Training camp for the Hershey Bears kicked off Monday and with cuts from the parent club Washington Capitals already finding their way to Chocolate Town, Hershey’s 2021-22 roster is beginning to take shape. Of course, the roster is subject to change as seen when the Buffalo Sabres claimed Axel Jonsson-Fjallby off waivers.
The loss of Jonsson-Fjallby is a blow, especially to the penalty kill, but the Bears still have a potentially strong lineup. Here’s a breakdown of how the chocolate and white will likely line up to start the season.
With Connor McMichael likely to start the season with the Capitals due to Nicklas Backstrom’s hip injury, Mike Sgarbossa is in line to be the clear number one center. The Campbellville, Ontario native gives the Bears a veteran, proven scoring center.
Who skates with Sgarbossa on the top line? Captain Matt Moulson is the logical choice on the left wing. He was second on the team in scoring last season and is still a scoring threat at the age of 37.
The right winger on the first line is a little less clear. The most likely possibility is that either Garrett Pilon or Brian Pinho is moved from center to the right side of Sgarbossa. Pilon still needs to clear waivers, but if he does, one will likely shift over to wing. In this scenario, Pilon is the more plausible option. His game took-off last season when he made the switch to the right.
Playing Pilon on Sgarbossa’s right wing frees up Pinho to serve as the second line center. The Providence College product is responsible in his own end and his offensive game has improved each season.
On Pinho’s left side is Joe Snively. The Herndon, Virginia native saw action with Washington in the preseason and tallied a goal in a game against Boston. Snively posted seven points in March last season and was a reliable player.
The right winger on the second line will probably be Mike Vecchione. The former Lehigh Valley Phantom is a steady player who can be counted on to produce between 35-40 points.
The third line will be led by second-year center Aliaksei Protas. The Belarussian played 16 games for the Bears last season after completing his season with Dinamo Minsk in the KHL. Protas recorded nine points in his time in Hershey and should continue to grow in his first full season in the American Hockey League (AHL).
On Protas’ right wing will be a familiar face, Brett Leason. Protas and Leason played on a line together with the Prince Albert Raiders in the Western Hockey League (WHL). The two also played together in Hershey last season. Leason surpassed his rookie scoring total by six points last season in 17 fewer games.
The final spot on the third line, on the left wing, probably goes to Shane Gersich. The North Dakota product has developed into a responsible forward who does the little things well and will likely be part of the leadership corps. Another option on the left is Beck Malenstyn, if he is sent down. Malenstyn missed all of last season with an Achilles injury and the Capitals may want him to get game time. He would have to clear waivers to join the Bears.
Lastly, third-year pro Riley Sutter should slot into the fourth line center role. Sutter has yet to find his stride offensively, but did improve his defensive game last season and saw time on the penalty kill.
Fellow third line pro Kody Clark will line up next to Sutter on the right wing. Clark potted seven goals in 19 games last season, exceeding his rookie total by four goals.
The left wing spot on the fourth line is more up in the air. If Malenstyn is in Hershey, he could step in on the left. Gersich could end being the option in that scenario as well if Malenstyn is put on the third line. After those two, fan favorite Kale Kessy was re-signed in the offseason. After going scoreless in his first season with the Bears, Kessy tallied two goals and dished out four assists last season. He is a physical player who often finds himself in the penalty box.
Forwards Mason Morelli and Will Graber were both re-signed and could figure into roles if spots open due to injuries or waiver claims. Morelli posted five points last season, while Graber recorded four. Graber played mostly defense last season, but can also play up front. He is listed as a forward on the training camp roster. Yanick Turcotte and Ben Hawerchuk are both in camp and could earn spots if the impress. However, it more likely that they head to South Carolina in the ECHL.
Shifting over to the defense, the Bears are strong on the right side. The organization added three strong players with loads of experience on that side of the blue line in the offseason.
Cody Franson is a veteran of 550 NHL games. The native of Sicamous, British Columbia spent last season with the Chicago Wolves. He compiled 17 points and was a plus 12.
Joining Franson on the right side is Dylan McIlrath. With a nickname of “the Undertaker,” McIlraths’ style of play is fairly evident. McIlrath likes the physical aspect of the game and has played in 426 games in the AHL. He is not known for his offense, but is a solid, stay-at-home defenseman.
The third new addition on the right side is Jordan Subban. The brother of P.K. Subban gives the Bears a veteran presence on the third pair. He played in Austria last season and brings 232 games of AHL experience. Macoy Erkamps is the depth option on the right side. He failed to record a point in nine games with Hershey last season.
The left side of the defense does not carry the same level of experience as the right side does. Cameron Schilling was the Bears number one defenseman last season, but he remains unsigned. The current roster of left-handed defenders does not include a top pair option.
This problem can be solved if Matt Irwin is sent down by the Capitals (and clears waivers). Irwin would bring the experience and leadership Hershey needs on the left. Irwin has skated in 383 NHL games and would bring the same experience to the left side as Franson does the right side.
If Irwin is not in Hershey, it leaves a hole. Alex Alexeyev showed improvement last season after returning from the KHL. The strides he made were visible and he should continue to get better. However, it may be too much to expect him to turn into a player who can shut down the other team’s top players.
Bobby Nardella is still recovering from an injury and is an offensive-minded defenseman when healthy. He will help the power play when he is back, but is not a shut down defenseman.
Lucas Johansen has not proven that he can stay on the ice. He has played in just 14 games the past two seasons. It is hard to predict how Johansen will fair when he has not seen the ice much. He is not ready for a top pair role.
Eddie Wittchow has played well in his two seasons with the chocolate and white. He can play both sides and provides a solid depth option.
While the left side of the defense could be a question mark, the last line of defense may be the strongest position for the Bears. The team has three strong goaltenders.
Pheonix Copley returns for his sixth season in Chocolate Town. Copley has won 85 games in his Hershey career, including 10 this past season. The native of North Pole, Alaska is a reliable top end goalie for the Bears.
Joining Copley for the second straight season is Zach Fucale. Still in camp with Washington due to an injury to Ilya Samsonov, Fucale would have to first clear waivers to come back down to the AHL. The former Montreal prospect was a revelation for Hershey last season. After struggling to find his game for several seasons, Fucale led the AHL with a 1.80 goals-against average last season and teamed with Copley to win the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for the fewest goals given up per game in the league.
The tandem of Copley and Fucale was the best in the AHL last season and potentially could be the top pair again.
On top of Copley and Fucale, the Bears also have Hunter Shepard. The two-time national champion at Minnesota-Duluth shined in his brief stint with Hershey in the 2021 season. He won all three of the games he played, stopping 93 of the 96 shots sent his way. He also recorded a shutout. Shepard plays calm and does not get rattled.
Any team with quality goaltending has a good chance to be successful. The 2021-22 Hershey Bears will have that. Add in a potentially deep forward group and a strong right side of the defense, the Bears have an opportunity to be successful. If the left side of the defense comes together, Hershey could have the look of a championship team.
By Eric Lord