HERSHEY, Pa. – With under two months until the 2022-23 season starts up, the Hershey Bears are shoring up their personnel in an unusually busy month of August. Among the moves are the hiring of Todd Nelson to serve as head coach, along with a new staff accompanying him.
On the roster side, the Bears signed forward Sam Anas to an American Hockey League contract. The moves, combined with a stocked Washington Capitals roster and a plethora of incoming prospects, should lead to a revamped and renewed Bears lineup. This will be one that will have some healthy competition going into training camp, resulting in one of the most intriguing teams in the AHL. However, with such an unusual offseason, it’s also impossible to rule out that the team is completely done making moves at this point.
The additions of Anas and Nelson are the two headline-grabbers for a good reason. Nelson’s resume speaks for itself, as does his success and the Calder Cups he’s lifted as a player and coach. Meanwhile, Anas was arguably the biggest free agent still on the market at the time of his signing. As one of the league’s top scorers, he was a key reason why the Springfield Thunderbirds made a deep playoff run last season. His power-play expertise, alongside Aaron Ness on the back end, will be a key factor in putting Hershey’s power play back on track.
Nelson’s experience will no doubt add to that as well – his Calder Cup-winning Grand Rapids Griffins squad finished first in the AHL on the power play during the 2016-17 season at 24.4 percent efficiency.
— Corey Swartz (@cswa11) May 22, 2022
The Bears most recently added a pair of interesting players on AHL contracts, signing Ryan Scarfo and Alexandre Fortin for the coming season. Fortin, 25, has 24 games of NHL experience under his belt during the 2018-19 season with six points (three goals, three assists) and most recently skated with the Laval Rocket for 34 games this past season with nine points (four goals, five assists) to his credit. Fortin will be able to compete for a spot on the left side in Hershey’s lineup, an area the Chocolate and White have less depth in compared to most.
Scarfo, 28, tallied 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 63 games for the Rochester Americans this past season and skated in his first Calder Cup Playoff game this spring on May 17. Scarfo, a former Wilkes-Barre forward, recorded a career-worst minus-22 mark this past season, and it stands to reason the center will be looking to prove that is an anomaly in order to break into Hershey’s lineup. The duo’s experience will make them interesting players to watch in training camp, as it’s likely some may go to South Carolina to bolster the Stingrays lineup to start the season but have plenty of opportunities to compete for jobs in Hershey.
There’s much to say about the prospect pool that will be available to the Bears in a new way this season. Hendrix Lapierre and Vincent Iorio highlight the group of incoming prospects, but the list goes much further than that. Hershey has Bear Hughes and Benton Maass under contract, but Washington’s roster features a ton of talent that may cause some more players to be sent to Hershey than expected, including forwards like Joe Snively, Henrik Borgstrom, or Axel Jonsson-Fjallby in addition to Brett Leason, Aliaksei Protas, and Beck Malenstyn. Defensively, Washington could send down one or both of Lucas Johansen or Gabriel Carlsson, two former first-round picks on the blue line, depending on how many players the Caps elect to or are able to carry to start the season.
Naturally, the uncertainty makes it hard to speculate on Hershey’s complete opening night roster at this early stage. Unlike the last couple of seasons, it is actually to the Bears’ benefit rather than a detriment. Instead of being starved for talent and having to hope that the Capitals won’t need a player, the Bears will be well equipped to deal with any personnel issues internally with so many young players available.
Again, it’s not to say the team is done by any means. Hershey may add a few more players who will most likely be ticketed to South Carolina to start the season, but there’s no stopping them from adding another regular before the season kicks off or more depth in the event of injury, which has become more commonplace over the years.
Unlike last season, Hershey’s roster situation will most likely improve as the season goes on if the organization is able to avoid injury. Alex Alexeyev is coming off of surgery that may force him to miss the beginning of the season, although he’s been skating lightly in Washington with the early group of players to be in town. So too is forward Carl Hagelin, whose status has been uncertain after sustaining a gruesome eye injury in practice last season. Hagelin was skating with the group in D.C., which is a great sign towards his eventual return to the lineup. Tom Wilson is expected to return by the end of the calendar year, and each body returning in D.C. might force a player to be sent to Hershey. Based on the way Washington loaded up in free agency, it seems at this early stage to more resemble the days of old in the nation’s capital: where breaking into the NHL lineup was a much taller order. It should hopefully make Hershey’s lineup much more consistent as a result.
The bolstered roster leaves room for experimentation, as well as opportunity, to be seized by the players. It’s a huge season for Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, both on the last year of their entry-level contracts, to make an impact alongside young players like Ethen Frank, Julian Napravnik, and Hughes trying to earn those valuable spots on Hershey contracts. The new additions of Scarfo and Fortin will no doubt turn up the heat for many players to bring their best game to camp and earn a spot or risk starting the season in South Carolina as a result. Hershey is a place where a roster spot is earned and never given, and the preseason will be a valuable opportunity to assess all the new talent going into an important season for the Bears.
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