Some "old" faces remain. Patrick McNeill begins his 6th season in Hershey. Captain Boyd Kane returns yet again as well. As do many other faces. If you haven't been following along here (with my infrequent posts) or elsewhere, you can find the current roster on the roster page.
Expectations the last two years, as with most years in Hershey, were high. Calder Cup aspirations were developed early and most people thought they had the team to do it. Two first round playoff losses later and here we are again.
The Bears, on paper, feature a deep and talented team. In any other season I would think this team would be a favorite to hoist another cup. Back in July the Bears started putting this team together with the expectation that there would be an NHL season. I mean, seriously, who really thought the NHL would risk alienating their fans yet again?
But as of right now there is no NHL season. Which means young talented players such as Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers will be playing AHL hockey for their affiliates, in this case the Oklahoma City Barons. Both of those guys were close to point per game scorers in the NHL last season.
Closer to home the Bears will see guys like Sean Couturier, the Flyers young centerman, who joins the Phantoms. Adam Henrique of the Devils will be back in Albany again. Chris Kreider, who came up big for the Rangers in the playoffs last spring, joins the Connecticut Whale for the start of the 2012-13 campaign. Some young studs, Emerson Etem (Norfolk) and Beau Bennett (Baby Pens) are starting out in the AHL this year instead of the NHL. The Columbus Blue Jackets young star Ryan Johansen begins the season in Springfield.
I am sure there are other names I am missing, but the point is...the talent level at the AHL level is going to be higher than usual. And should the NHL lockout take another entire season, it could impact the Hershey Bears chances of winning the cup.
That being said, there are benefits to no NHL season for Hershey. The biggest ones are in goal and on the blueline. Instead of starting the season with the Caps as their starting (or co-starting) goaltender, Braden Holtby returns to Hershey to play for the Bears. And he brings the talented defenseman Dmitry Orlov with him. There were no guarantees that Orlov wouldn't have been here anyways, but it wasn't likely.
After that there is one other good thing for Hershey...no NHL call-ups. There won't be stretches of the season where 2 or 3 guys are on recall to Washington due to injury. That means that, barring injury in Hershey, the players starting this weekend will likely be starting in December, February, and April.
That is good news since one of the main reasons for derailment the past two springs was injuries and recalls to Washington.
Who knows what is going to happen with the NHL. They could be back on the ice in a couple of weeks which would make all of this a moot point. Or they could cancel another season and these players are here to stay.
It isn't like the Bears haven't beaten NHL caliber players before...anyone remember game 7 against Portland??
This Bears team is good. And deep. And experienced.
Of the 26 healthy players on the current roster...25 of them have AHL experience. The only one that doesn't is rookie Stanislav Galiev.
And it's a bigger team than Hershey has seen in recent years. There are only 5 players listed at less than 6' and only 1 smaller than 5'10". Might not make a huge difference but the teams the last couple of years did seemed to get pushed around at times.
And there are scorers here as well.
- Jon DiSalvatore has scored at least 20 goals in all 7 of his professional seasons. And he has assisted on at least 30 more in 6 of those seasons.
- Matt Beaudoin is just one year removed from a 20g, 30a season.
- Jeff Taffe, who scored plenty of goals against the Bears while playing for the Baby Pens, is also just one year removed from his career best 30g, 37a season.
- Ryan Stoa has scored 55 goals in his 3 partial AHL seasons.
- Ryan Potulny scored 33g, 32a last season.
- Boyd Kane keeps scoring goals too with 19 last season.
But I would be lying if I wasn't a little bit concerned about this team too. They are older, three of the guys I mentioned above are older than me (31)...which, while not old, is definitely old in AHL terms. And of the remaining three, only Stoa is younger than 28.
Of the players expected to be major contributors offensively (the 6 guys mentioned above plus Zach Hamill and Galiev) only 1 will be younger than 25 when the Calder Cup is won.
Compare that to the top 8 scorers (forwards) from the 2009-10 season and their ages when they won the cup...only 3 were older than 25 - Kane, Aucoin, and Giroux. Also consider that most of those same players were leading the Bears in scoring during the 2008-09 Cup team.
Does that mean anything? I have no idea. But it is worth noting I think.
The team will be good. Will they contend or win a cup? Who knows. In the past two years I have projected that the teams were definitely good enough and they didn't even make it out of the first round.
I will say that hockey seems to be a young mans game. 76 games, plus playoffs, against some of the better (and younger) talent the hockey world has is a long season. Will the age of the players come into play? Will they work together as a team the way the teams have done in the recent past?
I haven't even touched on the defensemen yet...mainly because I am not at all concerned and there was less turnover there. But they face an increased challenge as well with many NHL caliber forwards playing in the 'A' this season. They will be asked to defend guys that they haven't seen and who are more skilled then what they typically see.
But as I said before I am not too concerned there.
Goaltending? One of the best combo's in the league and with Phillip Grubauer just a 2 hour drive away, if needed...probably the deepest stable of goalies the Bears have seen in a few years.
It is going to be a good season. With many ups and downs. It wouldn't surprise me at all if this team made a run at the division and then the cup. But I don't know most of these guys so it also wouldn't surprise me if they struggled to get into the playoffs as the 6-8 seed.
With so many new faces, a partially new system in place (new co-coach Adam Oates is implementing at least parts of his system), and a deeper pool of talent in the AHL it is a wide-open year.
I expect some struggles early and would not be surprised at all if we get to Thanksgiving and the Bears are out of playoff positioning. It is going to take a few games (and weeks) to really figure each other out on the ice. The guys that have been here in recent years had spent multiple years together and knew each others tendencies and preferences. It will take some time for that to develop with the current team.
I can say this...I am excited. Getting to see Hershey Bears hockey makes the next 6+ months very exciting and I can't wait for them to get started.
LET'S GO BEARS!!!!!