Just a few short months ago, the Hershey Bears looked like they were a lock to field a Calder Cup caliber roster for the 2020-21 season. The projected roster was deep with scoring power on offense and stout on the back end. However, that’s likely changed due to circumstances beyond the Bears’ control. With American Hockey League (AHL) training camps set to open in a few weeks, the current Hershey roster remains tangled in uncertainty.
What transpired to cause this uncertainty? First, organizational depth with the Washington Capitals was hampered by injury and medical conditions. Winger Beck Malenstyn suffered an Achilles injury while training in Vancouver and underwent surgery in early December. He will miss the entire season. Malenstyn likely would have been in the mix for a roster spot with the Capitals. If he did not make the National Hockey League (NHL) roster, he would have been an asset to the Bears.
Then, goalie Henrik Lundqvist was forced to bow out of the upcoming season due to a heart condition. Signed to be Ilya Samsonov’s backup, Lundqvist instead will undergo open heart surgery. Lundqvist’s inability to play lessens the organizational goaltender depth.
Finally, the NHL is allowing teams to carry taxi squads due to the compressed schedule and COVID-19 concerns anticipated for this season. The taxi squad will consist of four to six players. In Washington’s case, one of those players will be a goalie because the league is requiring teams to carry at least three goalies this season and the Capitals do not have the cap space to have three on their active roster. Regardless of the configuration, the taxi squad will take players away from Hershey.
The above developments has likely created holes throughout the Bears’ lineup. Here is the latest breakdown of where the Hershey lineup potentially stands.
In November, the Bears looked to possibly have one of the top goaltending tandems in the entire AHL with Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley. Of course, things have changed with Lundqvist’s departure and the creation of the NHL’s taxi squad.
Immediately following Lundqvist’s announcement, it appeared that Hershey would not get either Vanecek or Copley back. This would have left a gigantic hole between the pipes. However, since then, the Capitals have signed veteran netminder Craig Anderson to a PTO. Assuming Anderson plays decent in training camp, it is almost a given that he will be signed to a league minimum contract to either be the backup to Samsonov or the goalie for the taxi squad. This would mean that the Bears would get either Vanecek or Copley back.
The role Anderson plays could have an impact on the goalie Hershey receives. If Anderson is on the taxi squad, Vanecek would likely be the backup in Washington. In that scenario, Copley heads to Chocolate Town and would be the number one netminder. If Anderson wins the backup job, it could change things. The Capitals could decide that they want Vanecek to play instead of just practicing on the taxi squad. In that scenario, Copley would slot into the taxi squad spot and Vanecek would come down to be the Bears number one.
With either Copely or Vanecek heading the goalie tandem, the question becomes who is the number two goalie. One option is Zach Fucale. He is on a two-way contract with the Washington organization and that would seem to make him the favorite for the spot. However, Fucale has seen very little action in the AHL the past few seasons. He played in only one game in the AHL last season. Since playing in 42 games with the St. John’s Maple Leafs in the 2015-16 season, Fucale has played a total of 27 games in the AHL. He could be used as the insurance policy in the ECHL.
The other candidate for the backup role is rookie Hunter Shepard. The Minnesota-Duluth product has gotten off to a good start in the ECHL with South Carolina. He is 2-1-1 with a .928 save percentage and a 2.07 goals against average. Shepard is a winner, having won two national championships at Minnesota-Duluth. The Grand Rapids, Michigan native has more upside than Fucale and could learn a lot playing behind Copley or Vanecek.
Nowhere on the Hershey roster is there more question marks than on the blue line. Cameron Schilling is the top defenseman and will play on the left side of the top pairing. Originally a Capitals draft pick, the Carmel, Indiana native returned to the organization in the offseason. He has always been a very good defender, but has added offense to his game in recent seasons. After Schilling, there are plenty of question marks to be found.
Martin Fehervary could give the Bears a solid one-two punch on the left side, if he is sent to Hershey. His chance to make the Washington roster seemingly disappeared when the Capitals signed Zdena Chara. However, Fehervary is still a candidate for the taxi squad and is waivers-exempt. Washington has to decide if they want to keep him around in case they need him at the NHL level or let the second year defenseman continue his development in the AHL. Fehervary plays with a poise that belies his age and is solid in all areas. He would see a lot of ice time in all situations if he returned to the Bears.
After Schilling and Fehervary, there are a couple of options for Hershey. Lucas Johansen is basically a lock to return to the Bears. It’s a make-or-break season for Johansen. He played in only nine games last season due to injury. The former first round pick has struggled thus far in his career and this will be his last chance to make an impression on the Washington organization.
Also in the mix on the left is Eddie Wittchow. Signed to an AHL contract, Wittchow played well last season, after being recalled from South Carolina. He was steady in his own end and netted five goals in 22 games.
Then there is Alexander Alexeyev. He would make the Bears deeper on the back end. Alexeyev developed into an excellent shot blocker last season and has the potential to take a step forward. However, there is a question on whether or not Alexeyev returns to North America. He is currently playing in the KHL and was not recalled for Washington’s training camp. Whether or not he returns for the AHL season remains to be seen.
While the left side at least has an anchor in Schilling and a potential solid number two with Fehervary, the right side of the defense is riddled with uncertainty. Paul Ladue was signed in the offseason to be the quarterback of the power play and the top option on the right side. That could still happen, but there is a real chance that Ladue ends up on the taxi squad for the Capitals. That would leave the Bears with an inexperienced group of defenders on the right.
Without Ladue, Hershey lacks a top pairing right defenseman. The other players under contract are all currently playing for South Carolina in the ECHL. Will Graber and Tyler Nanne are rookies out of college getting their first taste of the professional game with the Stingrays. Graber has an assist in seven games and Nanne is scoreless in six. Both would benefit from staying in the ECHL and adjusting to the pro game there.
The other right defenseman in South Carolina is Macoy Erkamps. The native of Delta, British Columbia has skated in 106 AHL games in the past three seasons. He brings a physical presence and probably could be a fit on the third pair.
Capitals prospect Martin Hugo Has could eventually join Hershey. Has is slated to play in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), but the league has delayed their season indefinitely. If the OHL cancels their season, Has would be eligible to play in the AHL. It is unlikely that this would happen before the start of the AHL season on February 5, meaning that Has would be more of help later in the season than at the start.
The Bears clearly need help on the right side of defense. Where could that help come from? One option could be Nick Jensen. Currently with the Capitals, Jensen would have to clear through waivers, but with Washington needing to clear cap space, he could be the one that goes. If Jensen clears waivers, there are two outcomes. He could remain in D.C. on the taxi squad or he could be sent to Hershey. If it is the latter, he would bring needed veteran help to the right side.
Another possibility is signing another right defenseman to an AHL contract. Erik Burgdoerfer remains unsigned. He played well for the Chocolate and White last season. Burgdoerfer would bring a steady defensive presence to the right side and also provide needed leadership on the back end.
Finally, the Bears could look to bring in a defenseman on loan from another organization. The Charlotte Checkers (Florida Panthers), Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators) and Springfield Thunderbirds (St. Louis Blues) have opted out of the 2021 AHL season. These organizations will need places to send players. The Blues are reportedly sending players to Utica, but that still leaves the Panthers and Predators who need places for their players. The Predators in particular have a right defenseman that would check all the boxes for Hershey. He is a familiar face, Tyler Lewington. Brining in a defenseman of Lewington’s caliber on loan would solidify the defense. Another potential loan option is Ethan Prow, who is property of the Panthers. Prow posted 32 points in 42 games for Springfield last season and amassed 50 points a season earlier in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The taxi squad could affect who lines up down the middle for the Bears. However, Hershey still has some depth at the position. Leading the way will likely be veteran pivot Mike Sgarbossa. Hershey’s leading scorer from two seasons ago, Sgarbossa sat atop the team’s scoring list when he suffered an injury on January 5 that caused him to miss six weeks. The Campbellville, Ontario native still finished third on the Bears in scoring with 40 points and would give Hershey a solid top line center.
Another center who could be headed to the Bears is third-year pro Brian Pinho. The Providence College product took a big step forward last season. After posting 12 points as a rookie, Pinho broke through with 20 goals and 17 assists in his sophomore campaign. 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 also led the Bears with three shorthanded goals. Pinho can also play on right wing. The North Andover, Massachusetts native played in two Stanley Cup playoff games for Washington.
Garrett Pilon also likely returns at the center position for his third season. The son of former NHLer Rich Pilon, Garrett spent time on right wing last season. Pilon potted 18 goals last season, eight more than he did as a rookie. He also dished out 18 assists and finished fifth on the team in scoring. Pilon is in the final year of his entry level contract and could be given a bigger role this season.
The fourth line center position will be a two-way battle. 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 way into the role with the Bears.
Riley Sutter returns for his second season. He struggled as a rookie after suffering an injury in a prospect tournament and never really recovered from the lack of a training camp. Sutter played in 25 games for the Bears and totaled four points.
There is the potential for Hershey’s center depth to deepen, however it all depends on other circumstances. Firstly, there is last season’s leading scorer Philippe Maillet. He is in the mix for a taxi squad spot. Whether or not he ends up on the taxi squad hinges on two things. One is what the Capitals choose to do with prized center prospect Connor McMichael. With the OHL currently paused, McMichael has nowhere to play. Washington will want him to get ice time and that may come on the taxi squad. McMichael being on the taxi squad does not mean that Maillet will not be on the taxi squad. The Capitals could choose to keep two centers on the taxi squad. In that scenario, Maillet would slot in with McMichael. If Washington elects to go with only one center on the taxi squad, Maillet would head to Hershey and give the Bears another top center.
McMichael could also figure into the Bears plans at some point this season. If the OHL cancels their season, he becomes eligible to play in Hershey. A trip to the AHL would benefit both McMichael and the Bears. McMichael gets professional experience and Hershey gets a highly skilled center. It would be a win-win for everybody. If this transpires, Maillet most likely would replace McMichael on the taxi squad.
Another potential center that could see time in Hershey is Aliaksei Protas. Protas is currently playing for Dinamo Minsk in the KHL and doing well. However, if the WHL cancels their season, Protas would then be eligible to report to Hershey.
Similar to most positions on the roster, the players who slot into the wing spots is contingent on who makes the taxi squad for the Capitals. The Bears may lack scoring options on the wings.
One player that Hershey can rely on is veteran Matt Moulson. He tallied a team-leading 22 goals last season and can play on either side. Moulson is a natural left winger and could slide into the top line there if needed. However, he may be needed to be the number one winger on the right side. If Daniel Sprong makes the taxi squad in DC, the Bears have a dearth of scoring options on the right wing. Moulson solidifies the right side in that case.
Speaking of Sprong, the speedy Dutch winger compiled six points in five games with the Bears before the season was halted. Acquired for defenseman Christian Djoos at last season’s trade deadline, he brings 97 games on NHL experience. He makes the taxi squad if the Capitals elect to keep two wingers on their taxi squad. If they choose to go with two centers, Sprong comes to Hershey and provides the Bears with needed a scoring right winger.
After Moulson and Sprong, there is a bevy of question marks on the right. Second year players Brett Leason and Kody Clark both struggled as rookies. Leason never got into a groove offensively, posting just three goals and 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.
Kody Clark suffered an injury during last year’s prospects tournament. The son of former NHLer Wendell Clark missed training camp and the start of the season. Clark did not play until November 24 and suited up for just 31 games. He recorded three goals and had nine assists, but he never got into a rhythm.
Steve 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.
Another option is Caleb Herbert, who returns to the team in which 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. Herbert has enjoyed three consecutive strong seasons in the ECHL and Austria. Currently playing with South Carolina, he is off to a good start with two goals and three assists in seven games.
Prospect Damien Riat was scheduled to report to North America from his team in Switzerland at the beginning of the new year. That did not happen and he was left off the training camp roster of the Capitals. There is a possibility he could be recalled for Hershey training camp. If Riat does come, he would give the Bears another scoring winger. He has 16 points in 18 games for Geneve-Servette this season.
Pilon or Pinho could move to the right wing if the Bears get Maillet back. They could look to add a winger through a loan. For example, if Hershey took Prow on loan from the Panthers, they could also take right winger Owen Tippett. Alternatively, the Bears could dip into the free agent market and bring in another right winger. Former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin Beau Bennett is still available, as are veterans Ryan Haggerty and 23-year-old Alexandre Alain.
Sliding over to the left wing, the Bears face similar depth issues. Malenstyn’s injury eliminates one potential option. Former AHL Most Valuable Player Daniel Carr was signed in the offseason, but it is unlikely he sees Hershey. He is close to a lock to make the taxi squad because of his familiarity with new Washington head coach Peter Laviolette. Carr played for Laviolette in Nashville and knows his system.
Without Carr, Joe Snively becomes the primary choice on the left. The Herndon, Virginia native struggled in a top six role at the start of the season. He was then moved down in the lineup and began to find his game. Snively earned his way back into a top six role and played well from late November on. He scored 12 goals and added 12 assists in his first full professional season.
Shane Gersich also 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 defensively, a good back checker and goes into the dirty areas. The North Dakota product played a big role on Hershey’s top ranked penalty kill unit. Two of Gersich’s 10 goals came shorthanded.
Additionally, the Bears have two depth options on the left wing. Rugged Kale Kessy is back for his second season with Hershey. Kessy had the interesting stat line of zero points and 102 penalty minutes in 24 games last season.
The other 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. He is playing with the Stingrays in the ECHL and has four points in seven games.
Then there is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. The smooth-skating Swede finished the season with 12 goals and 11 assists and played a strong two-way game. He was a strong penalty killer and led the Bears with two shorthanded assists. He is under contract for this season and would be a welcome addition to the Hershey forward corps. However, there are doubts to whether he will return to North America. Washington loaned him to Vasterviks IK in Sweden and comments from his coach there suggest that Jonsson-Fjallby could remain there for the entire season.
If the Bears are looking to add to their group of left wings, there are still two quality left wings available in free agency. Matt Puempel compiled 39 points in 46 games with Grand Rapids last season and posted back-to-back 50-point campaigns in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Michael Mersch has four 40-point seasons in his six-year professional career. Either player would strengthen the depth for the Hershey.
With all the question marks surrounding the lineup, head coach Spencer Carbery and his staff have their work cut out for them coming up with the opening night roster. Stay tuned. Things can change quickly.
By Eric Lord