The latest in our series scouting the Phantoms’ rivals in the AHL Atlantic Division, der Eishockeyzuschauer strikes again. This time he takes a look at the perennial AHL powerhouse, the Hershey Bears.
The Hershey Bears almost never fail to ice a playoff-caliber AHL team but this year’s crew almost certainly will not be as strong as last year’s team and could very well find themselves radically affected by developments with respect to the parent Washington Capitals..The big question heading into training camp revolves around just who can be expected to be assuming the role of No. 1 goaltender for the Hershey Bears this season. Philipp Grubauer, the 23-year-old German national team netminder who confirmed his status as one of the AHL’s best with Hershey last season (49 ga, 2.30 avg, .921 svpct), has been rewarded by the Washington Capitals with a two-year, $ 1.5 million dollar contract that will pay the youngster the same amount whether he is in the NHL or not. Conventional wisdom in the Washington media seems to be that Grubauer, who already has 20 NHL games (2.44 avg, .924 svpct) under his belt in his career and will make $ 650,000 in the first year of his new contract, is the one who will be chosen to back up Washington’s six million dollar workhorse, Braden Holtby..That would mean that Justin Peters, the 28-year-old who had a disappointing season (12 ga, 3.25 avg, .881 svpct) for the Capitals from the Carolina Hurricanes last summer, would be shipped to Hershey (assuming he clears waivers). Of course, such a move would make Peters, who has appeared in 80 NHL games (3.08 avg, .901 svpct) in his career and comes with a contract which guarantees him $ 950,000 next season, one of if not the most well paid puck stopper in the entire AHL. Peters has already appeared in 221 AHL games (2.71 avg, .910 svpct) in his career and did play two games (1.51 avg, .948 svpct) for the Hershey Bears last season..Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals also inked highly experienced veteran Dan Ellis to a one-year, two-way deal. The 35-year-old former University of Nebraska – Omaha netminder spent most of last season in the AHL with San Antonio Rampage (37 ga, 2.71 avg, .904 svpct) but also had very respectable numbers in eight NHL games (2.35 avg, .914 svpct) with the Florida Panthers. Surely, Ellis, who has appeared in 212 NHL games (2.79 avg, 15 shutouts) in his career, would like to be first string in central Pennsylvania this winter — if he doesn’t outshine everyone else in training camp and win an NHL job, that is..Waiting in the wings is Vitek Vanecek, the 19-year-old who was the 2nd round pick (# 39 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2014 NHL Draft. Vanecek turned out for HC Benatky nad Jizerou (20 ga, 2.24 avg, .925 svpct) of the Czech second division almost all of last season but did manage a pair of appearances in the elite league for HC Bili Tygri Liberec and was also the No. 1 netminder for the Czech Republic (3 ga, 4.31 avg, .829 svpct) at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championships last winter. The teenager is ticketed for the South Carolina Stingrays of the East Coast Hockey League but will be promoted to Hershey immediately should any one of the first four goaltenders on the depth chart of the Washington Capitals gets injured..At this moment, it appears that the Washington Capitals would keep the following seven defensemen — Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitri Orlov, Ryan Stanton and Nate Schmidt, the 24-year-old out of the University of Minnesota who skated in 19 AHL regular season games (3 go, 9 pts, -2 def rat) as well as all of the Hershey Bears’ playoff games (8 ga, 4 go, 5 as) last spring..The Hershey Bears defense figures to be anchored by a couple of reliable, stay-at-home type veterans. Mike Moore (41 ga, 3 go, 14 pts, + 12 def rat), the rugged 30-year-old out of Princeton University who missed nearly three months due to injury last season, will be a leader. New recruit Taylor Chorney, the 28-year-old signed from the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins (62 ga, 4 go, 19 pts, + 26 def rat) this summer, will also log a significant amount of minutes; the former 2nd round pick (# 36 overall) of the Edmonton Oilers at the 2005 NHL Draft played three seasons at the University of North Dakota under new Philadelphia Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol..Hershey should also have a pair of defensemen who, if perhaps a bit suspect in their own end, are rather good at moving the puck and creating offense. Connor Carrick (73 ga, 8 go, 42 pts, – 8 def rat), the 21-year-old who skated in 34 NHL games (1 go, 6 pts, – 9 def rat) for the Washington Capitals as a rookie professional two seasons ago, can be exciting. New recruit Aaron Ness, the former University of Minnesota blueliner who was the 2nd round pick (# 40 overall) of the New York Islanders at the 2008 NHL Draft, has always been able to produce points at the AHL level; the 25-year-old playmaker had 45 points (8 go, -10 def rat) in 75 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers last term..Also returning to the Bears is Erik Burgdoerfer (56 ga, 1 go, 7 pts, + 8 def rat), the 26-year-old undrafted free agent from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute who finally played a full season at the AHL level for the first time in his career after spending four years in the East Coast Hockey League with the Bakersfield Condors; the 210-pound Burgdoerfer could very well be the heaviest defenseman that Hershey’s opponents will have to contend with..The proverbial hot prospect is Madison Bowey (6’2″ 205 lbs), the 20-year-old rookie who was the 2nd round pick (# 53 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2013 NHL Draft and had a good showing for Canada (7 ga, 1 go, 4 pts, + 8 def rat) at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championships last winter. The Canadians, to review, won the gold medal at the annual WJC for the first time since 2009. Bowey was the captain of the powerful Kelowna Rockets side that only lost the coveted Memorial Cup (awarded to the winner of a playoff involving the champions of the three major junior leagues) in overtime..Another rookie to keep track of should be skinny defenseman Christian Djoos (6’0″ 161 lbs), the 7th round pick (# 195 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2012 NHL Draft, who skated in exactly one AHL regular season game for the Hershey Bears last spring after leaving Swedish club IF Brynas Gavle (50 ga, 5 go, 17 pts, – 10 def rat). The 20-year-old has good bloodlines — his father Par Djoos appeared in 82 NHL games (2 go, 33 pts, + 5 def rat) over parts of three seasons for the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers during the early 1990s. The youthful Djoos was teammates of Lehigh Valley Phantoms defenseman Robert Hagg at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships in both 2013 and 2014 (on both occasions, Sweden took the silver medal)..Also in the hunt for an AHL roster spot with the Hershey Bears is Tyler Lewington (6’1″ 195 lbs), 20-year-old rookie who was the 7th round pick (# 204 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2013 NHL Draft; Hockey Future wrote last spring, “The heart of (Lewington’s) game remains his punishing play. He likes to hit, drop the gloves and frustrate opponents … His physical game and defensive play offer a stark contrast to some of the puck-moving prospects in Washington’s pipeline and will dictate how far he gets in pro hockey.”.All things considered and assuming the rookie class makes a smooth transition to the professional game, the the Hershey Bears’ blueliners should be a formidable group … whether or not the defensive corps of the 11-time Calder Cup champion could survive injuries / recalls by the Washington Capitals is debatable..The Washington Capitals currently list 14 forwards on their NHL roster — Backstrom, Beagle, Burakovsky, Chimera, Galiev, Johansson, Kuznetsov, Laich, Latta, Oshie, Ovechkin, Sills, Williams, Wilson — but the health of star center Nicklas Backstrom is a major issue. The Swedish Olympic silver medalist had hip surgery in late May and is said to be “eying” a return just in time for the season opener. Whether or not that materializes remains to be seen..It is interesting to note that Stanislav Galiev, who tied for the Hershey team lead in goal-scoring last season (67 ga, 25 go, 45 pts, + 5 def rat), is on the Capitals roster at present. It was the 23-year-old Russian, of course, who netted such a spectacular goal at the expense of Lehigh Valley Phantoms rookie shot-stopper Anthony Stolarz in the very first AHL exhibition game ever contested at the brand new PPL Center in downtown Allentown. Galiev’s skillful (and successful) 360-spin move while playing the puck between his own legs certainly was something to remember..Aside from potentially going on without Galiev, the Bears will also definitely be without their four top point-scorers from last season now that Tim Kennedy (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk), Casey Wellman (Spartak Moscow), Chris Conner (Philadelphia Flyers) and Kris Newbury (Los Angeles Kings) all have signed with other organizations..Hershey have done well to bring back high-scoring veteran Chris Bourque, the dangerous left wing who had 66 points (29 goals) in 73 AHL games for the Hartford Wolf Pack last season after returning from Swiss club EHC Biel-Bienne. The 29-year-old son of the legendary Hall of Fame defenseman, who was the 2nd round pick (# 33 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2004 NHL Draft, will be on his third tour of duty with the organization and has already played parts or all of six AHL seasons (392 ga, 131 go, 393 pts) for the Hershey Bears. Altogether, the experienced but smallish Bourque (5’8″ 175 lbs) has totaled in 170 goals and 497 points in 504 career AHL games and should be a very productive player for the Bears once again this season..Another undersized veteran signed as a free agent this summer, Carter Camper (5’9″ 173 lbs), has designs on the first line center position in central Pennsylvania. The 27-year-old out of Miami University of Ohio, who skated in three NHL games (one goal) for the Boston Bruins during the 2011/12 campaign, has a decent track record of producing points at the AHL level (264 ga, 56 go, 200 pts, + 1 def rat). The non-physical Camper arrives after spending all of last season with the Binghamton Senators (75 ga, 15 go, 52 pts, 16 pen min, + 4 def rat)..Sean Collins (6’2″ 205 lbs), the 26-year-old from Cornell University who was the 7th round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2008 NHL Draft, is another free agent signing who is also a candidate at center; Collins, who skated in eight NHL games (two assists, + 2 def rat) for Columbus last season and is not particularly physical, either, was the third-leading scorer for the Springfield Falcons (64 ga, 17 go, 36 pts, 28 pen min, -8 def rat) in the AHL last term..Third line center looks to be a three-way battle between veteran Maxime Sauve, second-year pro Chandler Stephenson and rookie Travis Boyd. The 21-year-old Stephenson (5’11” 200 lbs), who was the 3rd round pick (# 77 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2012 NHL Draft, gained valuable experience with Hershey (54 ga, 7 go, 14 pts, 10 pen min, + 2 def rat) last season but probably should throw his weight around more often this time around. The 21-year-old Boyd (5’11” 184 lbs), who was the 6th round pick (# 177 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2011 NHL Draft, skated in two AHL regular season games (1 go, 1 as, -2 def rat) for the Bears last spring after completing his four-year career at the University of Minnesota but did not appear in the Calder Cup playoffs and could start this campaign in the ECHL..Sauve (6’1″ 190 lbs) was once a promising prospect having been the 2nd round pick (# 47 overall) of the Boston Bruins at the 2008 NHL Draft. The 25-year-old had respectable numbers in his first three pro seasons for the Providence Bruins (152 ga, 44 go, 89 pts, 0 def rat) but then had a sub par year with the Norfolk Admirals (47 ga, 6 go, 14 pts, – 1 def rat) before heading overseas in the summer of 2014. Sauve did not set the German hockey world on fire after being signed by Koelner Haie (Cologne Sharks) and appeared in barely more than half (27 ga, 3 go, 9 pts, 0 def rat) of his team’s games last season..Paul Carey (6’1″ 190 lbs), the speedy 26-year-old from Boston College who was the 5th round pick (# 135 overall) of the Colorado Avalanche at the 2008 NHL Draft, can play center but is, perhaps, more likely to be deployed at left wing. The incoming Carey skated in 10 NHL games (1 assist, + 2 def rat) for Colorado last season but was ultimately traded to the Boston Bruins organization last March. Altogether, Carey appeared in 60 AHL games (15 go, 34 pts, 26 pen min, -3 def rat) after dividing his time between the Lake Erie Monsters and the Providence Bruins, for whom he appeared in four playoff games (one goal)..Hershey’s brightest prospect at forward is left wing Jakub Vrana (5’11” 195 lbs), the 1st round pick (# 13 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2014 NHL Draft last summer. The promising 19-year-old has a solid showing as a teenager in the crack Swedish elite league with HC Linkoping (44 ga, 12 go, 24 pts, + 3 def rat) before joining the Bears late last season. Vrana, who appeared for the Czech Republic at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships in both 2014 and 2015, had five assists in three regular season AHL games before skating in all ten of Hershey’s Calder Cup playoff games (two goals, six points)..Liam O’Brien, the second-year professional who played in 13 NHL games (1 go, 2 pts, 23 pen min, + 4 def rat) for the Washington Capitals as an undrafted rookie last season, is a likely candidate for fourth line left winger; the 210-pounder skated in 45 AHL games (4 go, 8 pts, 121 pen min, -5 def rat) for the Bears last term and acquitted himself fairly well in the Calder Cup playoffs (10 ga, 3 go, 6 pts), as well..Also in the mix at left wing is Australia national team player Nathan Walker (5’8″ 186 lbs), the stocky 21-year-old who was the 3rd round pick (# 89 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2014 NHL Draft; after a decent rookie professional season two years ago, Walker only skated in 28 AHL games (1 go, 4 pts, 30 pen min, + 2 def rat) for Hershey and also spent time in the ECHL with South Carolina..If the Russian sniper Galiev sticks with the Washington Capitals, it should be interesting who grabs the right wing spot on the Hershey Bears’ first line. Chris Brown (6’2″ 210 lbs), the 24-year-old out of the University of Michigan who was the 2nd round pick (# 36 overall) of the then-Phoenix Coyotes at the 2009 NHL Draft, appears to have the inside track. Brown, who can win battles along the boards, appeared in five NHL games (one goal) for the Washington Capitals as well as in 64 AHL games (17 go, 28 pts, 70 pen min, + 3 def rat) for Hershey last season..Dustin Gazley (5’8″ 160 lbs), the undrafted 26-year-old out of Michigan State University who had a breakout year (72 ga, 18 go, 38 pts, 36 pen min, + 11 def rat) at the AHL level for Hershey last season, is the Bears’ returning leading scorer but will most likely skate on the second line. Riley Barber (6’0″ 198 lbs), the 21-year-old rookie out of Miami University of Ohio who was the 6th round pick (# 167 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2012 NHL Draft could very well win a third line job based on his strong offensive instincts and solid two-way game..Barber was teammates with Lehigh Valley Phantoms forward Cole Bardreau and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere on the United States squad which won the gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships; two seasons ago, Barber was the captain of the American side at the 2014 IIHF WJC..Garrett Mitchell (5’10” 195 lbs), the 24-year-old who was the 6th round pick (# 175 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2009 NHL Draft, did not have a great season, offensively speaking, for Hershey (64 ga, 4 go, 8 pts, 121 pen min, – 6 def rat) but was, nevertheless, given a new two-year contract by the Washington organization this summer. As the numbers over the past two seasons would suggest, Mitchell (81 ga, 4 go, 10 pts, 165 pen min, – 10 def rat) appears to be evolving into a true enforcer. Still, the belligerent right wing will reportedly earn $ 105,000 bashing skulls for the Bears at the AHL level … (in other words, ten times for than what the Phantoms’ legendary Super Fan allegedly gets paid per game)..One player who will be pushing hard to make the Hershey Bears roster is right wing / center Caleb Hebert, the 23-year-old from the University of Minnesota – Duluth who was the 5th round pick (# 142 overall) of the Washington Capitals at the 2010 NHL Draft; Hebert skated in just 12 AHL games (0 go, 2 pts, 4 pen min, + 3 def rat) for Hershey last season but had success with South Carolina in the ECHL, both in the regular season (42 ga, 19 go, 28 pts) and the playoffs (27 ga, 3 go, 14 pts)..Although the forwards, as a group, should still be pretty good, it is unclear if this year’s crop of free agent signings (Bourque, Camper, Carey, Collins) will be as potent, on the whole, as the four players (Kennedy, Wellman, Conner, Newbury) who led the Hershey Bears in scoring last season but have since departed — for one thing, the four departed players in question have skated in a combined total of 472 NHL games in their respective careers whereas the four new arrivals, in contrast, have only skated in a combined total of 95 NHL games with Bourque (51 games for Washington and Boston) accounting for more than half that total all by himself.