HERSHEY, Pa. – The NHL announced on Sunday that the league had approved a 56-game schedule for a 2021 season, beginning January 13 and wrapping up on May 8. The NHL provides flexibility for nearly every aspect of the season, from fans to roster sizes, the latter of which has a major impact on the AHL if they are to have a season. Most significantly, the NHL allows for expanded rosters, called a taxi squad, that require teams to carry three goalies and four to six additional players. According to Elite Prospects, this figure includes the extra goaltender.
There’s been plenty of possibility about the AHL coming back, with Patrick Williams reporting that teams are being asked to opt-in or out of the upcoming season by early January.
— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsAHL) December 20, 2020
The impact of losing up to six players on any squad is massive and has significant fallout for AHL and ECHL clubs. It’ll be up to these combined organizations to address these gaps as any number of players could be joining the NHL squad under these rules in a fairly unprecedented way.
In Hershey, the Bears will be impacted across the board if there is an AHL season. The Capitals are currently down a goaltender without one Henrik Lundqvist, who revealed he would not join the team due to a medical condition. The Caps have yet to address this situation in goal as of this writing, so at this point, it would be correct to assume the team would have to keep Vitek Vanecek out of need and utilize Pheonix Copley (or Zach Fucale), effectively adding another player the Bears would lose against the three goaltender rule. Hopefully, the Caps will sign a netminder from the free agency pool to avoid such a drastic shuffling of the goaltending depth.
On the blue line, the Caps have eight players under contract, but with Michal Kempny on the shelf with surgery in month three of recovery out of eight total. The Caps are also noticeably thinner up front, with 11 players on their current forward group as listed by CapFriendly. The short answer is that it’s not going to look good for Hershey, whoever the Caps decide to take to fill that role as well as round out the taxi squad. It’s already likely Daniel Sprong is going to be a Capital, and even if the team decides to only outfit its extra squad with the minimum four players, including a goaltender, it’s still a devastating loss.
A best-case scenario for Hershey would be this: the Capitals add another goaltender via free agency and elect to take the bare minimum of four players to the taxi squad. This would likely cost the Bears forwards who made an impression on the team during the 2020 bubble, such as Brian Pinho, Phil Maillet, Daniel Carr, Mike Sgarbossa, or Garrett Pilon, and a defenseman, most likely Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev. Pinho and Maillet were part of Washington’s squad that played in the bubble in Toronto, so it stands to reason they’d be the most probable candidates to join the squad. Fehervary played for the Caps in the bubble last season.
A worst-case scenario would see six players join the Caps, maximizing the Bears’ losses in a time in which the team already lost Beck Malenstyn for most of the season. Of course, the Caps could pursue an alternate route we don’t know of yet – the major downside to a taxi squad is in the name. Although the players will gain valuable NHL experience by being with the team, they will most likely not be playing games and earning experience that way. It’s a problem no matter which players the Caps outfit this type of lineup with, as young players lose the veteran leadership or risk not playing in a concurrent AHL schedule, and for Hershey’s sake, it would be nice if the Caps decide to go with the bare minimum.
The news is not all bad for the Bears, though. If the team were to achieve that best-case scenario, the team has built some reserves to accommodate for losing players over the offseason. Although there’s no replacing the players mentioned on this list, some of Hershey’s signings have made great strides in South Carolina with the Stingrays. Mason Morelli has shown some goal scoring potential, and both Zach Fucale and Hunter Shepard have earned wins in impressive efforts this past weekend. It certainly shows that the Bears have scouted quality players, and it always helps to have a big-time talent like Matt Moulson guaranteed to be on the roster. There will likely be a push to sign more AHL talent that didn’t find homes in the ensuing shuffle that both NHL and AHL management will have to be paying attention to.
This is all speculation at this point. There’s nothing set in stone aside from those rules, and the NHL having its season in place is another step towards finding out if the AHL will play or not. Hopefully, there will be Hershey Bears hockey this season as it’s been far too long without hockey at Giant Center, and it gives a new appreciation of the status quo of normal seasons. Finding out if and when the AHL season begins will be the first step to determining how much the Bears’ roster is impacted.
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