HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears were back on the ice in the abbreviated 2020-21 American Hockey League season, playing in a circuit of three opponents in a campaign lasting just 33 games. The Bears used a strong home record, including winning their final ten games, to fuel a late-season charge and finish first overall in the AHL. Hershey saw its first regular-season title since the 2009-10 season, which ultimately resulted in a Calder Cup Championship. Although, this year’s iteration of the team was not able to compete for the Calder Cup as the AHL did not have a league-wide postseason.
Regular Season Record
24-7-2-0, 50 points, 0.758 points percentage, first in the North Division and first in the AHL
The AHL debut for Connor McMichael proved to be the key difference-maker for the Bears. The 25th overall selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft was able to jump into the league a season sooner than expected, leading the Bears with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 33 games. Similarly, the debut later in the season for Aliaksei Protas was earlier than anticipated, with the forward registering two goals and five assists in 16 games played. This sets the stage for an intriguing first full professional season after a taste this past season. The impressive debuts for Zach Fucale and Hunter Shepard in goal alongside Pheonix Copley after the promotion of Vitek Vanecek secure the crease for many years to come in Hershey. Hershey’s record at Giant Center was especially impressive, going a league-best 14-1-2-0 in 17 games.
Injuries mounted for the Bears towards the end of the season, leading to some different combinations in the lineup that the team managed to overcome by testing the limits of their depth. However, without the late additions of Alexander Alexeyev and Protas, it might have been too much of a test.
Room for Improvement
Hershey’s power play was a sore spot for much of the season, concluding 23rd in the Eastern Conference and the bottom of the North Division at just 14% efficiency. The Bears have a lot of offensive weapons and did manage to get better towards the end of the season, but sorely missed quarterback defenseman Bobby Nardella during his assignment overseas that caused him to miss the entire season. Hershey’s penalty kill finished at 86.8%, good for second in the division, but missed forward Beck Malenstyn’s skill in that regard.
Revisiting “Hot or Not” Preseason Predictions
In my season preview article, I predicted: “It’ll be a different look across the board for the Bears, who lost several key players due to the NHL taxi squad rules and overseas assignments, but the Bears were able to retain their current core while adding to it. Some of the extra options the Capitals picked up during free agency, like Daniel Carr, seem destined to fill the taxi squad, and the abrupt shuffling of netminders that has seen Vanecek become a fixture in goal for the Washington Capitals. The Bears will rely on key performances from Copley and Fucale in goal to account for that loss.”
The Bears did come to rely on goaltenders Fucale and Copley in the absence of Vanecek, even going so far as to testing Shepard, who earned an NHL contract from the Washington Capitals on the first day of free agency. Washington did not shuffle taxi squad players too often, but Hershey did not benefit from the services of Carr, who stayed on the Capitals’ taxi squad and never played with the Bears.
The stellar performance of McMichael helped keep the offense afloat despite some losses, and the consistently great play of captain Matt Moulson, Brett Leason, and Cameron Schilling were key factors in the team’s success.
McMichael will take the next step and be among the AHL’s leading scorers in his first full campaign, and players around him will benefit from this. McMichael not only proved himself as a scorer but also showed that clutch factor where he seems to be in the right place at the right time. It’s going to be key as Hershey ultimately goes far in the playoffs, and the refined Bears team will be hard to play against this season.
2020-21 Hershey Bears Season in Review
The 2020-21 season might have seemed empty without a traditional playoff and a Calder Cup Championship, but the Hershey Bears used that time to develop into a team that’s going to be a force to be reckoned with this fall. The early success of some Capitals’ prospects who made their debut early will allow them to hit the ground running this fall, and it should not be a surprise to see the Bears flying high again next season. The team will look a bit different in 2021-22, but the 2020-21 season built a new foundation that the team will ride to great success.
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