HERSHEY, Pa. – While the recent success of the forward group for the Hershey Bears has put pucks in the net and helped the team rack up points of late, the blue line for the team has been just as important, if not more so.
Hershey’s blue line has a much different look in 2021-22 as even a season ago, and prospects have emerged as leaders with some valuable acquisitions over the summer that’s provided big-time help for the Bears. It’s all come together to instill Hershey’s stingy defensive mindset from a season ago and improved over the past month to contribute to the team’s success in a big way.
The departure of several top defenders highlighted the summer, with Martin Fehervary’s deserved promotion standing with the losses of Cameron Schilling, Paul LaDue, Rob O’Gara, and Reece Willcox as blows not only to the positive direction of the team but to their leadership core as well. Hershey doubled down on the play of some returning players to fill that void, a test of faith that has proven to be very successful so far. Virtually the entire group has opened eyes not only in Hershey but in Washington and around the rest of the professional hockey ranks.
Among those players, Lucas Johansen and Tobias Geisser stand out big time with their contributions. Johansen has largely been healthy this season and has taken an edge to his game at both ends of the ice, resulting in significant success. The defender has taken more opportunities to jump into the play smartly, chosen when to stay back on careful defense, and has been rewarded this season. He scored the first goal of the season for the Bears as an early sign of what was to come, and his current plus-11 ranking is among the best of Hershey’s defenders this season and the entire team this season. His plus/minus is in stark contrast to years past, where that number might have previously marred his offensive output and shown a very positive trend. Johansen’s success is huge for the Bears, and he’s played like his first-round selection status he earned before turning pro. Geisser has improved every game taking on a larger role in Hershey, taking his play at both ends to the next level adapting to the North American style of play. He scored his first AHL goal on December 29, a long-awaited milestone after two stints with the Bears, and has developed a physical edge that Bears head coach Scott Allen was quick to praise after Sunday’s win over the Penguins.
“(Geisser) is playing with a level of confidence right now,” Allen said. “We have certainly not seen this offensive side of his game, and it’s exciting. It’s continued growth, right? It’s continued growth for all these guys. He’s a young guy who’s had a couple of short stints in North America, and now he’s full-time. So that’s the challenge. The acclimation process is coming along strong.”
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) December 30, 2021
The summer signings of veteran defenders Dylan McIlrath and Cody Franson were met with mixed reviews at the time but have largely proven to be smart moves. McIlrath has provided a physical edge to his game but has been one of the leaders and set the standard for others to follow. Franson has proven to be every bit the defensive leader he has demonstrated in the past, leading Hershey’s blue line with 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 23 games played and anchoring the center point on Hershey’s top power-play unit. His ability to fire hard shots quickly for deflections and traffic has been important, as has his chemistry with fellow veteran Matt Moulson, proven to be lethal at times. McIlrath has found his groove playing with Johansen as one of the team’s most consistent pairings, and their matching plus-11 ratings reflect that success.
Capitals prospects Bobby Nardella and Alex Alexeyev continue to improve and make big strides in Hershey. Nardella has honed his defensive game to compliment his high offensive upside, including 11 points (four goals, seven assists) and a current best plus-five rating in 20 games. Alexeyev has a goal, and five assists in 28 games played this season with a plus-three rating, and while it’s a bit of a slower pace than his brief stint in 2020-21, it’s still on pace to compete with his regular season-best from his rookie season. Both players are counted on to carry the defensive responsibilities. Having such positive results up and down the lineup speaks volumes about assistant coach Patrick Wellar’s expertise in that regard.
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) December 19, 2021
Of course, Hershey’s depth continues to get tested. Nardella and Johansen were injured in Friday’s loss in Syracuse, leading to Macoy Erkamps and Jake Massie jumping into the lineup as a pairing for the weekend. Erkamps returns after an impressive stint last season and has been a free agency steal for the Bears. He has two assists and a plus-five rating in five games with the Bears and takes more strides in the right direction after a few tough seasons in Wilkes-Barre before his signing. Massie had a strong preseason showing with the Bears and has continued to play well beyond his experience in nine games. Hershey’s depth has been tested all too often, not even halfway through the season but continues to improve and impress from Allen’s perspective.
“We have so much confidence in those guys,” Allen said about playing Erkamps and Massie as a pair. “Pat Wellar is not afraid to throw out guys in crucial situations at crucial times against solid players top-six players. We’re very fortunate to have them on the back end.”
These players have seen their roles magnified in the absence of Michal Kempny as the NHL veteran defenseman went up to Washington recently. Hershey’s pool of veteran defenders took a hit in that regard, but the quality of players the organization has brought on board. The mentality of the locker room and the coaching staff has allowed players like Massie and Erkamps to join the lineup and play big minutes in key situations, something that doesn’t always happen. Pairing the two defenders shows the level of trust and confidence the coaching staff has, and it’s helped the Bears make a very turbulent season seem very normal. It’s brought results, certainly, and Hershey has become one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams as a result. Hershey’s players and coaches turned a tough situation in November into a winning formula as January rolls on, creating solutions rather than excuses.
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