to a playoff team. Lewington was one of the team’s top penalty killers and simply played to his strengths. He finished the season with 15 points. His +7 was second to only Ness on the team. The rugged blue liner also made his NHL debut during the season and registered a Gordie Howe hat trick in his two games.
Lewington started this season in the NHL with the Capitals and played six games before returning to the Bears. He has equaled his career high in goals with four and has done so in just 43 games with Hershey. He was four points off of matching his career high in points of 17. Lewington also leads the team with a plus 17 rating and has been a key component of Hershey’s second ranked penalty kill.
What are the odds Lewington signs a new contract with the Washington organization? The Capitals will likely make him an offer. He provides them with an experienced depth option on the blue line. However, Lewington is probably looking for a better shot at the NHL. There are teams that can provide him with that opportunity, but choosing the right organization is imperative.
Walker and Barber moved on looking for a better opportunity, but really did not find it. Walker suited up in five games for the Blues and Barber played nine for the Canadians before being traded to the Pittsburgh organization. They left looking for greener pastures, but have not really found them. If Lewington leaves the Washington organization, he needs to find the right fit. Otherwise, he might be better off where he is.
Like Lewington, Williams is 25-years old. He is in his fourth professional season and has yet to earn his first recall to the NHL. Those factors will make him a Group VI free agent at the season’s conclusion. The Regina, Saskatchewan native was impressive as a rookie during the 2016-17 season. The defenseman was steady in his own end and was a +15. He netted four goals and added 12 assists in 60 games played.
Unfortunately for Williams, he did not take a step forward in his sophomore campaign. He suffered through a miserable campaign where his defensive game all but disappeared and he fell to a -15. He made poor decisions with the puck and took too many undisciplined penalties. His struggles mirrored the struggles of his team as the Bears endured their worst season -since 2002-03.
Williams and the Bears were looking to rebound in the 2018-19 season. The Bears did just that, turning it on in the second half to make it back to the Calder Cup playoffs. Williams was not as fortunate. He was limited to 36 games due to injuries and his play in those games was not good. He continued to struggle defensively, posting a team worst -15.
Williams has been better this season. He did not play consistently early in the season due to a numbers game, suiting up for just 14 games in the first three months of the season. His ice time increased once the calendar flipped to 2020, as he has played in 17 games. Ironically, Williams got back into the lineup at a different position. He played right wing on Hershey’s fourth line for five games in January and he contributed two assists. He has been back on defense since and his play has improved. Playing on the wing seems to have given him a different perspective on defense.
The question now becomes what happens to Williams when he hits free agency? The answer is that he probably looks for a fresh start somewhere else. He is not poised to make the jump to the NHL at this point, but heading to a different organization with a different system might be what Williams needs to jumpstart his career.
Like his Group 6 teammates, O’Brien is 25-years old. He is in his sixth professional season, making him the longest tenured Hershey Bear. The Halifax, Nova Scotia native has played in 17 NHL games in his career, but that is not anywhere near the 80 needed to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
O’Brien has revamped his game during his time in Hershey. Early in his career, he was a penalty machine. He amassed 121 penalty minutes in his rookie season (2014-15) in 45 games. In that same season, he put up only eight points. The following season, O’Brien compiled 120 penalty minutes in 59 games. He had 16 points that season. A lot of the penalties were undisciplined and put his team in a bind. He also found himself in trouble with the AHL a lot due to bad hits. He was suspended on multiple occasions.
In recent years, O’Brien has become a smarter player. He still picks up penalties because he plays a physical game, but he has limited the undisciplined penalties and has all but eliminated the suspensions. This growth has coincided with O’Brien becoming a part of the leadership corps in Chocolate Town. He has served as an assistant captain the past two seasons and is the team’s emotional leader. It has also allowed him to become a quality penalty killer and he sees a lot of time on Hershey’s highly rated penalty kill.
Offensively, O’Brien tallied his career high in goals with 17 in the 2017-18 season, but that was also the only season during his time with the Bears that he missed the playoffs. His career high in points came in 2016-17 with 30. He was on pace to surpass that total when the AHL season was suspended. O’Brien had 29 points when the season was brought to a halt and was also one assist away from tying his career high of 20.
O’Brien, a fan favorite is poised to hit open the market. Does he look for an organization that offers him a better chance at making it to the NHL? That is possible. It’s the dream of every player to play in the NHL. However, O’Brien is firmly entrenched in the Hershey community and is a bit of a cult hero with the fanbase. That will play a role in his thought process and could lead the “Big Tuna” back to the Bears.
Lewington, Williams and O’Brien all have decisions to make this off-season as Group VI unrestricted free agents. With the AHL season currently in doubt, the trio may have played their last games as members of the Hershey Bears. Then again, maybe not. Only time will tell.
By Eric Lord