HERSHEY, Pa. – 2020 has been an unusual year to say the least, and so much is up in the air as of this post. The traditional free agency period doesn’t hit until October 9, leaving the usual big stories of the offseason on hold for the time being. However, that hasn’t stopped the Hershey Bears from being active in their own means this summer, and one of the biggest names the team inked so far is goaltender Hunter Shepard.
Shepard signed in Hershey on June 30 for the 2020-21 season to take his game to the professional level, and joins the Chocolate and White after a highly successful NCAA career with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
Calling Shepard’s career in the NCAA highly successful would actually be underselling it. He began his NCAA career as a backup to current Colorado Eagles netminder Hunter Miska during the 2016-17 season, and successfully won the crease during the 2017-18 season as one of three goaltenders the Bulldogs used. He was credited by Head Coach Scott Sandelin as the reason the club ascended in the standings after winning the battle- — UMD used three goaltenders for each period before Shepard solely took over).
The Bulldogs battled their way to an NCAA championship over Notre Dame. Shepard set a single-season record for the program with a 1.91 goals against average and a 25-14-1 record during that span. Shepard was also a semi-finalist for the Mike Richter Award for most outstanding goaltender in Division I NCAA men’s hockey, and snagged the Keith Christiansen Award as UMD’s Most Valuable Player.
In his junior season, Shepard improved to a 29-11-2 record, ranking first in wins and second in shutouts with seven. He earned the NCHC Goaltender of the Year Award for the first of two straight seasons and led the Bulldogs to their second straight championship over UMass. Unfortunately, his senior season in 2019-20 was cut short (as it was for the Bears), but posted a 22-10-2 record with a 2.18 goals against average and a 0.918 save percentage during that span. Shepard inked a deal with the Bears after earning his second Goaltender of the Year Award and was named UMD’s Outstanding Male Senior Athlete. He was named an All-American Goaltender twice in his final two seasons.
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— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) August 31, 2020
It goes without saying that picking up a goaltender of Shepard’s caliber via free agency is very rare. Although Shepard went undrafted, he was invited to participate in training camp for both the Minnesota Wild and the Buffalo Sabres. It’s surprising that an NHL team didn’t take a chance on adding him to their roster, although eyes will certainly be on him in Hershey this season.
Curiously, Shepard is entering a similar goaltending battle in Hershey as he did at UMD, in that he may have to battle two other goaltenders for time at the AHL level. Plenty could change prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, as free agency and the draft are set to take place in early October. But, as it stands, Shepard would be competing with veteran Pheonix Copley and another newcomer to the organization, Zach Fucale. Both Copley and Fucale are on NHL contracts, making Shepard the easiest to send to the ECHL (players on non entry-level NHL deals have to consent to being sent to the ECHL).
Playing well will be Shepard’s best defense against being sent down. However, the Bears would do well to work him into their stable of goaltenders. Last season, the Bears consistently had Vitek Vanecek and Copley hold the reins in goal (Parker Milner came up for only one game on New Year’s Eve in a 3-0 win over Lehigh Valley).
That stability is great for a team that’s pushing for a Calder Cup, but it unfortunately did not allow for the up-and-coming prospect Logan Thompson to get an opportunity with the team, something he certainly earned as one of the ECHL’s best goaltenders in 2019-20. Certainly, the Bears most likely would have had an opportunity to call him up for a game towards the end of the season. But, Hershey ended up seeing Thompson sign an entry-level deal with the Vegas Golden Knights this summer instead.
It would be great to get Shepard time at the AHL level this season to prevent history repeating itself.
Although the battle between the pipes in Hershey between the trio of netminders does resemble the test that Shepard passed in his college days, it echoes the sentiment of things “earned, never given” as coined by former Head Coach Troy Mann during his time in Hershey. Although Shepard is coming in with a ton of accolades and accomplishments at the NCAA level, he still has to prove himself (much like many of Hershey’s other signings from this summer).
There’s plenty to be determined, especially with free agency still on the horizon, but it leaves a lot for Hershey Bears fans to be excited about in the new season.
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