Thursday, July 3, 2014

Looking Towards 2014-15

I just spent a few minutes updating the prospective 2014-15 Bears roster page and thought I would discuss it a bit.

This team is looking pretty good.  Although I say that every year.

The defense is probably just about set.  With the Caps adding Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen they are now at 8 defensemen and that means guys like Tomas Kundratek, Cameron Schilling, Nate Schmidt, and Connor Carrick will be spending the majority of their time in 2014-15 playing for the Bears.

Add the newly acquired veteran Mike Moore and also Jon Layton to go with Steve Oleksy and Patrick Wey and you have 8 defenseman in Hershey that can absolutely play.

I wouldn't be surprised to see another 1 or 2 names on the blue line, but for the most part the guys that will play regularly are already on the roster.

Forward is an entirely different discussion as there are surely still some signings to announce, but there is plenty of talent in place already.

Dustin Gazley, Nathan Walker, Michael Latta, Casey Wellman, Stanislav Galiev, Chris Brown, Garrett Mitchell, and Dane Byers are all back.  Although I do expect Latta to at the very least spend considerable time in Washington.

You also have a couple anticipated prospects moving up to the Bears.  A couple of them, Caleb Herbert and Chandler Stephenson, got a taste of the AHL at the end of last season and both looked promising.

And then you have Andre Burokovsky.  He is no lock to be in Hershey as he could go back to juniors or even make the Caps, but he seems to have a legitimate shot at playing for the Bears.

Oh and the Caps/Bears signed Chris Connor as well.  He is a guy that is about a point per game player in the AHL but has spent considerable time in the NHL so we will see where he plays most of the year.  

Is it an elite group?  Probably not, but it's pretty good.  But they aren't done for sure.  I have only named 12 forwards and they will likely have 15 on the roster all season and a handful playing for South Carolina.

As for the goalies, Philip Grubauer is surely the #1 entering this season.  The Caps/Bears traded for Eddie Pasquale to serve as his backup, but this is Grubauer's team for 2014-15.

So overall...a very promising roster is coming together.  You have some puck moving defensemen that will be joined by some larger blue-liners and you have plenty of talent at forward along with some needed speed.
Add in a few veteran pieces (still a couple of veteran spots available) and some more offensive firepower and you have a solid team coming together.

I like it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Free Agency - Christmas in July?

The free agent signing period which begins July 1 is an intriguing time of year. Obviously no games are being played. And the day is basically associated with two things: player names and dollar signs. For the professional hockey world, it’s sort of like Christmas in July with everyone waiting in anticipation for the gifts that will be bestowed upon their team. The only problem is that you’re not really going to know what you’re getting until three months from now when the new season starts. Sure, the size of the box can be measured (i.e. is the individual a big name player?). And the box can be weighed and shaken to get a better idea of what’s inside (i.e. what are the player’s prior stats and their current reputation?). But again, at the end of the day you’ll never really know what gift you received until game 1 of the season. Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail has a good article on what happened in general yesterday and sort of raises this same question.

Ok, I promise I’m not going to turn this into the Penguins hockey blog because I really want to touch on the Bears signings. But I just want to make a couple of points about what went down yesterday with the Caps. While the guys over at RMNB are freaking out about CORSI numbers and dollar amounts versus years, I think there are some other issues being overlooked regarding both players. Orpik is a tough defensemen to play against and his reputation is well known because of his nastiness. But that punishing style of play takes a huge toll on his health and he’s become more prone to injuries over the past few years. The question is how much longer he can keep it up. Or can he adjust his style to curtail the aggressive physical play and just be an overall smart defender. That will determine whether he lasts the full length of his contract or not. Niskanen, on the other hand, has “potential”. His style of play is sort of mixture of both Alzner and Carlson. He’s a good defender but is not going to overpower the opposition physically. He’s got a good shot and is willing to shoot but doesn’t have the creativity of Mike Green. This became evident when he replaced Letang on the top power play unit. He also logged a lot of minutes last season so that is definitely in the Caps favor if they plan to go deep in the playoffs. Overall, if Niskanen can keep this level of play and be consistent over the next 3-4 years, I’d say the contract was worth it.

The Bears also had a few signings yesterday picking up two defensive defensemen, Mike Moore and Jon Landry, and winger Chris Conner (another former Penguin). As I mentioned in my initial post, it’ll be interesting to see if the Bears style of play ends up mirroring the expected defensive system of Barry Trotz. This is probably the first good indication since both Moore and Landry bring additional size to the back end. Moore especially provides some much needed defensive experience and perhaps a new leadership personality which is sorely needed. As Tim Leone mentioned in his PennLive post regarding the signings, Mike Moore was the captain of the Providence Bruins last season and put up career best numbers. Chris Conner should be well known to Hershey fans for his time spent in Wilkes-Barre. It was mentioned that Conner could be a good call-up option for the Caps. That’s a possibility, considering his time spent with Pittsburgh and being used sparingly on the first line with Sidney Crosby last season. But the amount of call-ups will probably dictate how well he produces offensively. Looking at his career stats, anytime he bounced between the AHL and the NHL his production suffered. However, if Conner’s able to spend the majority of the season in Hershey, and be reunited with former teammate Jeff Taffe, he’ll easily hit 15 goals and maybe even a career high 20.

On a lighter note, I can’t wait to see what RMNB comes up in terms of GIF's for Brooks Orpik's "crazy eyes."

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Welcome Our New Contributor

Editor's note:  As any regular reader of this blog over the past almost 7 years will know...posts are becoming more and more infrequent here.  In fact, they are rare.  That's a result of multiple things from family to work, but my intentions of posting more always seems to fall off after the season starts.

So, in order to rectify the situation we are bringing on a new writer/contributor.  Don reached out to me a few weeks ago, expressing an interest in writing for the site.  Despite being a Pens fan (rarely an acceptable sin), he loves the Bears and knows hockey so it seems like a good fit.  

By adding another writer it will surely result in much more frequent posts and based on the ideas we have discussed so far, very interesting posts as well.  Excited to see what he brings to the blog!

I will give Don a chance now to share a bit more about himself:

Hey, everyone. As mentioned, my name is Don and I’m glad to be onboard as a new writer/commentator for the site. I have to say that I’m very excited to bring a lot of unique content to the site and plan on rolling it out over the course of the 2014-15 season. So thanks to the Hershey Bears Hockey Blog for giving me this opportunity. A bit of background info: I’m originally from the western part of the state and I admit that I’m a HUGE Pens fan. I’m a product of those early 90’s Cup years so I’ve seen a lot of hockey and try to keep a certain amount of perspective for how the game has changed over the years. So while the majority of my postings will concern the Bears, I’ll put out some opinions on the state of the game in general as well.

I’ve lived in the mid-state area for quite a few years and have been a Bears fan since I arrived. Upon attending my first Bears game, I was instantly hooked on AHL hockey. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed many of the best Bear's hockey moments from the past 5-10 years. That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of you out there that know more than me regarding Bears history. So by all means, educate.

So where do things go from here? Well, even with the subdued ending to the Bears’ season by not being able to capitalize on the last games against Norfolk and thus missing the playoffs, I think a lot of positivity can be gathered about the future expectations of the team. In many ways, this can be seen as a new era for the Bears. With a new GM and coach for the Capitals, what will this mean for the identity and style of play for the Bears? Will we still see the same attention given to signing quality AHL veterans and prospects to ensure that the Bears are annual winners? Since Barry Trotz is typically known for employing a more defensive system, will that trickle down to Hershey? Hopefully a new coach is hired soon and we get a better idea of what to expect. But overall, there could be some fundamental change coming. And maybe that’s a good thing. The offensive heavy teams we have grown accustomed to may be a thing of past. Instead, the team could end up being more well rounded with a defense first mentality. No matter what happens, let's just hope that as the free agency period begins plenty of quality players are acquired. Because depending on what, if any, changes the Caps make, this could be another call-up heavy season for the Bears.

Up next, free agency. Stay tuned...

Saturday, February 22, 2014

It's Been an Impressive 2014 for the Bears so far

It has been quite a 2014 so far for the Hershey Bears.

They entered the year with a 13-12-2-3 record.  Which really translates to a 13-17 record with a few more points thrown in for losing late.

They were scoring goals at a rate of 3.1 per game and were allowing 3.0 per game.  So the near .500 record seems pretty accurate.

And they were a borderline playoff team at that best.

But 2014 has been much different.  Everything has been better.

Since January 1 the Bears are 16-4-1-0 or 16-5.

That's damn good...but it actually gets better.

They are scoring 3.3 goals per game, a slight increase over the first 30 games...and they are allowing ONLY 2.3 per game.

That is DAMN good.

In fact, if those were full season numbers the Bears would rank 3rd in goals for per game and 1st in goals against per game.

So yeah, the Bears are playing good hockey right now.  And now they are the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and no team in the AHL would want to play them right now.

But will it continue?  After all, most of those wins (12 of them) were at Giant Center.  And a few weeks ago I put up a post about how they were struggling on the road while playing superbly at home.

Over the rest of the season the Bears have 25 games to play.  16 of those are on the road.  Including 3 of the next four after tonight.

But there are signs that their road play is improving.

In the first 4 road games of their 2014 domination the Bears went 1-2-1-0 and scored only 2 goals per game while allowing 2.3.  The defense was still rock solid, but the offense was sputtering.

Well, in the 6 road games since I wrote that previous post they have started to turn it around.  They are 4-2-0-0 in those games while scoring 2.8 goals per game and allowing only 2.5.

Obviously its a small sample size, but it is all we have at this point.  We will surely learn more over the next few weeks as 6 of their next 9 games are on the road.

Anyone who has been to Giant Center over the last few weeks knows that this team has finally gelled and seems to be playing some good hockey.

Their record supports that and so do the stats.

The Bears are the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and are playing as well as anyone in the conference.  They are only 6 points out of 1st in the division and have a game in hand with Binghamton.

If they keep playing the way they have over the past month...the sky is the limit for this Bears team.

Later this week (or next weekend) I will have a post up about the remaining schedule and how it sets up pretty nicely for the Bears.  So check back to read that (or follow us on Facebook so you don't miss anything).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bears Playing Well on Home Ice Lately

The Bears have been playing better hockey of late and have been doing so on a more consistent basis.  Instead of only playing hard for a few minutes a game they have managed to do it for periods at a time and in a couple of instances…a full 60 minutes!!

Wow, imagine that.

They have worked themselves up from the cellar of the Eastern Conference and are currently tied for 9th (with Adirondack) with 40 points.  St. John’s currently holds the 8th spot with 41 points.

The playoffs are a legit possibility.


If the Bears can figure out how to play away from Giant Center.

This team has done a complete 180 from the beginning of the year and has figured out what home ice advantage is all about.

Since December 14 the Bears have played 9 games at home.  They are 7-2-0-0 in those games while scoring 4.1 goals per game and only allowing 2.3 per game.

That is impressive.

Especially considering that in the 12 games prior to that they were an ugly 4-4-1-3 (that’s 8 losses in some capacity…no matter what the W-L columns say that isn’t a .500 record).  During that horrendous stretch they were scoring 2.9 goals and allowing 3.4 each game.

So yeah, they have figured out how to play on home ice.

While that is important you must realize that the Bears are past the halfway mark in home games.  They only have 17 left and 8 of those come in the next 4 weeks and 14 games. After that they finish the final 2 months of the season with only 9 home games and 17 road tilts.

That wouldn’t be terrible if they were still playing on the road like they were early. 

Over the first 7 (up until December 6) road games they averaged 3.1 goals for and only allowed 2.6 and were a respectable 3-3-1-0 away from home. 

If you combine that with their recent home play and this team would probably waltz into the playoffs with a 5/6 seed.

Unfortunately, while they have improved on home ice they have struggled away from Hershey.

Over their last 8 games (since December 6) they are 3-4-1-0.  Not substantially worse record…but the measurable tell a different story.  They are scoring only 2.5 goals per game and allowing 3. 

You won’t win many games allowing more goals per game than you are scoring. 

Obviously they are small sample sizes and they have been playing even better of late.  But looking at just the last 4 games since their home play turned around (so since December 14) they have played 4 games and have failed to score more than 2 goals in 3 of those games. 

Oh and the 1 game they scored more than 4 was in Atlantic City…not a true road game.

Maybe it’s a matter of confidence.  Hopefully they will continue building that confidence over the next few weeks with the majority of their games on home ice before they embark on a travel-filled end to the season.
Time will tell.

On home ice they are probably as good as any team in the league right now.  We saw proof of that this past Saturday when Springfield (one of the AHL’s top teams in terms of points) came to Hershey and was fairly dominated for 60 minutes. 

The final score of that one was 5-3, but it didn’t feel that close from where I was sitting.

This weekend will see an additional test as the Albany Devils, the Eastern Conference’s current 5 seed, comes to town. 

If the Bears want to make the playoffs this is a HUGE game.  Not only in the standings, but for their confidence as well.