Hershey Bears Free Agent Focus: Part 1 – Defense

Since the Hershey Bears season concluded back in May, the team’s defensive depth has taken a few hits. Tobias Geisser elected to return home to Switzerland, signing a three-year deal with EV Zug, rather than sign a new deal with the Washington Capitals organization.

In addition, Alex Alexeyev underwent shoulder surgery and is out four to five months. That means he will not be ready at the start of the season. There is also a decent chance that Lucas Johansen could get a depth roster spot with the Capitals to begin the season.

The Bears will have rookies Benton Maass and Vincent Iorio likely entering the fold this coming September (and possibly Martin Hugo Has), but the defensemen lack experience and will likely not be lineup regulars to begin the season.

The losses of Geisser and Alexeyev and potential loss of Lucas Johansen leave Hershey with a lack of experience and depth on the blue line. The Bears, with the help of the Washington Capitals, will need to strengthen their defense when free agency opens on July 13.

With holes on both the right and left sides, Hershey likely needs a minimum of three signings to bolster the back end. Fortunately for the chocolate and white, there are players available on the free agent market that can fill those holes.

Right Side

On the right side of the defense, Dylan McIlrath is the lone blue liner with American Hockey League (AHL) experience who is under contract. He is joined by rookies Benton Maass and Vincent Iorio (and potentially Martin Hugo Has). Adding another experienced, right-handed defenseman would be very beneficial to the Bears.

The prize of the free agent defenseman market happens to be right-handed. Jordan Gross was simply the best blue liner in the AHL last season with the Colorado Eagles. He led the league in defenseman scoring with 65 points. His 55 assists were the most among AHL defensemen and the third most overall in the league. Gross earned the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s Top Defenseman. The Maple Grove, Minnesota native would also bring life to the team’s scuffling power play. Gross had 26 power play assists and 29 power play points last season. He also had the second best plus/minus among Colorado defenseman with a plus 20.

Ethan Prow is also a proven righthanded defenseman that is available. Last season, Prow amassed 49 points while playing for the Rochester Americans. That total was the third most by a defenseman in the league. The St. Cloud State product is a proven offensive defenseman in the AHL, recording a 50-point season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the 2018-19 season and scored 32 points in 42 games with Springfield in the 2019-20 campaign.

Another righthanded option played right down the road in Lehigh Valley last season. Adam Clendening posted 42 points and finished seventh in defenseman scoring despite playing on a struggling Phantoms team. He has increased his point total in each of his last four full seasons and has four 30-plus point seasons in the AHL. Clendening also brings 90 games of National Hockey League (NHL) experience.

Also available as a free agent is Robbie Russo. The native of Westmont, Illinois tallied 35 points last season with the Utica Comets. It was the fifth time in eight AHL seasons where Russo has totaled 30 or more points in a season.

A defenseman who likely would not provide the high-end offensive production like the above players, but is defensively very strong, is Roland McKeown. A Calder Cup champion with the Charlotte Checkers in 2019, McKeown is a proven strong defender. He would help the penalty kill and would be a reliable option to shut down the other team’s top players. While he is not on the level of a Gross or Prow, offensively, McKeown does contribute on that end of the ice. He had 20 points with the Colorado Eagles last season and has contributed 20 or more points in four of his five full AHL seasons.

A reunion with Cody Franson is also possible. He recorded 35 points last season and was good in the locker room. However, he was a liability, defensively, and the Bears might be better served to replace him with a better defender.

Other righthanded options include Chase Priskie (31 points with Charlotte), Louie Belpedio (11 goals and 30 points with Laval), Darren Raddysh (25 points with Syracuse), Nick DeSimone (25 points with Stockton), Bryan Rafferty (24 points with San Diego), Steven Santini (18 points with Springfield and a veteran of 119 NHL games), Andy Welinski (19 points with Stockton and has 46 career NHL games) and Grant Hutton (20 points with Bridgeport).

Left Side

Moving over to the left side of the blue line, Hershey has two players under contract for next season: the offensive-minded Bobby Nardella and Jake Massie, who is more of an extra defenseman than everyday player. With Geisser gone, Alexeyev hurt and Lucas Johansen possibly in Washington, the chocolate and white lack a top pair defenseman on the left side and have to add at least two left-side blue liners to fortify their roster.

Leading the crop of free agent left defensemen is Xavier Ouellet. First off, Ouellet is a leader and has been captain of the Laval Rocket for the past four seasons. Adding that level of leadership to the defense and to the team overall is a win. Second, the Frenchman is productive. He compiled 41 points for the Rocket last season and finished ninth in the AHL in defenseman scoring. Ouellet also brings 178 career NHL games.

Trevor Carrick is another veteran option to strengthen the left side. The Stouffville, Ontario native has scored 40 or more points three times in his AHL career, including a career high 47 during the 2018-19 season in which he captured a Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers. Last season, he netted 10 goals and dished out 20 assists for San Diego.

Another blue liner from the Colorado Eagles could fill a hole on the left side of the defense. Jacob MaCdonald potted 10 goals and added 15 assists in 33 games last season. He also played eight games for the Colorado Avalanche after seeing action in 33 games (tallying nine points) for the Avalanche the previous season. In his previous three AHL seasons, the Cornell University product recorded 55, 43 and 42-point seasons. He would not only strengthen Hershey’s defense, but would also give Washington a solid callup option.

Former Nashville Predator Jeremy Davies would also provide Washington with a good callup option, while at the same time helping the chocolate and white. Davies compiled six goals and 25 assists with the Milwaukee Admirals this past season. The Northeastern University product has played 22 games in Nashville the last two seasons.

Aaron Ness spent four seasons in Hershey and was a stalwart for the chocolate and white. His offensive numbers were down last season with Providence, but he is not that far removed from a 55-point season and is still a very good passer. The University of Minnesota product suited up for the United States in the Olympics, dishing out an assist while playing on the team’s top defensive pairing. Ness also served as an alternate captain for the USA. Along with his ability to step into a top pair role, the Roseau, Minnesota native would bring leadership to the Bears locker room and would be a good mentor to the team’s young defensemen.

Similarly, former Bear Cameron Schilling could step into the top pairing with the Bears. The Carmel, Indiana native was last seen in chocolate town during the Covid-shortened 2021 campaign. Schilling was Hershey’s best and most consistent defender that season. He helped the Bears to the AHL’s regular season championship and was named to the North Division All-Star team. The Miami University product split last season between Abbottsford in the AHL and Djugardens IF in Sweden. He produced a combined two goals and 20 assists on the season in his two stops. Bringing Schilling back for a third run would be a solid move for the defense.

The lefthanded defenseman free agent market also includes Fredrik Claesson (veteran of 170 NHL games, 14 points and +19 with Syracuse), Zac Leslie (27 points with Belleville), Dennis Gilbert (23 with the Colorado Eagles), Mitchell Vande Sompel (18 points with Bridgeport), Paul Ladue (12 points with Bridgeport) and Dillon Heatherington (13 points with Belleville).

Keep an eye on the above names when free agency opens next week. With a lack of depth and experience on the blue line, the Hershey Bears will undoubtably dip into the free agent defensive market and some of the above mentioned players could be lining up for the chocolate and white when they take to the ice in October.

By Eric Lord

About Eric Lord

Eric has been a Hershey Bears fan since attending his 1st game at age 8. He has been a season-ticket holder since the 2009-10 season and has been writing about Hershey Bears hockey since 2012. His favorite Bears memory is the team's 1996-97 run to the Calder Cup Championship where Hershey was 5-0 when facing elimination. Eric graduated from Fordham University in 2000 with a bachelors in communication and from Iona College in 2005 with a Masters in Journalism. He is also a photographer and serves as an assistant soccer coach for the Pottsville Area High School girls soccer team.
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12 Responses to Hershey Bears Free Agent Focus: Part 1 – Defense

  1. novafyre says:

    Which players would be Caps contracts and which would be Bears? If potential callups, they would have to be under Caps contract, yes?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bring back Ness!

  3. Brianna says:

    I hope Hugo signs with the Caps

  4. steven says:

    Either Ness or Schilling would be a great addition as both obviously know the system and could be god mentors. Really hope the Caps get Hugo signed as the need is great at both levels. Davis would be interesting as he is younger than most on the list and could be a cheap sign with high rewards.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Geisser leaving was a blow I thought he had a good shot at the NHL
    Isn’t Chase Priskie the guy who didn’t sign with the Caps?

    • steven says:

      He wsa drafted in the 6th round in 2016 and didnt sign. Currently in the Panthers system and gotcalled up for 4 games this past season witn no stats other than 2 PMs.

    • DWGie26 says:

      yeah… F Priskie. He had a better path here but Apparently was very arrogant in the reports I read. So he can stay away!

  6. DWGie26 says:

    My AHL knowledge is sub-par outside of Hershey but sounds like some fine options out there. Can’t believe our pond leaked so much, but hopefully Alexyev can come back and compete in 2H of season with LuJo.

    On Caps, I have been more in favor of signing a RD and allowing LuJo (and Alexyev) to compete for 3LD spot and if they falter, then slide TVR back over. Coming around to signing a LD now for Caps. I’d just like to see us play those who grew up in the organization.

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