Heading into the 2020-21 American Hockey League (AHL) season, the Hershey Bears have a potentially deep and potent lineup, as sixteen forwards who suited up for the Bears last season are under contract. To that group, the organization added a former AHL Most-Valuable Player and two depth wingers.
Down the middle, Hershey is strong at the center position. Leading the way is last season’s scoring leader Philippe Maillet. After a slow start, Maillet picked up his game in the second half of the season, amassing seven goals and nine assists in his last 13 games. He topped the Hershey scoring list with 44 points for the season. The Quebec native dished out 27 assists, which tied him for the team lead with three others. Maillet posted 10 power play assists and accumulated 15 power play points. He was one goal away from tying his career high of 18 when the season came to a halt in March.
Joining Maillet down the center is Mike Sgarbossa. The veteran pivot returns for his third season in Chocolate Town. Sgarbossa recorded 40 points in 39 games before an injury ended his season on March 8. The Campbellville, Ontario native was leading the Bears in scoring at the time of his injury and still finished third on the team in points. He tied for the team lead in game-winning goals with four and tied with three other players for the most assists on the team with 27. Maillet & Sgarbossa give the Bears a dynamic one-two punch at center.
Another center under contract is third-year pro Brian Pinho. The Providence College product enjoyed a breakout campaign last season. After posting 12 points as a rookie, Pinho broke through with 20 goals and 17 assists in his sophomore season. He was second on the team in goals and was tied with Sgarbossa for the team lead with four game-winning goals. Pinho is a very good penalty killer and was a key component of the Hershey unit that was the best in the AHL last season. He led the Bears with three shorthanded goals. The North Andover, Massachusetts native played in two Stanley Cup playoff games for Washington and will be in the mix for the last forward spot with the Capitals.
Garrett Pilon also returns at the center position. The son of former NHLer Rich Pilon, Garrett spent time on right wing last season. He could play there some again this season, but that depends on how the roster shakes out. If Pinho is in Washington, Pilon slots into the third line center position. Pilon tallied 18 goals last season, eight more than he did as a rookie, and finished with 36 points.
The fourth line center position is more up in the air. As of now, there is a two-way battle for the spot. Matthew Weis was re-signed on an AHL deal, but spent most of last season in the ECHL. He did play in 60 games with the Chicago Wolves in 2018-19 and could play his away into the role. Riley Sutter returns for his second season and is hoping to make a bigger impact than he did as a rookie. He suffered an injury in a prospect tournament and never really recovered from the lack of a training camp. He played in 25 games for the Bears and totaled four points. Sutter needs to come into training camp healthy and take a step forward to win a role with Hershey.
While there are no new additions at center, the one major forward free agent acquisition came on the left wing. That acquisition is 2019 AHL Most Valuable Player Daniel Carr. Last season, Carr played for the Milwaukee Admirals and led the Admirals in scoring with 50 points. That total was 21 less than he scored during his MVP season, but it was still good for 10th in the AHL. It was also six more points than Hershey’s leading scorer from last season. Carr’s 23 goals also would have led the Bears last season. Carr gives Hershey a top line scorer.
Carr’s presence allows Joe Snively to lineup on the second line and takes the pressure off of the young winger to produce top line numbers. The Herndon, Virginia native struggled at the start of the season when he was playing in a top line role. He was then moved down in the lineup and began to find his game. Snively played his way back into a top six role and was a steady player from late November on. He potted 12 goals and added 12 assists in his first full professional season.
Beck Malenstyn is back for his third professional season. A natural left winger, the Delta, British Columbia native can play both wings. Malenstyn does all the little things that a team needs to win. He is an excellent penalty killer and blocks shots. He delivers big checks, mucks it up in the corners and wins puck battles. Malenstyn’s offensive game has improved as well. He netted seven goals in 46 games last season, the same total he produced in his rookie season where it took him 74 games to reach that total. He was on pace to easily surpass his point total from his rookie season when they season was halted in March. His 15 points was one shy of the 16 he scored in his rookie season. Malenstyn made his NHL debut last season, playing three games with Washington, and will have a shot to crack the Capitals opening night roster.
Like Malenstyn, Shane Gersich returns on the left side. Originally projected as a scorer, Gersich has transformed his game into one perfectly suited for a bottom six role. He is reliable is his own zone, is a good back checker and goes into the dirty areas. The physical part of Gersich’s game also improved last season. The North Dakota product was also a key component of Hershey’s top ranked penalty kill unit. Two of Gersich’s 10 goals came shorthanded. Gersich also greatly improved his shooting percentage, finishing at 13.2%, up from 6.4% during his rookie campaign. He also recorded his first career hat trick.
Another left winger that is signed for the upcoming season in Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. The Swede got off to a hot start offensively, potting five goals in a six-game stretch from October 16 to November 1. Jonsson-Fjallby finished the season with 12 goals and 11 assists and played a strong two-way game. He saw a lot of time on the penalty kill and led the Bears with two shorthanded assists. Jonsson-Fjallby is capable of playing on the right wing and depending on who makes the Capitals roster, could be asked to play on the right.
Additionally, Hershey has two depth options on the left wing. Tough guy Kale Kessy is back for his second season with the Bears. Kessy had the interesting stat line of zero points and 102 penalty minutes in 24 games last season. The other depth left wing in the fold is Mason Morelli. Signed to an AHL deal, Morelli put up eight points in 31 games with the Stockton Heat last season.
Shifting over to the right side, the depth of talent on the left side will likely lead to Matt Moulson playing on the right side. Moulson can play on both wings. With Carr and Snively lined up in the top two left wing spots, it makes sense for Moulson to switch over to the right. The veteran can play on the right side with Maillet, his center for most of the past two seasons. Moulson was Hershey’s top goal scorer last season, netting 22. He also led the Bears with 10 power play goals. Moulson was a steady presence in the Hershey lineup, playing in all 62 games, and was a consistent scorer throughout the season. He had six points or more in each full month of the season and scored goals in three of his last four games prior to the season shutdown.
If Moulson plays on the right, it possibly gives the Bears two quality offensive right wings for the top six because Daniel Sprong is also in the fold. Acquired at the trade deadline for defenseman Christian Djoos, Sprong only suited up for five games before COVID-19 stopped the season. He made an impact in those five games. The speedy Dutch winger tallied one goal and five assists in those contests. Overall, he totaled 33 points in the AHL last season. Sprong has played 71 games in the NHL the past two seasons, including eight with the Anaheim Ducks this past campaign. Sprong will be one of the players who will have the opportunity to win a job with Washington in training camp.
After Moulson and Sprong, the right wing picture is not as clear. Pilon, Pinho, Malenstyn or Jonsson-Fjallby could be options. Beyond those options, Hershey does have other right wings who could step into the open roles.
One such player is Brett Leason. The Calgary, Alberta native struggled in his first professional season, scoring three goals and adding 11 assists. Still, Leason was a scorer at the junior level and now knows what he has to do to be successful as a pro. If Leason can take a step forward in his second season, it would benefit the Bears.
Similar to Leason, Kody Clark struggled through his rookie season. Clark suffered an injury during the prospects tournament and missed training camp and the start of the season. Clark did not play until November 24 and suited up for 31 games. He recored three goals and chipped in nine assists, but he never really got into a rhythm. Like Sutter, he will benefit from having a full training camp.
The third right wing with an opportunity to earn a spot in the lineup is veteran Steve Whitney. Signed to an AHL contract in the offseason, Whitney returns for his third season in Hershey. The Boston College alum was injured on November 16 and did not see the ice again until March 6. He played in just 15 games due to his injury. Whitney is not a big scorer, but he is a smart player who can be trusted to play the game the right way. He really is not a top six option, but could slot into a bottom six role.
Finally, Caleb Herbert returns to the team he began his professional career with. Herbert was drafted by Washington in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and joined the Bears after completing his collegiate career at Minnesota-Duluth in 2014. He netted two goals and had an assist with Hershey in seven games after turning pro. The Bloomington, Minnesota native found it difficult to find a regular role in the next two seasons and spent more time in the ECHL than he did in the AHL. Herbert left the Bears organization prior to the 2016-17 season. He did not post big numbers that season, but has enjoyed three consecutive strong seasons since. He scored 24 goals and amassed 52 points in 38 games in the ECHL with Greenville during the 2017-18 campaign. The following season, Herbert was named an ECHL First-Team All-Star after tallying 32 goals and 39 assists for the Utah Grizzlies. He took his talents to Austria last season and posted 43 points for HC Innsbruck in 48 games. If he keeps his scoring touch, Herbert could be a find for the Bears as a depth scorer.
With 16 forwards potentially returning and the addition of a former AHL MVP, the Hershey Bears have a solid nucleus to make a run at Calder Cup number 12.
By Eric Lord