HERSHEY, Pa. – Back when the Hershey Bears signed forward Mason Morelli to an AHL deal, the question was if he would be able to compete for a spot with the Chocolate and White on what was looking like a very stacked roster at the time. Now, with the AHL set to tentatively begin in just under six weeks, the NHL’s return to play guidance in adding taxi squads makes Morelli not only a likely candidate to join the Bears, but an important one at that. Morelli is one of six Hershey signings currently honing his craft with the South Carolina Stingrays as their season is well underway, and is already making an impact before the puck drops in Hershey.
The Bears are not officially confirmed to be playing this season as of this writing, but if a 2021 AHL season gets underway, the Chocolate and White will be significantly impacted by the NHL’s implementation of a taxi squad for this season unless further guidance alters the roster further. The goal of a taxi squad gives teams like the Washington Capitals up to six players at their disposal that will be medically cleared to join the team if needed. One stipulation is that the team must keep one goaltender on that squad, and it’s unclear if the team will keep six players on that group or risk having just four. It’s an intriguing rule, as players on that squad would most likely not be playing in all that many games and will force the Bears to dig a little deeper in their roster to replace whoever would be lost.
Enter Morelli, who has 40 games of AHL experience over two seasons with the Stockton Heat, scoring seven goals and five assists for 12 total points. Morelli played a significant portion of last season with the Heat, and the Bears were able to land him in free agency this off-season. With a substantial amount of Hershey regulars set to be on the taxi squad, the opportunity for Morelli is to become a regular in the Bears’ lineup and contribute consistently, as he showed potential at the AHL level after being nearly a point-per-game player in college.
He has some good competition to make the Bears, but Morelli’s getting a step up on the competition with the Bears’ ECHL affiliate in South Carolina. Among players who will be looking for the increased role, Morelli will be competing with fellow Hershey signing and current South Carolina forward Caleb Herbert (who has a ton of ECHL experience at 173 games over six seasons played). Steve Whitney is a player who will be returning for his third season with Hershey and will benefit from a consistent roster spot.
It’s possible that the Bears would bring on an AHL veteran to help fill that void once they know a season is going to happen – Hershey will be missing the presence of Beck Malenstyn for the majority of the season – but the opportunity for these three depth players is much better than it might have been due to the taxi squad. Morelli has been making a solid impact on the Stingrays, scoring two goals and two assists in five games played as of this writing.
Filling these open positions from within will be a huge undertaking for most AHL teams, most likely impossible for most teams. The Bears are balanced enough that they’ll still have a lot of scoring potential, but adding a few players who can jump in and score off the bat will be huge. Morelli’s scoring record at the ECHL is impressive, and hopefully he can build it into a solid performance at the AHL level in Hershey.
If the Bears do play a season, Morelli has a chance to come in and become a solid contributor for Hershey. It’s unfortunate for the club to have to lose a few players in this very unusual season, but it serves as a major opportunity for players like Morelli to earn a regular spot and impress the staff at the AHL level. Morelli appears to be a diamond in the rough in free agency for Hershey, and follows the trend of players like Phil Maillet to impress after coming up through the college ranks. Much like his solid impression in South Carolina this season, it seems Morelli is on track to make a name for himself in Hershey for a 2021 season.
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