HERSHEY, Pa – The Hershey Bears return to action in the 2021-22 season after finishing in first place in the AHL just a few months ago. While the Bears have largely retained the core group that helped them finish in the top spot, there have been some changes, particularly on the back end.
The additions of Cody Franson, Matt Irwin, and Dylan McIlrath offset the departures of Cameron Schilling, Rob O’Gara, and Reece Willcox, while the promotion of head coach Spencer Carbery left a void that was eventually filled by assistant coach Scott Allen. The Bears head into the season with high hopes to repeat last season and compete for the first Calder Cup since 2019.
Last Season in Review
Record and Playoff Appearance: 24-7-2-0, first, North Division, did not compete in playoffs.
Season Summary: Key offseason acquisitions and the early AHL debut of Connor McMichael lifted the Bears to success in a shortened 33 game slate. Even though the Bears were without key players like Brian Pinho, Garrett Pilon, Mike Sgarbossa, and Phil Maillet for large portions of the season, key contributions from captain Matt Moulson, Brett Leason, and late-season addition Aliaksei Protas helped bring the team a division title.
Stats: The Bears were led in scoring by rookie center McMichael, who finished with 14 goals and 13 assists for 27 points. The team finished with 110 goals for, good for tenth in the league, and 77 goals against, third lowest in the league. In addition, Hershey finished with an 18.8% effective rate on the power play, ranked 12th in the American Hockey League, while their penalty kill finished at 83.3% at eighth-best in the league.
Key Acquisitions: The Capitals added forward Mike Vecchione at right wing as one of the few acquisitions up front, adding scoring on the right wing and a valuable option on the power play. Franson’s veteran presence and scoring potential on the back end will be beneficial for young players to learn from, in addition to the additions of McIlrath and Irwin.
Depth signings usually have to come up large in the hefty 76 game AHL slate, and the Bears had plenty of those. Among them, none are bigger than Jordan Subban, who jumps into Hershey’s group after playing in the 2017 AHL All-Star Game, and brings an offensive presence on the back end.
Key Losses: Among the players who left this past season, none are more pivotal than the loss of Schilling on defense. A North Division All-Star, Schilling brought a veteran presence and led Bears defenders in scoring with 19 points. The departures of O’Gara and Willcox, combined with the loss of Paul LaDue, leave some big skates for the incoming defensemen to fill, and the assignment of forward Damien Riat overseas takes away one more option on the wing.
The largest departure of all is Maillet at forward, who had tremendous scoring during his two seasons in Hershey and had a lot of chemistry with captain Moulson. The team is counting on young players to pick up the slack in his absence.
2021-22 Schedule Breakdown
Hershey’s schedule consists of 76 games this season and contains a number of familiar elements.
The Bears will still see the Lehigh Valley Phantoms 14 times this season, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 12 times, the Charlotte Checkers eight times, including the season opener, and the rest of the Atlantic Division six times each.
The Bears play a very heavy home schedule early in the first half of the season, while the Bears play just twice against the rest of the Eastern Conference. The second half schedule features a grueling series of road trips to face northeast teams and a Canadian trip, which will be worth keeping an eye on as the team pushes for a playoff spot.
Prior to this, the Bears will be skating a heavy home schedule in January, with nine of 12 games taking place at Giant Center and two four-game homestands. It will be important for the Bears to have as much success as possible in this span. Hershey had a lot of success at Giant Center last season, finishing 14-1-2-0 in 17 home games last season, while their away record was 10-6-0-0, still very good but at times a struggle. Finding ways to win on the road as well as at home will be important this season.
Top Storylines For 2021-22
The Bears found success with a breakout season for McMichael and a number of young skaters like Leason, Protas, Joe Snively, Shane Gersich, and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. With those young players having success, it will be important to watch their progress now that the AHL is back at full capacity.
The taxi squad rule is no more this season, and teams will have all players available to them. At the same time, Hershey will have players like Sgarbossa and Pilon in the lineup, and they’ll be the leaders and top scorers once more, which will be a big storyline to watch. It all adds up to the most depth the Bears have had in some time, with many young players looking to impress Washington’s brass for NHL time should injury plague their lineup at any point.
After missing all of last season, the return of forward Beck Malenstyn adds more intrigue as he has been a pivotal player in his short tenure in Hershey. In addition, the Bears will be looking to increase their power-play success, one of the few areas they struggled in last season.
Prediction Sure to Go Right
Hershey will make the playoffs this season and compete for a Calder Cup, playing as one of the Atlantic Division’s top teams. This will be thanks in part to the tandem of Pheonix Copley, Zach Fucale, and the depth tandem of Hunter Shepard and Ryan Bednard, who will all play games.
Prediction Sure to Go Wrong
Hershey’s success will be largely due to their revamped power play, which will finish among the league’s best this season.
How will the Bears fare this season? Will they find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff bracket, become a victim of the league’s new playoff format, go deep in the playoffs, or win the Calder Cup? Let us know your thoughts.
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