HERSHEY, Pa – In a way, it’s easy to think past how big Connor McMichael’s first AHL season was in Hershey. The Bears have been building towards Calder Cup aspirations well before his arrival in the 2020-21 season, and their first-place finish shows that they’ve continued to trend in the right direction after being one of the league’s top teams during the 2019-20 season. However, McMichael’s debut adds an exciting new dimension to the Bears, which fans will cheer and opponents will fear in the return of a full season in 2021-22.
McMichael, a first-round selection (25th overall) in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, started the season in the NHL with the Washington Capitals prior to the start of Hershey’s season, playing one game. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in exit interviews after this season that, while the team was looking to get younger (Martin Fehervary was one player that statement applied to), they will not force him to make the leap to the NHL at this delicate stage. This statement, along with Washington’s precarious roster situation, seems to indicate that McMichael will play in Hershey again this fall. However, he’s likely not far from a permanent promotion to the Capitals.
By all counts, Hershey’s success in 2021 was mostly due to McMichael’s success, as he led the Bears with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) while skating in all of the team’s 33 games played. Of those goals, six were on the power play (tied for the lead with Matt Moulson), eight were game-winners (an AHL best with former Bear Riley Barber in second place), and two were overtime winners. It’s remarkable just how far McMichael grew in one season, ending the campaign with eight points (three goals, five assists) in the final five games of the 2021 season.
Here’s the game-winning goal for Connor McMichael on shot 51 on the night for the Hershey Bears! It’s an overtime buzzer beater! pic.twitter.com/57Gkg7Z4Gr
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) March 21, 2021
It’s easy to forget that McMichael would not have been eligible to play in the 2020-21 campaign in a typical AHL season due to age restrictions, likely lighting up the Ontario Hockey League with the London Knights. Though, it’s easy to see McMichael went through some of the growing pains that come with making a considerable jump to the AHL, at least in terms of translating his incredible scoring from the Knights (180 points in 147 games played). He seemed to catch fire from April to the end of the season.
McMichael had a clutch factor that’s hard to weigh in simple number analysis, too, and always seemed to find himself where the puck is going to be for an important goal. For example, in the late-season series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, he scored a huge overtime goal to lift the Bears to another win over their archrival on the road.
Connor “Clutch” McMichael scores his second overtime winner of the season! Bears win 4-3!! pic.twitter.com/1bNtrm2ukS
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) May 1, 2021
It’s the type of top-level talent the Bears have often faced in recent years and always build to defend against, which makes it a refreshing change. McMichael’s success, along with fellow Capitals draft selection Aliaksei Protas, helped fill the void left on Hershey’s roster as the team missed top scorers like Garrett Pilon, Brian Pinho, Mike Sgarbossa, and Phil Maillet for extended periods due to the NHL’s taxi squad rule. The difference with this rule is that it affected all AHL teams equally, by and large, which made his contributions exceedingly important.
The Bears will be back at full strength this season, with the only major subtractions upfront being Maillet’s departure to Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League and the likely promotion for Pinho to the NHL ranks. So, it will be fun to see how Hershey’s lines look to start the season.
The element of familiarity with not only the league but with the team and everything else that comes with a rookie season will loom large as the Bears look to assert themselves with the Calder Cup finally back on the table. Rolling over the success of last season and getting off to a strong start will be pivotal for the Bears, especially as they contend for a top spot in the Atlantic Division to avoid the new play-in style bracket that will be making its debut this season.
Connor McMichael’s 12th of the season on the power play gives Hershey a 2-0 lead! pic.twitter.com/ytZI6ONGwy
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) May 8, 2021
All things considered, it’s an important season not only for McMichael to impress the Capitals brass but to work to the Bears’ benefit as they pursue a Calder Cup. Plenty of big names have gone on to D.C. after winning in Hershey, with names like John Carlson standing out from the last championship back in 2010.
It’s been a good long while, and there seems to be something special brewing in Hershey. A strong start coupled with a successful finish brings a bit more meaning to a season without a champion awarded in 2021, as the Bears made strides with the development of their younger players and have built towards an important campaign this fall.
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