The 2021-22 Hershey Bears struggled to score goals down the stretch, as the chocolate and white were shut out a whopping seven times after winger Joe Snively was recalled to the Washington Capitals on January 28. To improve in the 2022-23 American Hockey League (AHL) season, Hershey has to find more scoring.
The forward corps will likely feature five rookies, and could see a few players begin the season in the National Hockey League (NHL). Additionally, captain Matt Moulson is retiring and some players will move on to other organizations.
Scorers should be the target of the Bears (and their parent club Washington) when free agency commences on July 13. Adding players that are proven scorers will take pressure off of the rookie forwards and allow them to grow into the professional game. Who fits the bill on the free agent market to bolster the Hershey offense? Here’s a breakdown by position.
With 11 players who can play center, including Mike Sgarbossa, Mike Vecchione, Aliaksei Protas and Garrett Pilon, the chocolate and white would seem to be set down the middle. However, there are circumstances that may call for adding to the depth at center.
With Nicklas Backstrom out for the start of the season in Washington, there is an opportunity for someone like Protas to start in the NHL. Pilon is no longer waiver-exempt and the possibility exists that he could be claimed off waivers. If another pivot is signed, the centers are all versatile enough to play on the wing.
The cream of the free agent center crop is Andrew Poturalski. The Williamsville, New York native is a bona fide AHL star. He led the league in scoring this past season, posting 101 points, including 41 on the power play, with the Chicago Wolves. It was the second straight season where Poturalski topped the AHL scoring list.
The University of New Hampshire product finished second in the league with 73 assists and was named a First Team AHL All-Star. In the postseason, Poturalski captured his second Calder Cup championship, having previously won the cup with Charlotte in 2019.
Poturalski has recorded 43 or more points in every AHL season he has played with the exception of the 2019-20 season in which he was injured. He is a dynamic offensive player that would transform the offense. An opportunity to sign a player of Poturalski’s caliber has to be explored.
Another potent center that is available is Sam Anas. With the Springfield Thunderbirds last season, Anas netted 20 goals and dished out 44 assists. He added 15 points in the postseason as the Thunderbirds made it to the Calder Cup Finals.
The native of Potomac, Maryland compiled 70 points in the 2018-19 season with Iowa and also has a 61-point AHL season on his resume. Anas would provide an offensive boost to the Bears.
Utica’s Chase de Leo is another pivot option. The Californian potted 21 goals and had 35 assists this last campaign. The 55-point season marked the second time de Leo scored more than 56 points in a season.
Other centers on the free agent market include Glenn Gawdin (50 points with Stockton), Joel L’Esperance (49 points with Texas), Nicolas Petan (44 points with Abbottsford), Luke Philip (44 points with Stockton), Andrew Agozzino (43 points with Belleville) and Chambersburg , Pennsylvania native Steven Fogarty (42 points with Providence, can also play wing).
This is the thinnest forward position, depth wise, for Hershey. Beck Malenstyn and Mason Morelli are the only two natural left wings under contract. Morelli can play any of the three forward positions. After those two, Aliaksei Protas and Hendrix Lapierre can line up on the left side. Clearly, a need exists on the left wing.
One of the top left wings available is Dylan Sikura. The Northeastern University alum had a breakout campaign with the Colorado Eagles. He tied for fifth in the AHL in goals with 33 and tied for sixth in scoring with 73 points.
A versatile player, Sikura can play all three forward positions and is productive on the power play. Last season, he netted 11 power play goals and had 21 helpers with the man-advantage. The Bears power play struggled last season and Sikura would help improve the unit.
Another productive left winger on the market is Charles Hudon. The native of Alma, Quebec found the back of the net a career-high 30 times for the Syracuse Crunch last season and compiled 57 points. It marked the third time Hudon has posted a 50-plus point season in his AHL career.
He is a speedy winger who produces on the power play, having netted 23 goals on the man-advantage last season. Hudon also has 125 games of NHL experience and would serve as a viable callup option for the Capitals.
Free agent C.J. Smith matched a career high in points with 58 while winning a Calder Cup championship with the Chicago Wolves. The Iowan set a new career high with 34 assists. He also posted 26 points on the power play.
Former Binghamton Devil Brett Seney is coming off the best season of his professional career and is an option on the left wing. He amassed a career high 59 points for the Toronto Marlies. He topped the team’s scoring list and was second on the Marlies in assists with 42.
Additionally, there are two other free agent left wingers who recorded 50 or more points this past season. Kyle Rau netted 25 goals and assisted on 28 others to finish with 53 points for the Iowa Wild. The total equaled his career high and it was the University of Minnesota product’s third 50-point season in his AHL career. Utica’s AJ Greer set career highs in points (52), goals (22), and assists (30).
Also available as free agents are Justin Kirkland (48 points with Abbottsford), Cameron Hughes (45 points with Providence), Jayden Halbgewachs (41 points with San Jose) and Phil Di Giuseppe (36 points in 42 games with Abbottsford.
Unlike the left side, Hershey has plenty of options on the right wing. There are seven or eight players under contract who can play the right side. With an opening in Washington on the right wing due to Tom Wilson’s injury, there is a possibility a player like Brett Leason or Garrett Pilon begins the season in D.C.
The loss of Leason or Pilon to the Capitals would hurt the depth on the right side and would take a potential scorer away from the chocolate and white. None of the other options are goal scorers. Ethan Frank has the potential to be a solid goal scorer, but has yet to prove he can score at the professional level.
Even if Leason and Pilon are on the roster, the right wing free agent crop is so strong that adding one of the available options would be highly beneficial to the Bears’ offense. Four right wings who finished in the top eight in the AHL in scoring are all free agents. The Calder Cup playoff most valuable player is also available, as is a former Bear who had a strong season.
Leading the way among the free agent right wingers is Stefan Noesen. The Plano, Texas native tallied an AHL-best 48 goals last season with the Chicago Wolves. He also led the league with 13 game-winning goals. He finished third in the AHL in scoring with 85 points, 23 of which came on the power play.
Noesen was also second in the league with a plus-35 rating. In the postseason, the Texan posted 25 points and helped lead the Wolves to a Calder Cup championship. Noesen has played in 207 NHL games and would be a callup possibility for Washington.
Finishing two spots behind Noesen on the AHL scoring list was Kiefer Sherwood of the Colorado Eagles. The Miami University product compiled 75 points in 57 games. His 36 goals were the third most in the league. Sherwood produced 13 goals and 13 assists on the power play and totaled 10 points in eight playoff games. The Columbus, Ohio native saw action in 11 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche last season and has 87 career NHL games on his resume, making him a callup option in D.C.
Martin Frk was sixth in the league in scoring with 73 points in 58 games with the Ontario Reign. The Czech winger was second in the AHL in goals with 40, including seven game winners. Frk possesses a cannon of shot, once registering the hardest shot ever with a 109.2 mile per hour blast at the 2020 AHL All-Star game. He is another player with NHL experience, having netted 20 goals in 124 games in the show.
The final top 10 scorer that is on the free agent market is Sheldon Rempel. His 33 goals were tied with Sikura for the fifth most in the AHL and were a career high for the native of Calgary, Alberta. Rempel ended the campaign with a career high 69 points, good for eighth in the league in scoring. He also registered a career high in assists with 36.
Also available as a free agent is Josh Leivo. He earned the Jack A. Butterfield Award Trophy as the Most Valuable Player of the Calder Cup playoffs. The Innisfil, Ontario native scored a playoff best 15 goals for the Chicago Wolves. Leivo compiled a playoff best 29 points as the Wolves captured the Calder Cup. During the regular season, he had 22 goals and 24 assists in 54 games. Leivo has played in 214 NHL games and has seen action in the NHL in every season since 2013-14.
Finally, former Bear Riley Barber is a potential signing. He is coming off his best season since his rookie campaign in the 2015-16 season. He tallied 28 goals, the second most of his AHL career, and amassed 53 points. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native played 237 games in four seasons with the chocolate and white, netting 90 goals and adding 90 assists during that span.
Additional right wingers on the free agent market include Cooper Marody (55 points with Bakersfield) and Jesper Froden (34 points in 49 games with Providence).
Coming off a season of offensive struggles, there is ample opportunity for the Hershey Bears to improve their offense when free agency opens. With the amount of talent available, the chocolate and white should be able to land a few of the players above to bolster their roster.
By Eric Lord