Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bears 75th Home Opener Tonight

Last weekend the Bears dropped a 4-3 decision to the Syracuse Crunch in their lone game of the AHL's opening weekend.

Last night they redeemed themselves with a 3-2 win over the Binghamton Senators up I-81.  All 3 goals were scored by defensemen (Julien Brouillette, Garrett Stafford, and Cameron Schilling) and Dany Sabourin made 42 saves to pick up Hershey's first win of their 75th season.

Tonight the Bears open up Giant Center for the first time in the 2012-13 season.  The Bears will wear special 75th Anniversary jerseys, which will be auctioned off after the game, and will face-off against the Rochester Americans, the 2nd oldest team in the league.

The Amerks have already played 4 games this young season and enter the contest 2-2-0-0 with both of their wins (one in a shootout) coming on home ice.

During the 2011-12 season the Bears and Amerks met up twice with each team winning on their own buildings.  This is the first of two meetings again this season as the Bears will make a return trip to Rochester in February.

The 2012-13 Amerks include a few players with substantial NHL experience.
  • Top prospect Cody Hodgson played 83 NHL games last season between Vancouver and Buffalo and tallied 19 goals and 22 assists in those contests.  He currently leads the Amerks with 4 assists in 4 games but has yet to light the lamp this season on his own.
  • Kevin Porter joins the organization this season after spending the majority of the past three seasons in the Colorado Avalanche organization.  In those 3 seasons he played in 125 NHL games, scoring 20 goals and adding 15 assists.  His last extended stay in the AHL was with San Antonio in 2009-10 where he scored 15 goals and added 25 assists in 52 games.  This year he has picked up a goal and 2 assists to start the season.
  • Familiar (last) name, Marcus Foligno, son of former Bears coach Mike Foligno, has made the beginning of his second pro season an impactful one to date.  The 2nd year pro leads the Amerks with 3 goals in the first 4 games and also has an assist.  Last season he tallied 16 goals and 23 assists with Rochester in 60 games before moving up to the Sabres where he picked up 6 goals and 7 assists in only 14 NHL games.  
  • Another familiar name and former Bear "Big" Joe Finley joins the Amerks for the second straight year.  He stands at 6'8" and plays a physical game so watch out for him tonight at the GC.
  • Goaltender David Leggio returns to Rochester for his 2nd season with the club and has started all 4 games so far this season, earning a 2-2 record with a 3.22 goals against average and a .906 save percentage.

It should be an entertaining game at the GC tonight.

Tomorrow night also sees a home game in Hershey as the Bears welcome the Senators to town after beating them last night.  The Senators had won their first 2 games of the season before last nights loss at home to the Bears.  They host Syracuse tonight before making the trip down 81 tomorrow afternoon.

The strength of the Senators roster is between the pipes where they roster two of the better goalies in the AHL, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop.  Lehner has been a consistent presence in Binghamton as he enters his 3rd full time professional season.  He is a top prospect in the organization, Hockey's Future has him as the #2 prospect in the organization, and he has been stellar in his AHL career to date.  He has started all 3 games so far this season for the Sens and allowed only 2 goals in his first two games before giving up 3 to the Bears.

Ben Bishop has spent the majority of his career to date in Peoria as part of the Blues organization.  He has never finished a season with a goals against average over 3.00 (juniors, AHL, or NHL) and was stellar last season in his AHL time with a combined 2.27 goals against average and .930 save percentage in 41 games played between Peoria and Binghamton.

On the offensive side of things the Sens return their top 3 scorers from 2011-12 - Mike Hoffman, Andre Petersson, and Pat Cannone - and welcome some young studs to the lineup as well.
  • Mike Stone is a name to watch.  He only has 2 assists in their first 3 games, but this is a kid that scored 41 goals and added 82 assists in only 66 games in the WHL last season.  He actually made his NHL debut last spring for the Ottawa Senators in a playoff game, picking up an assist in his one game.  Definitely a name to watch until the NHL lockout ends.  
  • Jakob Silfverberg is a Swedish rookie playing his first hockey in North America this season (not entirely true...he also debuted for the Ottawa Senators last spring with 2 playoff games).  He scored 24 goals and added 30 assists in 49 games for Brynas IF Gavle in the Swedish Elite League.  He has one goal for the Baby Sens this season.
  • Another young Swede, Mika Zibanejad, played 9 games for the Ottawa Senators last year and picked up 1 assist.  He already has an assist this season with the Baby Sens.  

The Binghamton Senators are the youngest team in the AHL this season while the Bears are the oldest.  Those players I mentioned before...the Sens young stars...Hockey's Future ranks Mike #1, Lehner #2, Jakob #3, and Mike Stone at #5 in overall prospects for the organization.  Assuming they all stay in Binghamton for the year, they will likely be pretty good.

Enjoy a full weekend of games at Giant Center as the Bears kick off their 75th season in the AHL. 


Friday, October 12, 2012

2012-13 Season Begins

Tomorrow night in Syracuse the Bears will officially open their 75th AHL season.  A "new" team with "new colors" and the same goal...the Calder Cup.  After coming up short 2 years in row the Bears decided to let some guys move on and they brought in fresh faces with a new desire to win.

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 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.
Guys always seem to have career years in Hershey so hopefully that can continue. 

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? 

Who knows. 

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.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Quest for a 12th Calder Cup begins Saturday

The Bears wrapped up their 2012-13 preseason slate with a win over the rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Sunday night.  Overall it was a solid exhibition outcome...2-2, with no huge injuries.

This morning brought "final" cuts to get the team down to their opening night roster.  There is still a full season to play and many of the players cut will definitely be back in Chocolate and White at some point soon.

T.J. Syner, Joel Champagne, Brett Flemming, and Alex Berry were all sent to Reading today. 

That leaves 27 players on the roster including Danick Paquette who broke his arm and will be out for a while.

Click over to the roster page for a look at the roster as it stands now.

Alex Berry is probably the biggest surprise (to me anyway) as he scored 2 goals against Wilkes-Barre this weekend and scored 14 goals and 20 assists in the AHL two years ago.  He missed last season with an injury so maybe this is a move to get him used to game action again.  He is expected to play first line minutes in Reading.

Currently there are 15 healthy forwards on the roster and 9 defensemen.  I wouldn't be surprised to see another defensemen sent to Reading before the weekend but I who knows.  Teams always like to have some extra bodies for practice and the first few games as guys are still getting back into shape. 

The Bears open the season this Saturday against the Syracuse Crunch...which are technically the defending AHL champs, kind of.  The Crunch are now the affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were previously in Norfolk. 

Imagine for a second being a Norfolk Admiral this year.  Assuming the Admirals do a banner drop at the homeowner, there are going to be a number of guys on the ice who weren't a part of it last year.  In fact, based on look at the current roster...NOT ONE player from the 2011-12 Calder Cup Champion Norfolk Admirals remains in Norfolk.  Awkward.

So Hershey will start the season against the true defending Calder Cup Champions in Syracuse.  Looking at their prospective roster, it appears that a majority of last seasons team is "returning" intact. 

Should be fun.