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Hershey Bears

Bears Roster Set For Changes

Bears Roster Set For Changes

HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears appear to be hitting a crossroads with their roster as the team builds towards the 2022-23 season. The Chocolate and White made their first move of the summer by adding Aaron Ness back into the fold on an AHL contract, but it looks like the roster shaping is only just beginning as NHL Free Agency has begun. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan spoke with the media ahead of the draft on Wednesday with his thoughts, which placed an extra emphasis on the team building from within particularly in the absence of Nick Backstrom, as well as some of the other roster gaps the Caps have to address.

”I think it’s [Backstrom’s] intention to come back and play this year,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan remarked prior to the draft.

”The salary cap is the salary cap. We have to count on [Backstrom] coming back at some point. … What we can do is give opportunities to our young guys. … We expect [Protas] to take the next jump. We’re going to look to fill that from within first and go from there. It’s not like we can get a $9 million player.  Until [we’re told otherwise], we’re planning on him coming back.”

MacLellan also briefly discussed the status of Carl Hagelin, who missed a lot of time after being struck in the eye during practice earlier this season. The team is still monitoring his status but will know more in August.

There’s a lot to unpack from MacLellan’s comments, but the most glaring of which is that the team plans to fill Backstrom’s absence from within. It’s a gutsy move considering the timeline for recovery from hip resurfacing surgery is anyone’s guess at this point, let alone if he can play at all. It’s a situation the Caps seem confident that he will return from, but it’s fair to point out that no one has done it before. MacLellan threw some names around in the discussion including Aliaksei Protas and Hendrix Lapierre to “get their shot” at filling this position. MacLellan mentioned during the media availability that the Capitals have three defensive slots available to be filled, and applying the same logic to the blue line may lead to a drastically different look for the Bears as a result with Lucas Johansen and Alex Alexeyev (when healthy) make the two most sensible candidates. Hershey would have to deal with the absence of players who otherwise might have been key contributors possibly for the duration of the season.

Those moves suddenly make Hershey’s defensive group very slim and compound the recent departure of Tobias Geisser, who suddenly may be kicking himself for not hanging around for an opportunity. Even with the signing of Ness, Hershey’s defensive group features Bobby Nardella, Dylan McIlrath, and Vincent Iorio alongside Benton Maass and Jake Massie. Ideally, an AHL roster should feature ten or more defenders of strong quality to offset any injuries or movement, and it’s safe to say the Bears could use a few more at this juncture to supplement their core group. The organization could consider re-signing Cody Franson or going with familiar names on the market like Cameron Schilling and Paul LaDue. Hershey could look elsewhere, such as bringing a scoring defender like Ethan Prow or Adam Clendening to the light side after previously skating with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Lehigh Valley, respectively.

Hershey has to be mindful of its forward situation, particularly after a season where recalls devastated the team’s ability to be competitive in the second half of the season. Connor McMichael, Joe Snively, and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby are all players who went up to the NHL and are most likely not coming back, and with both Protas and Lapierre set to “get their shot” to earn a spot at center with Backstrom out, the organization needs to be preparing for both of those guys to be out of Hershey for a significant portion of time if not for the entire season as Washington did last year with McMichael. Thanks to Backstrom’s salary being out of the count towards the salary cap while he’s recovering, Washington can keep more players at the ready without being restricted by the NHL’s salary rules as they typically are.

The Bears have a solid start to their roster, with the likes of Mike Sgarbossa, Garrett Pilon, Mike Vecchione, Beck Malenstyn, Kody Clark, Mason Morelli, Kale Kessy, and Riley Sutter under contract alongside some interesting players in their first full AHL seasons like Julian Napravnik, Ethen Frank, Henry Rybinski, and Bear Hughes. Brett Leason will be in the mix to fill in for Tom Wilson to start the season, and both Protas and Lapierre will be waiver-exempt to move freely between Hershey and Washington. It remains to be seen how many players the Capitals can and will keep on hand at any given time, but if that is the route that the team elects to take this season, the focus must absolutely shift towards adding players on NHL and AHL contracts to fill these major gaps in Hershey that won’t be done internally. It’s also worth noting that MacLellan said he’d be addressing his pending free agents after the draft in the week preceding free agency, and it’s not set in stone that Brian Pinho and Shane Gersich are gone as unrestricted free agents. The organization will likely need to seek players in free agency, with Andrew Poturalski, Sam Anas, Stefan Noesen, Martin Frk, Riley Barber, Brett Seney, and Chris Terry among players who would make excellent additions in the Sweetest Place on Earth.

One of those positions should be at center, ideally, a high-quality AHL signing who the Bears can rely on to be in Hershey for the duration of the season and has the ability to put up a lot of points. Washington is starting off shorthanded, and although there’s always the potential for their situation to improve or deteriorate further, the organization can prepare for it right now rather than simply play the hand they’ve been dealt. This is particularly the case with Hershey, as their forward group seems set to be affected the most by the nature of this situation and needs to have more quality AHL players who can also go to the NHL if the need arose. It will make the Bears a tough team to play against immediately when the season starts and help offset some of these losses even if it’s not all of them. Hershey will undoubtedly not be at their peak when the season starts, but when Wilson, Alexeyev, and Backstrom eventually return and the cupboard is full, Hershey will be a contending team in a major way.

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