HERSHEY, Pa. – If there’s one aspect the Hershey Bears have been very successful with over the past fifteen years during their affiliation with the Washington Capitals, it’s been between the pipes. The Bears have seen plenty of goaltenders come through the system who’d go on to have success at the NHL level, including Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer, and Braden Holtby. With the graduation of Ilya Samsonov this past season, it’s been more proof that the affiliation has continued to be successful in producing top notch goaltenders to the NHL after some seasoning in Hershey.
However, with Holtby’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2019-20 season, the question continues to be this: What happens if Holtby doesn’t sign with the Capitals next season?
It’s a question that Capitals management likely has on their minds during this shortened offseason. Samsonov missed the NHL’s restart in Toronto, but had a very solid rookie season that proved he could be a number one goaltender very soon. With the Capitals stretched thin in terms of cap space, it’ll be a challenge to sign Holtby if he wants a pay raise in his next contract. Going with a cheaper option between the pipes would save the club some space that would go towards other deals (which the Washington would surely appreciate).
Hypothetically, if the Caps were unable to sign Holtby, they could go with a duo that Bears fans got to see throughout the 2018-19 season: Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Although Samsonov is coming off of his rookie season and Vanecek has not played a regular season NHL game, the duo have plenty on their resume (not to mention the Capitals still have Pheonix Copley under contract for the next two seasons, and he proved quite capable as a back-up to Holtby in the 2018-19 season). All three have solid numbers with the Bears, as Samsonov had an excellent rookie season in 2018-19, Vanecek is a two-time All-Star, and both he and Copley were among the AHL’s best goaltenders this past season.
Of course, all three don’t have the proven NHL experience the Caps may be looking for, which may cause them to seek a different option in free agency to supplement Samsonov, who seems set to be the future for the team in goal.
The Capitals added another layer of intrigue to Hershey’s goaltending situation on August 19 when the team announced the signing of goaltender Zach Fucale to a one-year NHL deal. Fucale has 69 games of AHL experience, primarily with the Montreal Canadiens organization when their affiliate was based in St. John’s before moving to Laval. Fucale even started a game in the Giant Center back on Halloween of 2015 in a Bears victory over the IceCaps, and was selected as the AHL’s Player of the Week in February of 2016.
The Caps believe that Fucale can succeed in a winning environment in Hershey, and he could turn out to be a very good pickup for the Bears. Fucale’s NHL contract means that he cannot be sent to the ECHL unless he agrees to that move, making him a part of Hershey’s goaltending rotation right away.
If the Caps did go with their own talent in goal, that means the Bears would have one of Vanecek or Copley, leaving the back-up role most likely to their recent NCAA signing in Hunter Shepard. Shepard is a guy that Bears fans will almost certainly see at some point in the 2020-21 season in whatever shape it comes in. If there is a preseason as there is in a normal AHL season, it would certainly be easy to expect him to get a look there.
Shepard carries a great resume from the UMD Bulldogs, having guided the team to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2018 and 2019 while starting 115 consecutive games during his tenure in goal. His statistics certainly warrant a really good look in Hershey at some point this season. And, with an expansion draft on the horizon in which the Caps could possibly offer up a goaltender to the Seattle Kraken, Shepard could become an even bigger part of the team in the near future. If the Bears are able to keep their great duo of Vanecek and Copley, Shepard will get his start in South Carolina where he’ll be a key part of the new group of Stingrays looking to continue their immense success of 2019-20.
It’s certainly been a long time since the Bears lost so much of their ECHL talent between the pipes. With the retirement of Parker Milner during the offseason and the loss of Logan Thompson signing in Vegas, the Bears lost the safety net that they had with the Stingrays in terms of recall options. There should be more movement to help shore up the position for the Stingrays at some point.
Milner in particular was a go-to option for the team since he arrived in South Carolina to begin the 2016-17 season, and for good reason — his 2.20 goals against average was second best in the entire ECHL. He even picked up his first AHL shutout in his only appearance with the Bears in 2019-20, helping the team blank the Lehigh Valley Phantoms by a 3-0 count at the end of December. It’s a shame the Bears never got to start Thompson, who finished as the fourth-best goaltender in the ECHL in terms of goals against average. He did however earn his first NHL contract with the Vegas Golden Knights this offseason, which is a huge step for a promising young goaltender.
The addition of Fucale adds an extra layer to watch out for during the shortened offseason. Hershey signed Shepard over the summer and his resume seems to indicate that he could play at the AHL level, but with one of Vanecek or Copley with Fucale seeming set to join the Bears, it at least leaves a very intriguing battle at training camp for a back-up spot. All three goaltenders would have something to prove in the crease for Hershey this season, and it would make losing a high-caliber goaltender like Vanecek or Copley much easier to bear.
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