Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2014-15 Hershey Bears Schedule Released

FINALLY, the AHL schedule was released.  Felt extra late this year, but it never comes out too long before Labor Day so who knows.

Obviously there is plenty of time to examine and pick it apart so I won't do too much today, but just some initial thoughts.

1. No Western Conference Teams

That's right.  The Bears play 76 games and ALL are against Eastern Conference foes.  In the past we occasionally saw Charlotte or Rochester or Adirondack (now with the Flames), but not in 2014-15.

2.  Lots of Phantoms and Penguins

We knew this would happen as well.  In recent years the Bears played 12 against the Penguins and usually no more than 8 against anyone else.

Not this year.  24 of Hershey's 76 games (that's 32%) will be against either the Penguins or the Phantoms.  12 against each.

Yippee!  (sarcasm intended)

3.  Lots of the East Division

We already established that 24 games are against the Pens and Phantoms.  But that's not all.

The Bears will play Norfolk and Binghamton 8 times each as well.  That's a total of 40 games against 4 teams.  Over half the season.

4.  On the Road to Finish

Just like last season, the AHL schedule makers (which includes massive input from teams) has managed to keep the Bears on the road for much of the final months.

Yes, there are wrestling playoffs and basketball playoffs and Disney On Ice that all need their time at Giant Center, but come on now.

Of the Bears final 20 games...only 6 will be on home ice.  That includes a 6 game road trip and then a 5 game road trip.

5.  On the Road to Start

Wanted to see your Bears on home ice early in the season?  Better head to the preseason games.

Hershey opens with 5 road games before coming home for 2 in late October...and then back on the road for 4 more.

6.  Home Cooking for the Holidays

So Hershey starts with 9 road games in 11 and finishes with 14 in their last 20.  That's 23 of their 38 road games in the first month and final two months.

That means you can expect a lot of home games in the middle 4 months of November, December, January, and February.

The Bears have a 6 game homestand surrounding Thanksgiving and another 4 game stand around Christmas.

7.  Just a Few 3 in 3 Weekends

And by just a few I mean 13.  Can't say if that is more than past years (I am not going back and looking) but it seems like a bunch.

But that is the life in the AHL.

Like I said...just a few thoughts.  If you want to take a look at the schedule for yourself you can find it here.

Here is the breakdown per team:

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton - 12 games
Lehigh Valley - 12 games
Norfolk - 8 games
Binghamton - 8 games
Hartford - 4 games
Manchester - 4 games
Worcester - 4 games
Syracuse - 4 games
St. John's - 4 games
Bridgeport - 4 games
Albany - 4 games
Portland - 4 games
Springfield - 2 games
Providence - 2 games

I am ready for some hockey...but there is almost 2 full months till the first home game.  Oh well.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Future Top Prospect

When it was announced in early July that Troy Mann was to be the new head coach, I started writing a post reiterating what a great move this was for the team and speculating on what type of system we might see this year.

However, I found it to be a bit redundant to anything being said on PennLive so I decided to scrap it. Besides, what's to be said? It IS a great move. Not only from a strictly hockey point of view but a PR angle as well. The fans know Troy Mann and what he brings to the table.

As for a system and expected style of play, the most important thing is how well Barry Trotz and Troy Mann will work together and what kind of system will be put in place in Hershey. And Tim Leone had a great article a few weeks ago from development camp that sheds some light on what can be expected.

But as I was mulling all this over the past few weeks, I started to think about the types of influences Troy Mann has acquired so far. And it's quite a list: Bruce Boudreau, Bob Woods, Mark French. From these guys, Troy Mann has experienced first hand teams that are offensive juggernauts and knows what winning looks like. More importantly, he knows what it takes to win. And how to handle talented star players can't be discounted either.

And now working with Barry Trotz gives Mann knowledge and experience of the other side of the coin: defense. That's going to be quite a well rounded hockey education. And from coaches that had great success at the AHL level.

Now it just comes down to whether Troy Mann can translate all that into winning with the Bears. The team is stacked with many solid, defensive-minded defensemen and a glut of goalies all vying for a spot. This should help smooth over the fact that the Bears are still a bit light on offense as they have been the past couple of seasons. But at least it provides Mann with options as he finds a winning formula.

All that being said, if Troy Mann can find success with the Bears over the next 3 seasons or so, he could become one of the top coaching prospects in hockey. Not too many of the young coaches out there have his kind of coaching education and knowledge. Now all he needs is time and experience to see if winning is the result.

With the recent signings of Willie Desjardins in Vancouver and Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh, there is no reason to believe that if Troy Mann finds success in Hershey he won't be one of the top coaching prospects in the future.

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...