HERSHEY, Pa. – It’s no secret the Hershey Bears are in the midst of a rebuild of sorts this summer. The team from the Sweetest Place on Earth is looking to combine pieces from their core group into a playoff team worthy of contending for the Calder Cup. Although it’s been a fairly quiet start to free agency for Hershey, the team is benefitting from their NHL affiliate’s desire to build a Stanley Cup winner indirectly. The job is far from done for the organization to replace some lost talent, but there’s a lot of intrigue for the latest group of Bears when the new season gets underway in mid-October.
Ahead of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan painted a grim picture for Bears fans when discussing his team’s future. Nick Backstrom is out indefinitely after hip resurfacing surgery, a procedure that no NHL player has made a lengthy recovery from in addition to Tom Wilson, who is recovering from his own surgery will last into the start of the season. The status of Carl Hagelin is uncertain after the forward was lost due to a devastating eye injury in practice, and he will be re-evaluated in August. At that time, MacLellan mentioned players like Hendrix Lapierre and Aliaksei Protas as those who would get opportunities to fill the void until Backstrom returns – an immediate blow to the organization’s depth that left Bears fans feeling worried about their club’s lineup for the new year.
Whether it was an intentionally shrewd move by MacLellan or a coincidence, it turned out that the Capitals were busy over free agency. Washington lost both of its goaltenders in former Hershey netminders Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov and were forced to act quickly in free agency to replace them with Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren, both of whom are coming off of long playoff runs at the NHL and AHL levels, respectively. The Capitals added Connor Brown, Dylan Strome, and Marcus Johansson on NHL contracts, adding to five players at center in total, and signed Erik Gustafsson and Matt Irwin to fill the void on defense. The only signing the Capitals made that pertains mostly to the Bears was center Henrik Borgstrom, who was bought out by the Chicago Blackhawks this summer and scooped up by the Caps faster than a Nintendo Switch on sale.
The addition for the Bears comes by subtraction from the Capitals. Washington’s center depth is now at a position where Lapierre and Protas will be guaranteed to be in Hershey rather than filling in or potentially sitting out as extras at the NHL level. The number of signings leaves question marks even for players like Joe Snively or Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, who will have to earn their ice time after being considered locks for the big club heading into the summer. Those question marks will loom even once Wilson and Hagelin return to the lineup.
Make no mistake, the organization has plenty of work to do before the puck drops on the new season. The biggest areas to address are still on the blue line and on the left side of the Bears’ lineup, where the Chocolate and White will be missing Alex Alexeyev to start the year after offseason surgery set him back likely after the season starts. Washington has seven defensemen under contract but may want to keep an eighth available, which likely falls to the recently re-signed Lucas Johansen. Hershey will be receiving the services of Washington’s 2020 second-round selection in Vincent Iorio on the blue line as he turns pro, and even with the Bears adding Aaron Ness as a veteran presence, the team needs more top-end talent to be considered a threat in the Atlantic Division.
Hershey needs more players on the left side and adding a top AHL talent to that group would go a long way towards the development of the incoming youth as well as relief to Bears fans. There’s a lot of great talent still available in free agency, with many of the moves being made in the first few days seeing talent signing contracts that lead to NHL gigs. The Bears have a knack of finding strong veteran talent, and after captain Matt Moulson retired from the game this summer, it’s particularly clear Hershey needs to address this need sooner rather than later. It all adds up to a dramatic first week of free agency that’s far from over from a Bears perspective, one that will continue to be interesting in the leadup to the new season.
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