With American Hockey League (AHL) training camps set to open in the coming days, the Hershey Bears are finally ready to get their 2020-21 season underway. The Bears now have a clearer idea of who is available to them after the Washington Capitals made their roster and taxi squad decisions. However, questions of depth remain throughout the lineup for head coach Spencer Carbery and his staff.
Carbery has a number one goalie to count on. Pheonix Copley will be the go-to option between the pipes. Technically still on the Capitals taxi squad, the North Pole, Alaska native will be heading to Hershey for training camp. He will get the bulk of the starts with Vitek Vanecek entrenched as Ilya Samsonov’s backup in Washington. Copley went 17-8-6 last season with a .905 save percentage and a 2.47 goals against average.
Behind Copley, Zach Fucale will likely start the season as the number two netminder. Fucale has not played a lot in the AHL in recent seasons, but will now have an opportunity to re-establish himself at that level. His main competition for that role figures to be rookie Hunter Shepard, but Shepard is currently injured in South Carolina and was not recalled for Hershey’s training camp.
With Shepard injured, Alex Dubeau becomes the third option in net for the Bears. With new players having to quarantine, the Mascouche, Quebec native likely starts the season in Hershey as the emergency goalie. Dubeau is 4-0-2 this season with South Carolina.
In front of the goalies, the defense has a strong top pair, but questions surface after that. Cameron Schilling (left side) and Paul Ladue (right side) give the Bears a quality first pairing. Schilling is a strong defender and has developed an offensive game in recent years. Ladue will quarterback the power play and bring experience to the back end.
The next two pairings are up in the air. On the left side, Lucas Johansen and Eddie Wittchow are the lone options with Martin Fehervary on the Washington taxi squad and Alex Alexeyev still in Russia. Barring a late addition, those two will fill the second and third pair spots on the left. Johansen missed most of last season due to injury and has struggled thus far in his career. He needs to take a step forward. Wittchow is on an AHL contract and played well last season after being recalled from the ECHL. He tallied five goals in 22 games.
The Bears signed defender Rob O’Gara on a Professional Tryout Agreement on January 20. He was once a highly regarded prospect in the Boston Bruins organization. O’Gara is a stay-at-home defenseman and potentially brings 179 games of AHL experience to the blue line.
On the right side, the status is a bit murky. Beyond Ladue, there are three defenseman who have been playing in the ECHL. The most experienced of that group is Reece Wilcox. He was officially inked to a professional tryout agreement on January 20. He suited up for five games for the Florida Everblades in the ECHL this season. The Cornell University product has played 232 games for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms over the past five seasons. Wilcox compiled 13 points last campaign.
The other two right defenseman are Macoy Erkamps and Will Graber, who have been playing for South Carolina. Erkamps skated in 36 games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last season and is more of a stay-at-home defenseman. He has an assist in eight games in the ECHL. Graber is a rookie out of Dartmouth, who has recorded an assist and 18 penalty minutes in 11 games with South Carolina.
If the Bears want to add to their defensive corps, there are a few defensemen still available in free agency. The organization could re-sign Erik Burgdoerfer to strengthen the right side. Cody Goloubef and former Bear Madison Bowey are also still unsigned right defensemen. If Hershey wants to improve their left side Cameron Gaunce and former Bear Karl Alzner are available options.
Moving to the forward position, the Bears are solid down the middle, but have scoring depth issues on the wings.
Philippe Maillet and Mike Sgarbossa give Hershey a strong one-two punch at center. Maillet was the Bears’ top scorer last season with 44 points and tied for the team lead with 27 assists. Sgarbossa led the Hershey in scoring two seasons ago and was again at the top of the scoring list when he suffered an injury in January that caused him to miss significant time. He still ended up third on the team in scoring with 40 points.
Third-year pro Garret Pilon slots into the third line center spot. He tallied 18 goals last season, an increase of eight from his rookie season. A continued progression by Pilon would benefit the Bears and he could make Hershey one of the deepest teams in the AHL at center. The son of former NHLer Rich Pilon will likely see an increased role this season and should get more power play time.
The fourth line center position is a battle between Matthew Weis and Riley Sutter. Weis was re-signed on an AHL deal and spent most of last season in South Carolina. He played in 60 games with the Chicago Wolves in 2018-19 and could earn a role with the Bears.
Riley Sutter is back for his second season. He struggled as a rookie after suffering an injury in the Capitals prospect tournament. He should benefit from participating in his first NHL training camp, as well as a training camp with Hershey. Sutter played in 25 games for the Bears and amassed four points.
While Hershey has three scoring options at center, there is a dearth of proven scoring on the wings. The one established scoring wing on the roster is Matt Moulson. The veteran of 1017 professional games netted a team-high 22 goals last season and also led the Bears with 11 power play goals. Moulson has chemistry with Maillet and the tandem has had success the past two seasons. Putting Moulson on Maillet’s wing makes sense. The question is which wing will that be? The North York, Ontario native can play both wings, but putting him on Maillet’s right wing is more likely.
If Moulson plays the right side on Maillet’s line, the spot on the left side would go to either Joe Snively or Shane Gersich. Snively is the top option on the left wing, but Carbery may want to balance his lines. In that scenario, Gersich slots into the spot. He would bring speed and a responsible defensive game to the line. The North Dakota product scored 10 goals last season, two more than his rookie campaign and he did so in 12 fewer games.
Snively would then move onto the line with Mike Sgarbossa. The Herndon, Virginia native came on after a slow start last season and finished with 24 points. If he continues to play like he did the second half of last season, another step forward is well within expectations.
Who plays on Sgarbossa’s right? This is where the lack of scoring options becomes apparent. There really is not a clear answer. Brett Leason struggled during his rookie season. The same can be said of Kody Clark. Steve Whitney is a smart player, but has not scored a lot at the AHL level. Caleb Herbert is off to a good start with South Carolina, but is he ready for a top six role? One of these players will be given the chance to start the season with Sgarbossa. Whitney may get the first shot because he has the trust of the coaching staff, but it could end up being a revolving door of wingers until someone seizes the opportunity.
The same group of wingers will be in the mix for right wing spots on the third and fourth lines. There could be a rotation on the bottom two lines as well, until someone establishes themselves in a particular role.
Moving off to the left wing spots on the bottom two lines, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby moves onto Pilon’s wing on the third line. The Swede recorded four goals and 11 assists in 26 games for Vasterviks IK in Sweden this season. He was recalled for Hershey’s training camp by Washington. Jonsson-Fjallby is an excellent penalty killer and has plenty of speed.
With Jonsson-Fjallby filling the third line left wing spot, the fourth line spot is less certain. Hershey has the rugged Kale Kessy back for a second season. He brings toughness, but no offense at all. Mason Morelli started well for South Carolina and could factor in the bottom six for the Bears.
It is possible that Hershey is not comfortable with their current mix of wings and the Bears could bring additional wingers in for a look during training camp. Right wing Michael Mersch, who has four 10-plus goal seasons in the AHL, is still on the market. Left wingers Beau Bennett, Ryan Haggerty and Alexandre Alain are also available. Any of these players would give Hershey more scoring depth.
Carbery and his staff will have to try to figure out the team’s depth issues quickly in an abbreviated training camp. For Hershey to be successful, players will need to step up.
By Eric Lord