While the start of the 2020-21 American Hockey League (AHL) season still remains somewhat up in the air, the lack of a start date has not affected the roster of the Hershey Bears from beginning to take shape. Offseason signings have strengthened the defense and the goaltending pool is deep.
Heading into this year’s free agency period, the biggest weakness for the Bears was on defense, as the chocolate and white had little experience under contract on the right side. Tyler Lewington (signed with Nashville), Erik Burgdoerfer (unsigned), Colby Williams (unsigned) and Connor Hobbs (retired) have all departed.
With those holes, players needed to be added to strengthen the right side. The parent club Washington Capitals started the retool by inking undrafted college free agents Tyler Nanne and Will Graber to entry-level contracts.
Nanne played four seasons at the University of Minnesota and served as the team captain his senior season. The grandson of United States Hockey Hall-of-Fame executive Lou Nanne, Tyler is more of a defensive defenseman, having posted only 37 points in 110 collegiate games.
Graber played his college hockey at Dartmouth and split his time between defense and center, but was signed as a defenseman. During his four-year career, Graber amassed 97 points in 123 games.
Hershey then signed Macoy Erkamps to an AHL deal. Erkamps suited-up in 36 games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last season. He put up 71 points in his final season with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the CHL, but has not shown that same offensive prowess as a professional.
The Nanne, Graber and Erkamps signings give the Bears a good start on the right side, but a veteran to play on the top pair was still needed. Enter Paul Ladue. The Capitals brought Ladue into the organization on a one-year deal. A veteran of 69 National Hockey League (NHL) and 122 AHL games, Ladue brings much-needed experience. The North Dakota product could also fill a need on the power play, as he tallied five power play goals and 27 points in 48 games with Ontario last season.
As free agency commenced, there were also question marks on the left side of the defense. Bobby Nardella, who was slated to quarterback the Hershey power play, was loaned to Djurgardens IF in the Swedish Hockey League for the season. Nardella’s departure created an unexpected hole.
It also looked like Martin Fehervary was in a position to make Washington’s roster this season and that would leave another gap. Hershey still has Alexander Alexeyev, Lucas Johansen and Eddie Wittchow back, but none of those players are truly a top pair defenseman.
The Capitals were busy on the blue line in free agency and that benefitted the Bears. They added Justin Schultz and Trevor Van Riemsdyk to their defense and those additions make it possible that Fehervary returns to Hershey. Fehervary is 21 and it benefits no one to have him sitting in the press box in the NHL. Fehervary plays with a poise above his experience level, and is a steady defenseman with offensive upside. His return is a major plus for the Bears.
Washington then brought back an old friend when they signed Cameron Schilling to a one-year contract. The Carmel, Indiana native spent the first four years of his professional career with Hershey. Schilling was always a solid defender with a hard shot, but he has developed an offensive game since leaving the Bears. He had 23 assists last season, more than any defensemen currently on the Hershey roster. Schilling gives the Bears a bona fide shut down defenseman.
With Fehervary and Schilling leading the way, it takes pressure off of Alexeyev, Johansen and Wittchow. One of those three will be on the third pair. Alexeyev is an excellent shot blocker who battled through some ups and downs in his rookie season. He could be in line to take a step forward.
Johansen barely saw the ice last season, playing in only nine games due to an injury. His play has been inconsistent when he has been on the ice during his career and could struggle to crack the lineup on the left. He may be asked to play on his off side, the right. Wittchow played well after being called up from the ECHL. He netted five goals in 22 games with the Bears and is a solid depth piece.
Backing up the refurbished blueline is a strong tandem of goalies for the Bears. With Washington’s signing of veteran netminder Henrik Lundqvist, Hershey will likely head into the new season with the same goalies they had last season, Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley. The pair gives Hershey one of the best goaltending duos in the AHL.
Vanecek and Copley were both strong last season for the chocolate and white. Vanecek won 19 games and saw action in 31 games. He posted a 2.26 goals against average, which was good for sixth in the AHL. His .917 save percentage was the 10th best in the league. The Czech netminder also recorded two shutouts and was an MVP at the 2020 All-Star Challenge.
Copley also played in 31 games for the Bears. The North Pole, Alaska native earned 17 victories during the last campaign and also recorded two shutouts. He ended the season with a 2.47 goals against average and that was 10th in the AHL. He posted a .905 save percentage.
The goalie depth behind Vanecek and Copley looks a little different. Gone is Parker Milner, who served capably as the insurance policy in South Carolina the past few seasons. Milner retired in the offseason.
Zach Fucale was signed by the Capitals to fill Milner’s role. Fucale has never lived up to the potential that saw him drafted in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft by the Montreal Canadians, but he gives the organization a veteran depth option. Fucale had a .928 goals against average with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL last season and won 10 games.
The other goalie in the system is rookie Hunter Shepard. A college free agent signing by the Capitals over the summer, Shepard won two national championships at Minnesota-Duluth. He holds the record for most wins in Minnesota-Duluth history with 76. The Grand Rapids, Minnesota native also set the program record for consecutive starts with 135. Shepard was named the NCHC Goaltender of the Year twice and was a two-time All-American (1st team in 2019 and 2nd team in 2020). Sheppard has the potential to develop into a solid pro and starting in the ECHL will allow him to grow.
With the goaltending and defense both being strong points, the Hershey Bears are in a position to have another succesful season.
By Eric Lord