Photo: Lehigh Valley Phantoms
A little over a month has passed since the Hershey Bears concluded their successful 2020-2021 American Hockey League (AHL) season with a 5-2 triumph over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. It’s still early in the offseason, but Hershey’s 2021-22 roster has already begun to take shape.
The picture that is forming shows a team that is deep at certain positions, but lacks depth at others. Those positions will have to be addressed when the free agent period begins in late July. In this post we’ll take a look at the potential lineup for the Bears for next season.
The goalie position has been strong for the chocolate and white the past few seasons. The team is in line to keep that strength rolling in the 2021-22 season. Both Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale are under contract for next season.
Copley is in the final season of his three-year contract that he signed with the Washington Capitals organization prior to the 2019-20 season. Fucale inked a two-year extension with the Capitals in March. The duo combined to earn the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for allowing the fewest goals in the regular season.
Fucale led the AHL with a 1.80 Goals-Against Average and also finished second in the league with a Save Percentage of .932. After a slow start, Copley rebounded to win eight of his last 10 starts, including two shutouts. The pair give Hershey a strong one-two punch in net.
With the Seattle expansion draft looming this July, the possibility exists that the Capitals could lose goalie Vitek Vanecek to the Seattle Kraken in the draft. That would leave a hole in Washington. Copley or Fucale could be thrust into the backup role if that happens or the Capitals could choose to sign a backup with a little more NHL experience. If it is the former, another goalie will need to be added to the organization.
After Copley and Fucale, the depth is thin. Hunter Shepard looked strong during his brief stint with the Bears. He went 3-0 and stopped 93 of the 96 shots that he faced. Shepard then went back down to the ECHL and has helped lead the South Carolina Stingrays to the Kelly Cup Finals. The Minnesota-Duluth product was on an AHL deal this season and will likely be seeking an NHL contract now. His play may have enticed Washington to offer him a two-way deal, but Shepard could also look to join an organization that is not as deep at goalie. It is all about opportunity.
If the Capitals lock up Shepard, the depth issue is solved. If not, another goalie will need to be signed in free agency.
Center is a position that has several players already under contract, but is also a spot that probably could use another addition due to the potential of players making the Washington roster and the departure of Philippe Maillet to the KHL.
Rookie sensation Connor McMichael could return to the Bears for the start of the season, but could also be in Washington. He led the AHL in game-winning goals with eight and led Hershey in scoring with 27 points. The 2019 first-round pick also topped the team’s goal scoring list with 14. McMichael played a solid all-around game and seems poised to make the jump to the NHL.
The problem is that the Capitals do not currently have a spot for him. That could change if Washington trades Evgeny Kuznetsov, but the Capitals could receive a center as part of a potential return package for Kuznetsov, complicating McMichael’s place on the roster. Washington could also sign a center via free agency. Another possibility to open a spot for McMichael is Lars Eller being left unprotected in the expansion draft and Seattle picking Eller as their selection from the Capitals.
Washington recently re-signed Mike Sgarbossa to a two-year contract. The signing is an important one with Maillet signing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL. The veteran pivot compiled 10 points in 14 games last season, but was highly productive for the Bears in his previous two seasons with the club. Sgarbossa topped Hershey’s scoring list during the 2018-19 season, in which he posted 30 goals and 35 assists. During the 2019-20 season, he posted 40 points in 39 games before an injury ended his season. Sgarbossa provides the Bears with a top-line center and veteran leadership.
Brian Pinho and Garrett Pilon are both signed for next season. Both players should be in the mix for a roster spot with the Capitals, as both players can also play on the wing. Pinho is in the final year of the two-year deal he signed prior to last season. Pilon was recently re-signed to his own two-year contract.
Pinho amassed 12 points in 10 games this past season before an injury brought his season to an early end. He plays on both ends of the ice and has proven to be a good penalty killer; he holds the skill set to succeed as a bottom six forward in the NHL. Pilon broke out at the start of the season, recording a point in 11 of the 14 games he played; additionally, he totaled 16 points in those 14 games and was then recalled to the Washington taxi squad. He made his NHL debut late in the season for the Capitals.
Also under contract for next season is Riley Sutter. It will be Sutter’s third professional season. He went without a goal this season, but contributed nine assists. The son of former NHL center Ron Sutter has not shown much offensively thus far in his career, but his defensive game improved as the season went along and he saw time on the penalty kill.
Finally, Aliaksei Protas will return for his first full season in the AHL. The native of Vitebsk, Belarus played in 16 games for Hershey this season, netting a pair of goals and dished out five assists. Protas showed flashes of his potential, but went through an adjustment period, however, he should be more comfortable next season and will have a better understanding of the system after participating in training camp. Protas’ continued development could be a key for the Bears if players like McMichael, Pilon, and Pinho see time in the NHL.
Even with all these options down the middle, a free agent addition at center makes sense. Maillet was an offensive force for Hershey the past two seasons and that offense needs to be replaced, especially if McMichael is in the NHL. Bringing a veteran pivot in would strengthen the Bears’ offensive depth. Pilon and/or Pinho can play on the wing if needed if they are sent back to Hershey.
Currently, there are six wingers under contract for next season. The top scorer in that group is Brett Leason. After struggling as a rookie, Leason took a big step forward in his sophomore campaign. In 17 fewer games, the Calgary, Alberta native tallied six more goals than he did in 50 games as a rookie. His nine goals were the fourth-most on the team. He played in all 33 games and earned the trust of the coaching staff, defensively. Leason was a key member of the penalty kill, a role that he would not have been considered for as a rookie. He will look to continue his progression next season.
Speedy winger Axel Jonsson-Fjallby recently inked a new two-year contract. The Swede is a dangerous penalty killer and is a threat to score shorthanded every time he is on the ice on the penalty kill. Jonsson-Fjallby finished third on the Bears with 10 goals and added five assists. The native of Stockholm, Sweden’s game is perfectly suited to a bottom six role in the NHL. He could compete for that role as early as this coming season.
Kody Clark will return for his third season, having made strides in his sophomore season. Clark equaled his point total of nine points in 12 less games and tallied nine goals, six more than he netted as a rookie. Clark was on pace for a double-digit goal season when he suffered an injury on April 3 and missed the rest of the season.
Recently re-signed winger Shane Gersich is slated for another season in Chocolate Town. Gersich skated in all 33 games for the Bears this past season and had a bit of an up and down campaign offensively. He netted six goals on the season, but five of them came in a nine-game stretch. The North Dakota product also dished out nine helpers. His speed allows Gersich to create offensive chances, but his shot remains a work in progress. Gersich has developed into a strong penalty killer and sees a lot of time on that unit.
Also recently re-signed is Joe Snively. The Herndon, Virginia native was a consistent offensive presence for the first two months of the season, posting 12 points. He was slowed after being injured in practice in April. The injury caused him to miss three games and he was not the same player down the stretch. Snively ended the season with six goals and 11 assists and tied for second on the team with three game-winning goals. Snively gives Hershey a top-six winger and he could see a call-up to the NHL next season if he continues to improve.
The final winger currently under contract for next season is Damien Riat. The Geneva, Switzerland native struggled to find consistency offensively during his first go-round in North America, scoring three goals and six assists in 33 games for the Bears. Riat has potential, offensively, but needs to adapt his skill set to the North American game. He will benefit from taking part in a training camp and should improve going forward.
Six wingers are not enough for an AHL roster. The organization will need to add to its wing depth. One option is Beck Malenstyn, who missed all of the 2021 season with an Achilles injury, but will be back for next season. Malenstyn is a restricted free agent and in need a new contract. Being that he was in line to compete for an NHL roster spot prior to his injury, Malenstyn is likely to get re-signed by the Capitals and could again compete for a roster spot in Washington during training camp. However, it is also a possibility that Malenstyn needs time to find his game and could begin the year in Hershey.
Another option is to bring back captain Matt Moulson on a second AHL contract. Moulson has served as a quality mentor to young players like Connor McMichael and is still a very productive player. He was second on the team’s scoring list with 24 points and also had the second-most goals on the team with 12. Mouslon will be 38 in November, but has talked about wanting to win a championship. He has been deprived of that opportunity the last two season with the cancellation of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Moulson could want one more shot at that elusive title.
Other additions will likely be made to the winger position, even if Malenstyn and Moulson both return to the Bears. These can come through signings by the Capitals and by bringing players in on AHL-only deals.
The position that Hershey is currently the thinnest at is on defense. Only four defenseman are signed for next season and one of them could possibly be in line for a role in Washington. Nine defensemen who played for the Bears last season are unrestricted free agents and another is a restricted free agent.
Slovak defender Martin Fehervary headlines the blueliners under contract for next season. Fehervary had another solid year during his sophomore campaign, netting three goals and adding 14 assists in 33 games played. His 17 points were the second-most among Hershey defensemen. Fehervary plays in all situations and is good defensively and kills penalties, as well as seeing time on the power play. Fehervary thought he had a chance to be with the Capitals last season, but the signings of Zdeno Chara, Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Justin Schultz prevented him from having a big role in the NHL. Next season, Fehervary may be given the chance to prove himself at the next level, with Chara as a free agent at 44-years old. Washington could lose a defender like Brenden Dillon in the expansion draft or the organization could choose to trade a defenseman to create cap space to improve in other areas. The Capitals’ offseason moves will determine where Fehervary begins next season.
The only other defenseman who saw action in Hershey last season that is signed is Alex Alexeyev. After starting the season with Salavat Yuleav Ufa, Alexeyev returned to the Bears and played in 12 games. He made an immediate impact by recording a point in five of the first six games he played. In total, Alexeyev compiled nine points in his 12 games. He returned from the KHL as a mature player and exhibited a greater confidence. Alexeyev will be asked to play a bigger role next season and if he continues to grow, next season could be a very productive one.
Washington recently signed Bobby Nardella to a two-year contract extension. The Notre Dame product spent last season playing on loan for Djugardens IF in Sweden. The Rosement, Illinois native enjoyed a productive season, leading his team in scoring with 33 points. Nardella also led Djugardens in assists with 26. During the 2019-20 AHL season, he grew into a strong offensive defenseman as the season went along. Nardella tied for the team lead in assists with 27 and finished the season with 31 points. Next season, he likely will be relied upon to once again quarterback the power play.
The last defenseman signed for next season is Tobias Geisser. It has been awhile since the Swiss-born blueliner has skated in a game for the Chocolate and White. He was loaned to EV Zug in Switzerland on December 5, 2019 after playing seven games with the Bears in the 2019-20 season. Initially, the return home did not go well for Geisser. He posted two assists in 25 games and was a minus-6. However, his game saw marked improvement during the 2020-21 season with EV Zug. Geisser netted five goals and dished out 17 assists. He saw time on the top defense pairing and played in pressure defensive situations. EV Zug would go on to win the Swiss Championship.
After the above four defensemen, there is literally nothing on the depth chart. Lucas Johansen is a restricted free agent, but could be non-tendered by Washington. The Capitals could help out the Bears by re-signing Cameron Schilling or Paul LaDue. If not, another veteran defenseman or two will need to be signed on the free agent market. Hershey could bring back Reece Willcox, Rob O’Gara, Will Graber, Macoy Erkamps or Tyler Nanne on AHL deals. The Bears could also explore other options on AHL contracts. Any way one looks at it, the defense needs to be strengthened.
As of now, there are areas that the Hershey Bears need to add to prior to next season. The good news is that it is still early and free agency is still a month away. There is plenty of time for the team to be strengthened before the curtain drops on the 2021-22 AHL season in October.
By Eric Lord