With September fast approaching, the potential offensive lineup for the Hershey Bears is starting to take shape. A number of players are likely available to play center and on the right wing, but there remains questions concerning the left wing.
New head coach Todd Nelson and his staff will have a few decisions to make and will need to get the best out of veterans and rookies alike in order to turn around a Hershey offense that struggled in the second half last season.
Leading the way on the top line is veteran center Mike Sgarbossa. The Campbellville, Ontario native struggled through an injury-plagued campaign, playing just 30 games for the chocolate and white last season. He totaled 21 points in those 30 games. Sgarbossa is a proven contributor at the American Hockey League (AHL) level and should bounce back.
Lining up on Sgarbossa’s right wing will most likely be Garrett Pilon. The former Kamloops Blazer dealt with injuries last season, but still managed to finish second on the team scoring list with 42 points.
The left wing spot on the first line is more of a question mark. The team really does not have any proven top six options on the left side at this point. Rookie Hendrix Lapierre, originally drafted as a center, has played left wing the past few seasons in juniors and is the most likely candidate to skate on the top line and has more offensive upside than the other left wings on the roster. Playing with a center of Sgarbossa’s experience would be beneficial to Lapierre’s growth as well. Sgarbossa will be able to guide the rookie through the ups and downs of his first professional season.
The Bears have two centers who are capable second line pivots in Mike Vecchione and Aliaksei Protas. Vecchione led the chocolate and white in scoring last season with 44 points. The Union College product is a steady player and produces at a consistent level and split the season between Hershey and Washington. He posted 24 points in 42 games, but played his best hockey down the stretch, compiling 13 points in his last 18 games. Given his chemistry with Brett Leason and his position in the Washington Capitals organization, Protas is the more likely pivot to lead the second line.
Leason will line up next to Protas on the right wing. The duo has played together dating back to their time with the Prince Albert Raiders. Leason played more games in the National Hockey League (NHL) last season, 36, than he did with Hershey, 31. He recorded only three points in his first 14 games with the Bears and had six points heading into the season’s final month. Leason got hot in April with four goals and three assists.
The left wing on Protas’ line? That is where the biggest hole in the Hershey lineup currently resides. As of now, Mason Morelli slots into the spot. He was one of the few Bears to exceed expectations last season. The Minot, North Dakota native was a healthy scratch on opening night, but became one of the team’s most reliable players. Morelli ended up seventh on the team in scoring with a career high 33 points and finished as a plus eight, the second best rating among Hershey forwards. He is a bit of a Swiss Army knife and can play up-and-down the lineup at any forward position
The possibility remains that the organization can still add another left wing to the roster. Kyle Rau (53 points with Iowa) and Jayden Halbegwachs (41 points with San Jose) are still unsigned and could jump into the top six if signed.
Also, the Capitals could try to send Joe Snively down to the Bears. There is no guarantee that the Herndon, Virginia native would clear waivers. However, if Snively would clear, he immediately moves into a top six rotation.
Either of these moves would bump Morelli down the lineup, but as of today, he is in position to begin the season on the second line.
With Protas getting the nod on the second line, Vecchione provides the chocolate and white with a strong center on the third line. The native of Saugus, Massachusetts topped the Hershey scoring list with 44 points and also led the team with 28 assists last season. He also tied for second on the team in goals with 16.
Vecchione’s linemates can be a number of different players. On the right wing, there are three candidates, but one’s mindset is a fit with Vecchione’s style of play. Rookie Ethen Frank is a natural center, but is unlikely to play down the middle due to the Bears’ depth at the position. He played right wing when he joined the organization late last season and probably slots into that spot this coming season. Frank has a shoot-first mentality and that is something Hershey lacked last season. He netted 26 goals last season for Western Michigan and his shooting mentality could line up well with a pass first center like Vecchione.
As the roster is constructed as of this point, Beck Malenstyn slots in on the left wing of the third line. The Delta, British Columbia native is coming off of a disappointing 2021-22 season. He recorded 10 of his 16 points in February and March, but went scoreless in his last 10 games of the season and had just a single assist in his final 15 contests. Malenstyn’s always been known for his play in his own end and that also took a dip last season. He was a career-worse minus five. He is still a high-end penalty killer and brings a physical presence. Malenstyn will look to be more consistent this coming season and is a candidate for a bounce back season.
While the top three centers are locks, the fourth line pivot spot is up for grabs. Rookies Henry Rybinski and Bear Hughes will battle it out in training camp to see who captures the position. Rybinski tallied 21 goals and dished out 44 assists in 47 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL) last season. Hughes potted 24 goals and had 43 assists in 64 games with the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. The two could end up splitting time in the role.
Riley Sutter is another candidate for the fourth line center spot, but he has not progressed at all in his three seasons. He has been injury plagued and has not found a niche at all. Rybinski and Hughes offer more upside than Sutter.
Kody Clark will, if healthy, get the call on the right wing. The son of former NHL winger Wendell Clark has been unable to establish a consistent level of play in his three seasons with Hershey, primarily due to injuries. He shows signs of turning a corner, only to suffer another injury. It is a make-or-break season for Clark, who is in the final year of his entry level contract. If he struggles or gets injured again, rookie Julian Narpravnik is poised to jump into his spot and run with it.
Speaking of Napravnik, he is a left-handed shot who plays on his off wing on the right side. With the lack of depth on the left wing, could Napravnik move over to the left and fill that hole on the fourth line? It is not out of the question. The other option on the left wing is Kale Kessy. Known more for his toughness than his offense, Kessy had four goals and an assist last season. Napravnik would give head coach Todd Nelson more offensive upside.
A wild card candidate on the left wing is Alexander Suzdalev. The 18-year old has an AHL clause in his contract for this season and is not in camp with HV-71 in Sweden. He amassed 51 points playing for HV-71’s under-20 team last season. It is hard to judge how an 18-year old would do in the AHL. There is not a lot of precedence for it. If Suzdalev does join the Bears, he will need to be placed in a position to succeed and not be asked to do too much at the start.
These are potential line combinations for Hershey when the season opens. However, it is important to remember that there is more than two months until opening night. Circumstances can change the way the chocolate and white line up. Another signing can occur. A trade can happen. Injuries in Washington or Hershey can alter the available players.
By Eric Lord