The Hershey Bears will be defending a Calder Cup championship for the 12th time in franchise history. While there is not a lot of relative turnover from last year’s roster, one position will be up for grabs come training camp.
There is no question that Hunter Shepard is now the starter for the Bears. He was lights out in the postseason and a big reason why Chocolate Town won its 12th Calder Cup. But the big question is who is going to be behind him.
The early favorite right now is 24-year-old Clay Stevenson. Stevenson played three games for the chocolate and white last season and went 3-0-0 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. In 36 games with the South Carolina Stingrays, the Dartmouth product went 19-12-3 with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.
“I think my goal is just to continue to develop my game to get up to speed with the NHL level,” Stevenson said. “I hope to make strides in Hershey the same way I did in South Carolina and I think the staff here is giving me all the tools to do so.”
But first-year pro Mitchell Gibson and Garin Bjorklund are also gunning for the No. 2 role, so nothing is guaranteed for Stevenson.
Bjorklund only played one professional game last season with South Carolina. He underwent back surgery which held him out the entire year.
Gibson was with Hershey during its postseason run, after he finished up his career at Harvard, but did not play. But he enjoyed watching Shepard dominate and was able to pick his brain on his mindset on how to be a pro goalie.
However, even though each of trio are competing against each other for the same role, they also have a mutual respect for one another on and off the ice. Stevenson said that he, Gibson, Bjorklund and 2023 seventh-round pick Antoine Keller, went out to dinner together. Keller is the newest member to the Capitals goaltending carousel, so they wanted to make him more comfortable as he continues to develop.
“I’ve really been lucky. I’ve never had a sour relationship with any goalie partner I’ve had,” Stevenson said. “I’ve always had the mindset that if I’m in the net, I want that guy to cheer for me and bring me up and when I’m out of the net, I’m doing the same thing for that guy.”
“I love those guys, but at the same time, you’re also competing against him. So it’s a little bit of that friendly fire, but it’s awesome,” Bjorklund said. “They push me, I push them so I think we all want the same thing.”
All three netminders will be very important pieces for Washington’s future. One of the benefits of being in the Caps prospect pool is that they take their time with developing goaltenders.
“Obviously, they’re gonna be first year pros and we’re always very patient with those guys,” assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “Most of them end up starting in South Carolina. We’ve had a lot of our young goalies do that. So, we’ll see how things shake out.”
By Jacob Cheris