The Hershey Bears open their 2022-23 American Hockey League (AHL) campaign on Saturday night when they face the Utica Comets in front of the home crowd at the Giant Center. With the final roster cuts from the parent Washington Capitals out of the way, the Hershey opening night roster is starting to take shape. Here is a look at how the Bears could line up when the puck drops on the season on Saturday night.
The top line will likely be centered by veteran pivot Mike Sgarbossa. The Campbellville, Ontario native is entering his fourth season in Chocolate Town, and has been a solid scorer and a leader. The key for Sgarbossa is to stay healthy. He has been limited to 83 games in the past three seasons due to various ailments. The Bears are a better team with him in the lineup.
Lining up on Sgarbossa’s right wing will likely be Garrett Pilon. Coming off a strong training camp with the Capitals, Pilon brings a scoring touch to the lineup. Last season, the son of former NHL defenseman Rich Pilon, struggled with injuries, but he has been a reliable scorer when healthy. He has also had success playing with Sgarbossa in past seasons and chemistry is always important on lines.
The left wing on the first line is a little more up in the air, as Hershey does not have a proven top line left winger on their roster. The option with the most offensive upside is rookie Hendrix Lapierre. The 2020 first round pick had 51 points in juniors last season and would benefit from playing alongside a pair of seasoned players like Sgarbossa and Pilon.
The center spot on this line would likely have been Aliaksei Protas, but he had a stellar training camp and earned a roster spot in Washington. Fortunately for the Bears, they have a strong alternative for the second line center. Mike Vecchione led the chocolate and white in scoring last season with 44 points. The Union College product is strong on faceoffs and is a good all-around player.
Vecchione should have a proven AHL scorer on his right side. Sam Anas was the AHL’s top scorer in 2020-21 when he amassed 70 points for the Iowa Wild. The native of Potomac, Maryland led the Springfield Falcons in scoring last season with 64 points. He will also be a boost to the Hershey power play.
Shane Gersich is set to slot into the second line left wing spot. He is coming off a season where he set career highs in goals with 24 and points in 34. Gersich is a strong penalty kill and brings speed to the roster.
Leading this line is center Henrik Borgstrom. One of the final cuts from the Capitals, Borgstrom brings 110 games of NHL experience to the chocolate and white. He spent last season with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Helsinki, Finland native captured two national championships at the University Denver and was a top scorer for those teams. He has not yet replicated that production as a pro, but will be a solid pivot on third line.
The right wing spot here is more open with the loss of Brett Leason on waivers to the Anaheim Ducks and the long-term injury to Kody Clark. There are a few ways new head coach Todd Nelson can go. He has rookies Julian Napravnik and Ethen Frank that could take the spot. Or Nelson could opt to play Mason Morelli in this role. Coming off a season where he set career highs in goals, assists and points, Morelli can play anywhere throughout the lineup and this is one place he could fit in. Another option is Riley Sutter. This could be a place where multiple players rotate in and out of the lineup.
The third line left winger should be Beck Malenstyn. Coming off his worst season as a professional, Malenstyn looks to rebound with a stronger campaign. He brings physicality and penalty killing to every game.
The fourth line center is likely Henrik Rybinski. A rookie, Rybinski compiled 65 points for Seattle in the Western Hockey League. He has seen time on the penalty kill in the preseason and scored a shorthanded goal in Hershey’s final preseason game.
Who takes the spot on Rybinski’s right wing is dependent on who lines up on the third line. All of the candidates for the third line right wing are options on the fourth line. It could be Morelli, Frank, Naprnavik, Frank or Sutter. This is another lineup spot that could be a rotation.
Similarly, the fourth line left wing role could be filled by multiple players. Morelli can fill the spot, as he can play anywhere. Rugged Kale Kessy is another option. He doesn’t provide much offense, but brings a physical presence to the ice. Finally, former Lehigh Valley Phantom Matthew Strome is a natural left winger and had 16 points with the Phantoms last season.
Trying to figure out the defense pairings for the Bears is like throwing darts at a board. There are so many options. This is one of the deepest defensive corps that the chocolate and white have had in a long time. Currently, nine defensemen are on the roster, including four strong left-handed defensemen options.
Veteran Aaron Ness (left side) could pair with rookie Vincent Iorio (right side). Ness has seen it all in his professional career and is a steady presence in his own end. He would give the offensive-minded Iorio more freedom to join the rush. Iorio would learn a lot from being paired with a veteran like Ness. It would help his growth.
Dylan McIlrath figures to get the call on the right side in the second pairing. He has played for Nelson before and brings a physicality to the back end. “The Undertaker” is a stay-at-home defenseman and is a reliable presence. McIlrath’s partner could be any of three players. The most likely option is Lucas Johansen. The Vancouver, British Columbia native is coming off his best season as a pro and was one of the last cuts from Washington. Bobby Nardella is an offensive defenseman who would benefit from playing with a defensive minded partner like McIlrath. Gabriel Carlsson has played 75 games in the NHL and is more of defensive defensemen.
If Nelson and Wellar want to get all four of the left-handed defensemen into the lineup, Johansen could be switched over to the right side. He has played on that side in the past and could be asked to do so again. In that scenario, Nardella would probably play with McIlrath and Johansen with Carlsson. Other options on the right side are AHL veteran Logan Day, who is a solid defender, or rookie Martin Has.
Jake Massie is more of an extra defenseman and could find it difficult to get ice time. He could end up being sent to South Carolina of the ECHL.
With some many strong options, the coaching staff will have to find a way to keep everyone sharp.
This area is set. Hershey will run with Zach Fucale and Hunter Shepard. Fucale made a strong impression in the NHL last season, but struggled for the most part with the Bears. He posted three consecutive shutouts in early March, but then lost nine of his final 10 outings. With Pheonix Copley now with the Ontario Reign, Fucale is the veteran netminder and will need to get back to his form in the 2020 season.
Shepard has played 12 games for Hershey in the past two seasons. The two-time national champion at Minesota-Duluth has looked strong in limited time. Last season, he went 5-3 for the Bears with a save percentage of .922 and a 2.06 goals-against-average. He has a calm demeanor and exudes confidence, and could take over the number one role from Fucale.
The Hershey Bears currently have a 26-player roster for opening night. It is unlikely that they keep that number as the season gets rolling. Injuries and callups will also affect the roster as the season moves along. One thing is for certain, the Bears possess a talented and deep roster with the potential to make a deep run this campaign.
By Eric Lord
Solid roster, I could see this team make a run for division top seed
I agree, but I seem to say that every year for Bears. 🙄
Thanks Eric. A number of players with potential that just didn’t live up to it last year for one reason or another. A good mix of vets and rookies, in fact the kind of mix I’d like to see on the Caps.
With the threat of injuries and call-ups, I’d really try to mix it up in the early season trying to get as many players game time as possible, especially the defense. Mix the lines, change partners, really try to provide as much flexibility for the disruptions that we know are going to come.
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I Love You Fucale😘❤