After a four-month delay, the Hershey Bears are poised to start their 2021 American Hockey League (AHL) season Friday night when they face the Binghamton Devils in Newark, New Jersey.[Note: Friday’s season opener against the Devils was postponed until February 17. The Bears new season opener is now set for Saturday, February 6 against Lehigh Valley].
The season is going to be unlike any the AHL has ever seen. Everything is different. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the division alignment, the schedule and the playoffs have all changed.
Normally, the AHL is comprised of four divisions with the Bears playing in the Atlantic Division. This season, there are five divisions, including an all-Canadian Division and a three-team Atlantic Division. Hershey now resides in the North Division with six other teams.
While there are six teams in their division, the Bears will only face three of them this season. Their entire 40-game schedule consists of games against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and the Binghamton Devils, who are playing this season in Newark, New Jersey.
What happens after the 40-game regular season is still up in the air. The AHL has yet to announce a playoff format. However, AHL President Scott Howson said that the league will not award the Calder Cup. This announcement has left players, coaches and fans frustrated. The decision is an interesting one considering other leagues have chosen to award their trophies, even though the season and playoff format are different.
As for the strength of the teams on the Hershey schedule, it is difficult to predict where each teams stands, as the AHL has not released team rosters yet. The teams each have circumstances affecting their rosters. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s potential defensive corps has been weakened due to their parent club, the Pittsburgh Penguins, rash of injuries on the back end.
The Phantoms have already seen a potential top line center in Morgan Frost lost for most of the season due to a shoulder injury suffered while playing for Philadelphia. Binghamton’s parent club, the New Jersey Devils, has recently been beset by a COVID outbreak. Also, every team’s roster is directly affected by their parent club’s taxi squad construction and those taxi squads are constantly changing.
Of the divisional teams Hershey is not playing, Syracuse and Utica have the roster advantage of two National Hockey League teams providing players to them. Syracuse has their normal affiliate, the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the Florida Panthers also sending them players this season. Florida’s affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, opted out of the AHL season, and thus, the Panthers enter into a shared affiliation in Syracuse.
In a similar development, Utica is a shared affiliation between their usual partner, the Vancouver Canucks, and the St. Louis Blues. While Vancouver is sending some of its players to Manitoba due to Canadian travel restrictions, they will still have players in Utica. The Blues’ affiliate in Springfield chose not to participate in the AHL season and as a result, they will also ship players over to Utica.
These arrangements could give Syracuse and Utica the edge in the division because they are going to be stocked with players from two NHL teams and will not have to rely on players further down the depth charts, like AHL-only contracts and ECHL players.
The Bears have seen many players that they expected to have in the lineup be unavailable to them for various reasons. As a result, the opening night lineup will look much different than anticipated. Hershey does not have a lot of proven scoring. Recently named captain Matt Moulson is the lone established scorer currently on the roster.
Moulson led the Bears in goal scoring last season and will again be looked to lead the way in that category. After Moulson, Hershey will hope that Garrett Pilon and Joe Snively continue to progress. Both players took steps forward last season and their continued growth is essential to any Hershey success. Pilon will be asked to shoulder a bigger load at center with both Mike Sgarbossa and Philippe Maillet in Washington with the Capitals.
With Sgarbossa and Maillet not on the roster, the Bears will need players to step up to fill the offensive void. Players like Shane Gersich, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Brett Leason, Kody Clark and Riley Suter will have to increase their offensive output for the team to have success.
2019 first round draft pick Conor McMichael is on the roster for now as the Ontario Hockey League remains on pause. He will help fill the hole down the middle left by Sgarbossa and Maillet and should provide scoring. Also, rookie Damien Riat gives the Bears an additional scoring option on the wing.
Defensively, Cameron Schilling and Paul Ladue are the clear-cut best defensemen on the roster. The veteran duo will likely form the team’s top defensive pairing and both could end up as alternate captains. Schilling is a strong defender who has added some offense to his game in recent seasons. Ladue is a solid all-around defenseman and tallied five power play goals for Ontario last season.
After Schilling and Ladue, Rob O’Gara and Reece Wilcox figure to be next on the depth chart. O’Gara is a stay-at-home defenseman and was once a well-regarded prospect in the Boston Bruins organization. He has 179 games of AHL experience. Wilcox suited up for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms for 232 games in the past five seasons.
The third defensive pairing will be made of some combination of Lucas Johansen, Eddie Wittchow, Macoy Erkamps and Will Graber. Johansen played only nine games last season and has struggled in his career. He will be looking to finally break through. Wittchow netted five goals in 22 games for the Bears last season and played well after his recall from South Carolina. He can play either side which makes him a valuable depth piece. Erkamps played 36 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season and is a stay-at-home defenseman. Graber is a rookie out of Dartmouth, who posted an assist and 18 penalty minutes in 11 games with South Carolina this season.
The last line of the defense is the goalie. Hershey received a gift in that area on the eve of the season opener. Pheonix Copley was sent back to the Bears from the Washington taxi squad and immediately slots in as the number one goalie. Copley ended last season with a 2.47 goals against average, good for 10th in the AHL. He finished with a 17-8 record and a .905 save percentage.
Behind Copley, Alex Dubeau is the backup as of now. Dubeau was not even one of the top two goalies in South Carolina of the ECHL to start the season, but circumstances have led him to Chocolate Town. With Zach Fucale still in Washington on the taxi squad and Hunter Shepard injured in South Carolina, Dubeau has an AHL opportunity with the Bears.
The third goalie on the depth chart is Charles Williams. The Canton, Michigan native played 31 games with the Indy Fuel of the ECHL last season and will serve as the extra goalie for Hershey to start the season.
That is how the opening night roster looks for the Hershey Bears. However, it is a good bet that it will change before too long. How will Hershey fair this season? It’s difficult to make a prediction with the likelihood of a high volume of roster changes. Whichever team can navigate the difficulties of a season in the midst of a pandemic will be the one holding the trophy at the end of the season, whatever trophy that may be.
By Eric Lord