Tuesday, October 4, 2011

2011-12 Bears Preview: Defense

Last season the Bears allowed 2.68 goals per game.  That was good enough for 10th in the AHL.  Which translates to a slightly above average defensive team.  It wasn't a year to complain about, but it wasn't a year to rest on either.  An improvement on the blueline would go a long way to getting another Calder Cup.

Many of the same faces that we saw on the ice last year are back.  Patrick McNeill, Sean Collins, Patrick Wellar, and Zack Miskovic all return and Dmitri Orlov is expected to be in the chocolate and white for most of the season. 

That group by itself is pretty solid.  Only Orlov finished the season as a "minus" contributor as he ended with a -5 plus/minus rating.  Keep in mind though that Orlov only came over from Russia late in year and only played in 19 regular season games.

McNeill and Miskovic led all Bears defensemen last season with 7 goals each and Patty also assisted on 20 other goals for 27 points in only 51 games.  Remember that McNeill missed the first part of the season due to offseason surgery so he likely wasn't at full strength until late in the season if at all.

Collins led the team with a +29 ranking and earned a late season call up to Washington as well.  Wellar was third on the team (behind Steve Pinizzotto and Joel Rechlicz) in penalty minutes as the big defensemen is definitely not going to shy away from anyone.

Orlov, Collins, and McNeill are the premier guys in that group, but Miskovic is definitely coming on strong as well.

That is as impressive a top 5 as you can likely have in the AHL.  Orlov, when he returns, is a bona fide future NHL d-man while McNeill, Collins, and Miscovic could all one day call the NHL home as 5th/6th defensemen. 

While many players that were with the Bears in 2010-11 aren't back, Lawrence Nycholat, Brian Fahey, Sheldon Souray to name a few, there are plenty of new veteran faces to take their place.

Danny Richmond

Richmond is an AHL veteran who has played in 433 AHL games since the 04-05 season.  He has also played in 49 NHL games over that same span. 

He is a 6'0" 195 pound defenseman who has totaled over 100 penalty minutes in each of his previous 7 seasons.  He has scored double digit goals once (10 in 06-07) and is coming off his second best statistical season as he registered 3 goals and 20 assists in 2010-11 while playing for the Toronto Marlies.

In the past the Bears have brought in similar "veteran" players and it has typically worked out well.  Bryan Helmer and Brian Fahey are the two most recent names that come to mind.  In fact, Richmond has played in more NHL games during his career than both of those two I believe.

I think he is positioned for a career year in Hershey.

Julien Brouillette

Brouillette spent the 2010-11 season having a "breakout" campaign with the Lake Erie Monsters.  The four year veteran had spent the majority of his pro career in the ECHL before getting into 49 games with the Monsters last season.  He registered 2 goals and 15 assists last season and finished an impressive +17 in his 49 games.

He previously played for Hershey assistant coach Troy Mann so there was some familiarity between the two that resulted in his signing with Hershey.  In the ECHL he has shown some offensive ability registering 35 goals over the past 3 seasons at that level.

Tim Leone did a good write up on him that you can check out for more.

Paul Baier

Consistency seems to a thing for him.  In each of the last 3 AHL seasons he has played in just over 60 games, scored 2 or 3 goals, and has had 8 assists.  This will be his 4th full AHL (pro) season and will be his 4th different franchise. 

He is a big defenseman at 6'4" and 225lbs so he likely packs a pretty good physical game, but penalties don't seem to be a part of it as his career high is only 80.

Last season he played for the Rochester Americans and finished the season a -7, which was actually pretty good on a team that had ten different players at -10 or worse.

In addition to the new veterans there are two youngsters in the mix for playing time with the Bears this season:

Brett Flemming

Flemming was the 5th round choice of the Capitals in the 2009 draft and has spent the past 4 seasons playing in the OHL.  Based on his numbers in juniors he isn't likely to be a goal scoring defenseman (only 9 goals in the four seasons) but more of a puck moving player as he picked up 87 assists the past 3 years.  He also averaged 86 penalty minutes a year over the last 3 seasons so he appears to mix it up a little bit.

He is only listed at 5'11" and 184lbs so I wouldn't expect to see a real physical presence from him but I am sure he hands out a fair share of hits. 

Hockey's Future says this about him:
Flemming is a two-way defenseman with offensive elements to his game. Despite less than ideal size for a defender, he is willing to compete in tight spaces and will drop the gloves when necessary. He is sometimes out-muscled due to his light frame and is not a particularly punishing player. The strength of his game is his ability to recognize plays and distribute the puck to open teammates. He was used in a forward role at times during his junior career with mixed results. Flemming was one of the top plus/minus players with Mississauga St. Michael's during his junior career. Flemming makes strong passes out of his own zone and is capable of handling power-play duties from the point.
I originally wrote this post on Friday when it appeared (to me anyway) that Phil Oreskovic would begin the season in Hershey likely meaning that Flemming would start off in South Carolina.  However, Oreskovic was reassigned to South Carolina after Saturday's preseason game which opens up a roster spot for the young rookie. 

Dustin Stevenson

Stevenson played in 63 games for South Carolina last season and is likely headed their again this year.  He was signed out of the SJHL, which is a lower tiered Canadian Junior League, and is still adjusting to the game as a pro.  He didn't get any looks during the regular season last year in Hershey but will likely get a sniff at some point in 2011-12.

Hockey's Future has this to say:
Stevenson is a physically imposing defender who uses his size and strength to intimidate opposing forwards. He also has some offensive ability and can move the puck as well as shoot from the point. He has generally been bigger and stronger than the opposition he has faced thus far. He has played at a lower level of competition in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League but should develop his all-around game playing at the professional level.

Last season the Bears saw 15 defensemen play in games so depth is an important quality to have.  And I think this years team has it. The top 6 will be as good as any in the AHL and the next 3 would be top 6 on many teams.  After that you have the young kids who will be solid fill-ins if necessary but aren't expected to play large roles this season.

Offensively this unit is probably not as good as in years past, but there is potential there so we will have to wait and see.  With the forward depth this season the defense won't be relied on to produce much in the way of offense.  The players on the blueline are good puck movers who play responsibly in their own end and aren't afraid to play somewhat physical.  That is perfect.

Guys like Baier, Wellar, and Richmond will be expected to take the body and make some big hits while McNeill, Orlov, Miscovic, Brouillette, Flemming and Collins will be expected to get the puck out of the zone and join in on the rush from time to time.  Add Stevenson and Oreskovic to the mix as potential call ups and you have an impressive group of blueliners this season.

This group is younger than in years past and I think very well balanced. 

Looking at the team as a whole you would consider the defense 3rd behind the forwards and goalies, but that is more because the other spots are known quantities.  I think by the end of the season the defense could end up being the strength of the team.

And that is always important come spring.

No comments: