As September nears, the comings and goings of the Hershey Bears are basically concluded. Here is an updated look at the departures and arrivals for the defending Calder Cup champions heading into the 2023-23 American Hockey League (AHL) season.
Mason Morelli – Morelli signed a well-earned two-year deal with the Vegas Golden Knights on July 1, the first day of free agency. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2024-25 season. It is the first NHL contract for the Minot, North Dakota native.
Garrett Pilon – The other sizable offensive loss, in addition to Morelli, was the loss of Garrett Pilon. He signed a one-year deal with the Ottawa Senators. You can’t blame Pilon for wanting to try other options in order to pursue his hockey dream. He will be missed on the ice in Chocolate town. He leaves the Capitals with a perfect shooting percentage in the NHL (one goal on one shot in three games played).
Henrik Borgstrom – Borgstrom left for HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League. The Capitals did extend a qualifying offer to him, leaving the door open for a return. In addition, according to an article in Expressen, Borgstrom’s contract with HV71 allows for his return to the Capitals next season should the Capitals request his return.
Shane Gersich – It was announced during the playoffs run that Gersich had signed with Allsvenskan Västerås in Sweden’s second-tier league for next season. With the influx of new forwards and playing time diminishing, Gersich too saw the writing on the wall mid-season.
Kody Clark – Clark once again dealt with significant injuries, and in the end, wasn’t extended a qualifying offer from the Capitals. He has yet to find a new team.
Sam Anas – The Potomac, Maryland native is headed to the KHL to play for Dinamo Minsk. Anas inked a one-year deal on July 10 to play for Belarussian side after helping the Bears to the Calder Cup with a strong playoff performance.
Bear Hughes – After failing to receive a single recall to Hershey despite a strong rookie season with South Carolina, Hughes signed with Henderson Silver Knights with the hope of a better opportunity.
Gabriel Carlsson – Carlsson was also not extended a qualifying offer by the Capitals. He was one of the best, if not the best, Bears defensemen last season, but with the arrival of Hardy Hamen Aktell, also a lefty, the Capitals may have figured on Aktell replacing Carlsson. As a result, Carlsson signed a long term deal with Vaxjo in the Swedish Hockey League.
Bobby Nardella – Nardella suffered through injuries during the 2022-23 season, and when he returned also found himself a victim of a numbers game. He was not extended an offer from the Capitals. He signed with HV71 in the Swedish League.
Zach Fucale – It was announced in late spring that Fucale was signing in the KHL for next season. The writing was on the wall as Hunter Shepard had locked down the number one spot for most of the season, and Clay Stevenson, who went a perfect 3-0-0 in three appearances for the Bears last season, is ready to move up from South Carolina to takeover the number two spot. Russian reports saying Fucale’s deal with Traktor in the KHL next season is for one year at 50 million rubles, or $581,666.
Re-signed/Signed by the Bears
Mike Vecchione – The game seven, overtime hero returns to the Bears. Vecchione was signed to a two-year, AHL contract in February. The Union College product played on the first line all season long for Hershey and could again line up next to Mike Sgarbossa and Ethen Frank on the top line.
Aaron Ness – Ness inked a two-year, AHL deal in May, keeping the veteran defenseman in Hershey through the 2024-25 season. He brings a steadying presence to the blue line and is part of the team’s leadership corps.
Michael Kim – Kim spent most of the season in the ECHL with South Carolina, but registered an assist in both of his games with Hershey. He was signed to an AHL contract. Kim is a depth option for the Bears and could end up splitting time between South Carolina and Hershey.
Julian Napravnik – Napravnik was a decent player for the Bears when he was on the ice. That was the problem, however, as he saw very little playing time. He is still a good depth addition for the Bears and has the ability to score goals.
Jake Massie – Massie elected to return to the Bears on a two-year AHL deal. The defenseman will slot into a similar role on the blue line that he did last season. He will not play every game, but gives head coach Todd Nelson a reliable fill-in option when injuries and recalls dictate a change in the lineup.
Matt Strome – Strome re-signed with Hershey on a one-year deal on July 14. He played in 34 games with the Bears last season. A penalty killing specialist, Strome is an option to help fill the holes created by free agency and potential call ups on the penalty kill.
Logan Day – The playoff hero inked a new one-year deal in July. Day only played 36 regular season games for the Bears last season, but was a fixture in the lineup during the run to the Calder Cup. He finished second on the team with 14 playoff points, two more than his regular season total.
Jimmy Huntington – Hershey signed Huntington to a one year, AHL contract on July 18. The center posted 28 points in 51 games for Milwaukee last season. The Bears are deep at center with their four centers pretty much set and where Huntington fits in is unclear. The pivot could start the campaign in South Carolina.
Garrett Roe – The veteran forward has spent the last decade playing in Europe. Hershey signed him to a one-year deal in July. He will not be expected to provide a lot of offense, but brings a physical presence to the roster.
Benton Maass – The defenseman saw action in two games for the Bears, recording one assist, in his rookie campaign and spent the rest of the season playing for South Carolina. Maass signed a one-year contract with Hershey. He is unlikely to break camp with the Bears, but provides depth in the ECHL.
Nick Leivermann – The Minnesotan signed his first professional contract, a one-year deal, with Hershey after completing his collegiate career at Notre Dame. With the organization’s depth on defense, Leivermann will probably head to South Carolina to start his pro career.
Tyson Empey – A forward who can play both center and left wing, Empey signed a one-year deal with the Bears. He split last season between the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL and the Atlanta Gladiators of the ECHL. Empey likely begins the season in South Carolina.
Kevin O’Neil – The Latham, New York native inked a 0ne-year, AHL contract with Hershey. O’Neil played in two games with the Bears last season, scoring a goal. The winger posted 50 points for South Carolina and tied for the team lead with 24 goals. He will likely return to South Carolina and serve as a recall option for the chocolate and white.
Colin Swoyer – The Michigan Tech product played 36 games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last season. Swoyer signed a one-year deal with the Bears on August 2. The Hinsdale, Illinois native will have a hard time cracking the Hershey roster on opening night and may well begin the season in South Carolina.
Re-signed/Signed by the Capitals
Hunter Shepard – The regular season and playoff MVP for Hershey was rewarded with a new two-year deal by Washington on July 1. Shepard was the backbone of the team’s success. He finished second in the AHL in goals-against-average in the regular season and then recorded three shutouts in the postseason en route to earning the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the Calder Cup playoffs. Shepard gives the Bears a bona fide number one goalie and provides the Capitals with a solid number three option.
Dylan McIlrath – The Hershey captain will continue his stay in the Washington organization after the Capitals re-signed the defenseman on a two-year, two-way deal. The rugged blue liner does not bring much offense to the table, but he is a strong defensive player and provides a physical presence.
Mike Sgarbossa – Hershey’s leading scorer in the regular season was given a two-year extension by Washington on May 8. Sgarbossa is a proven scorer at the AHL level, centering the top line for the Bears. He missed the last three Calder Cup playoff series with an injury.
Riley Sutter – The 2022-23 season was Sutter’s best as a professional. He stayed relatively healthy, but more importantly, settled into his role at center on the 4th line and did a very good job. The effort alone garnered a qualifying offer from the Capitals. Riley remains the Bears best at the dot, but it was his centering the fourth line that was most valuable to the Bears.
Pierrick Dube – Dube posted 32 points in 44 games with the Laval Rocket in his rookie campaign last season. Washington inked the right wing to an two-year entry level contract at the start of free agency. Dube likely will slot into a middle six role with the Bears this season.
Matthew Phillips – Phillips finished fifth in the AHL in scoring last season, posting 76 points for the Calgary Wranglers. The previous season, he posted 68 points. The Capitals brought him into the organization with a one-year, one-way contract. Phillips will compete for a roster spot in Washington and if he does not make the team out of camp, will give the Capitals a quality callup piece in Hershey.
Alex Limoges – The Capitals signed the former Manitoba Moose forward in early July.A Winchester, VA, native, Limoges played for the Washington Little Caps from 2010-2013. The 25-year-old then went on to play two seasons with the Tri City Storm of the USHL, and won a USHL Championship in 2016. He then spent one season with the Waterloo Blackhawks. He also played four season with Penn State.
Chase Priskie – A 2016 sixth round pick by Washington, Priskie elected not to sign with the organization after finishing his four years at Quinnipiac. Now, the defenseman joins the franchise that drafted him after singing a one-year, two-way contract with the Capitals. Priskie is coming off a 22-point campaign split between Rochester and San Diego.
Capitals Prospects Moving To Hershey
Ryan Hofer – Hofer, 21, is a 6’3″, 192-pound left-handed center from Headingley, Manitoba. Hofer is a physical, gritty type of forward who’s game was suited for net-front battles in the WHL. The Capitals selected him in the sixth round (#181 overall) of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and signed Hofer to a three-year entry level contract on March 1, 2023. Hofer’s contract will carry an average annual value of $851,666.67 (NHL) and $82,500 in the AHL. [2023 Annual Review and Forecast]
Hardy Hamen Aktell – Haman Aktell was the biggest free-agent name on the market during the season, according to Corey Pronman of the Athletic. Credit Danny Brooks for landing him. Haman Aktell, who turns 25 in July, took a step forward offensively, this past season. He also helped the club win another SHL Championship—his second in three seasons—by adding three goals and seven points in 18 playoff games. [More]
Ivan Miroshnichenko – The Capitals and Bears will need to proceed slowly with Miroshnichenko. Remember, he returned from cancer treatments just last December and played just a half season in the Russian junior leagues. He had a taste of the KHL at the top level but could not secure a full time role. He could start the season in South Carolina in order to get a lot of ice time to adapt to North America. However, it’s likely Miroshnichenko will be a force as soon as he gets comfortable with the North American game, and could be a huge asset next spring.
Possible – depends on camp
Alexander Suzdalev – rumors are flying all over the place regarding where the talented winger will play next season. The official word from the Capitals is that his status will be determined in training camp. It appears the Capitals are also waiting to see if Suzdalev can bulk up over the summer. He has been hitting the gym hard with a personal trainer since he left the Bears.
Bogdan Trineyev – Trineyev secured a full-time role in the KHL last season for Dyamo, and did well. However, he is a bit of a wild card, as there have been Russian reports that he will return to Dynamo next season while there have been other reports that say he will play in Hershey next season. Trineyev would be a great addition to the Bears, but it is not critical that he is on the Bears roster next season.
Ludwig Persson – Persson is a real long shot, as he struggled last season in Sweden’s second-tier league. However, because he is already inked to a deal with the Capitals, there is always an outside chance the team looks to move him to North America to get better instruction.
An assembly of the changes and the strengths and weaknesses of the current state of the Bears roster gives us our first look at the identify of the team. Goaltending should be as strong as last season, if not better, with the return of Hunter Shepard and the elevation of Clay Stevenson to the number two spot.
One could easily argue that the Bears offense could be even stronger than last season, with the return of key ingredients including Mike Sgarbossa and Mike Vecchione. Will the Bears be able to replace the scoring of Pilon and Morelli? That is the question, but the additions of Matthew Phillips, Alex Limoges and Pierrick Dube should make up for the offense lost.
On defense, the Bears have taken care of their need for defenseman depth that existed earlier in the offseason. The re-signings of Logan Day and Jake Massie give the chocolate and white eight solid defenseman. The organization also has added Colin Swoyer, Benton Maass and Nick Leivermann to the previously signed Michael Kim as further depth blue liners.
Potential Promotions and a plan to counter
The Bears will also need to contend with the potential promotions of Beck Malenstyn, Joe Snively, Connor McMichael, Ethen Frank and/or Aliaksei Protas. Not all will make the jump. In fact, because of the Capitals current state of the roster, it’s likely not many will elevate. There are simply very few openings, but that could change. Regardless, a plan needs to be in place for the departure of each one individually.
The tweaking of the Bears roster is pretty much done and the lineup looks extremely formidable. It won’t be long and those “Back 2 Back” chants will begin emanating from central Pennsylvaina.
By Eric Lord and Jon Sorensen