Friday, October 31, 2014

4 Thoughts on the Bears in the Early Going

Don has written nice postgame pieces of each Bears game so far (you can find this past weekends write-ups here here and here).

But I haven't given any thoughts on the matter yet as I was waiting to see the team in person (and then waiting to find the time to write it).  So here it goes:

Bears vs Penguins, picture courtesy of Kyle Mace and Chocolate Hockey

In watching the Bears live twice last weekend I think 4 things jumped out at me:

1. Team Speed

It isn't that the Bears are lightning fast and just skating circles around the opposition...they aren't that fast.

But the other teams aren't either.

In recent years you could sit down at Giant Center and immediately the speed discrepancy between the Bears and the opposition was apparent.  It wasn't that the other teams were unusually fast...the Bears were just slow.

A lack of prospects in the system will do that as Hershey filled their roster with slightly older legs and hoped that the veteran positioning would counter the speedier teams.

It didn't.

But this year looks different so far.  The Bears are just as fast as the other teams and a lack of speed will not be the problem it was for the Bears in recent years.

2.  Depth

We kind of suspected this coming in to the season, but after seeing it live it is obvious.

What is the Bears best line?  Go ahead, try and convince me of one.

You can't.  Why?  Because there is little difference between the 1st and 12th forward on this team.  Seriously.

Sure, some players struggle with certain things and consistency for the young guys is sometimes lacking, but ultimately this team runs 4 very good lines that others have to account for.

The saying goes, you are only as good as your weakest link.

If that is the measurement model...these Bears are pretty darn good.

3.  Focus in the Moment

Last season was probably the worst for this.  The Bears would score a goal and almost immediately the opposition would come down and score as well.

It happens.  When one team allows a goal they are going to have new found motivation to get one of their own.

We saw during both games this weekend.

Hershey went up in both games.  They scored 7 goals in the 2 home games and only gave up 1.  And that one came at the start of a period...never right after a Bears goal.

I noticed it right away Saturday night.  Wilkes-Barre came hard after the Bears scored 2 midway through the 1st, but the Bears were focused and ready for it.

This is a credit to the new coaching staff.  They have them ready to play in situations where last years team seemed to be lacking.

4.  Aggressive Pinching by the D

I have noticed this both in Hershey and Washington and it brings memories to the Bruce Boudreau days.

Any time the puck is headed up the boards the Bears d-men were pinching in aggressively to keep it in.

The Phantoms and Penguins had few easy clears out of the zone.

Now, this style play can obviously lead to odd man breaks and while that didn't happen this weekend it surely will.  BUT, in order to create opportunities for your forwards the defensemen have to be willing to step up and keep the puck in the zone.

These kinds of plays often go unnoticed on the scoresheet, but they are critical to winning games and the entire organization seems committed to this system.

Obviously there were other thoughts (including what seemed to be better success in the faceoff circle) but those 4 things really stuck out to me after seeing the Bears for one weekend.

Do you agree?  Did you see anything else that stuck out to you?  Share in the comments.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Copley's Second Consecutive Shutout Powers Bears

Sometimes I like the third game of these three game weekend stints. Usually you'll hear that the teams are extra tired, the play isn't as crisp and more mistakes are made. This all can be true. But occasionally that's a good thing.

The less structured play can allow players to be more creative against a team than say on Friday or Saturday night, when the opposition might be on its defensive game. And sometimes that additional creativity is rewarded more in a Sunday night game. Which can make for a more overall exciting game.

This is one of my biggest complaints about the current progression and state of the NHL. The systems employed by NHL teams in general are so structured (both offensively and defensively) that players are always in position and major errors rarely made. It has lost some of the "chaotic creativity" that comes from a looser system and play.

The tiredness was evident for both the Bears and Phantoms. But the Bears had one of their nicest goals of the young season when Kennedy skated into the left corner and threw a pass out to Philip Cornet in the slot. While a pass like that might have been intercepted on a Friday or Saturday night game, Cornet was able to handle the pass and, as he was being tripped up and falling to the ice, chipped the puck past Lehigh Valley goalie Anthony Stolarz. As Scott Stuccio mentioned during the broadcast, Cornet was falling and in the air when he knocked that puck in. Nice highlight reel goal.

However, it was Pheonix Copley who would end up being the star of the game with his second consecutive shutout. Copley wasn't overly tested as the Phantoms were once again held to only single digit shots in each period. But the Hershey goalie was sharp when Lehigh Valley had some good chances late in the third. Most notably the glove save on Darroll Powe's semi-breakaway and left pad save on Scott Laughton right in around the goal.

Overall, this was a fine ending to the up and down weekend for the Bears. And to get the first two wins at Giant Center this season is extra special in ushering in this new era of sorts to the hometown crowd. Hershey now heads back out on the road and won't be home until the weekend of November 8-9 when they'll face the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Big 2nd Period In Home Opener

During the first 5 games of the season so far, the Bears played their best in either the first or third periods. The majority of their goals have come in the first period. In Saturday night's home opener against the Pens, it was all about the second period.

The first and third periods displayed a pretty evenly matched yet scrappy game with both teams getting a few chances at both ends. However, it would be the Bears who would take period one with Tim Kennedy and Dane Byers scoring quick back to back goals. Philip Grubauer was tested a bit and his best save came on a breakaway by Jason Megna early on.

Ending the first period, the Bears were definitely in control. And Bobby Farnum and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond tried to get Hershey off its game by chirping at Olesky and Mitchell. These tactics would set the pace for the rest for the second and third.

The Pens came out more poised in the second and got a quick goal less than minute into the period. Wilkes-Barre controlled much of the period in what became choppy play with a bunch of penalties and starts/stops. In addition, the Pens had some really good chances in close around Grubauer and he had to be tough to fight them off. There was certainly some tension with the Bears' play considering what happened in last night's game versus the Phantoms.

But the Bears grabbed the game back with about 5 minutes left in the period when Casey Wellman scored on the power play with a nice tip-in from the slot. It has been mentioned before but Hershey's power play looks really good so far this season. The tape to tape passing is excellent and they're not afraid to move the puck to different areas of the ice to open up different opportunities.

Then with a  couple minutes left in the second, Gazley scored on a penalty shot where he turned Pens' goalie Matt Murray inside out with some great stick work. At that point, Giant Center erupted and the Bears went into the third period up 4-1.

The third period was another lesson in discipline for the Bears. Not much happened in the offensive category as Hershey didn't record their first shot of the period until there was only about 3-4 minutes remaining. But the Bears limited Wilkes-Barre's chances and the Pens never really had a chance to get back into the game.

Granted, the chippy-ness all game long finally boiled over when Steve Olesky fought Dominik Uher after Olesky put a big hit on Bobby Farnum behind the Bears' net.

A great home opener to be sure. Now the Bear's will face the Phantoms again and try to get some payback for Friday night's game.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Test In Holding A One Goal Lead

During the first half of the 3rd period, I thought to myself how this was a good early season test for the Bears in holding onto a one goal lead. By the time there was 5 minutes left in the game, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms were up 4-2 and would go on to win the game.

Hershey had the better overall play throughout the game up until that last half of the third period. Continuing to use their speed, cycle game and excellent passing, there were times when the Bears overwhelmed the Phantoms and pinned them in their own end. But the Phantoms kept hanging in there and just wouldn't go away. So how did the Bears let the game slip away?

As Coach Troy Mann is quoted in Tim Leone's post game Penn Live blog post, the Bears ended up playing too much in the neutral zone and there were too many turnovers. The worst turnover came on the Phantom's third goal when Andrew Gordon stripped the puck from the Hershey defender trying to skate out of the corner. Gordon then spun around, got a quick shot off and Darroll Powe put in the rebound for his second of the game. This was about a minute after Lehigh Valley had tied it 2-2.

Physicality and fights were also prevalent. The Phantoms used their size well and doled out some big hits. The most notable was Jay Rosehill lining up Patrick Wey along the far boards near the Phantom's blue line. Wey didn't return and no penalty was called on the hit. Now, while I saw the hit coming, it was difficult to tell to what degree Wey had his head down and how much control of the puck he had. So it could have been just a bit of a late hit. Either way, it lead to a fight between Rosehill and Tim Spencer.

The third period saw a huge fight between Garrett Mitchell and defenseman Steven Delisle. I got to hand it to Mitchell. He was outmatched in overall size and took a pounding in the process, but he really hung in there against Delisle. Mitchell is listed as 5'10", 188lbs. while Delisle goes 6'6", 209lbs. But Garrett seemed to be wound up and ready to go last night as he previously got a roughing penalty (basically an instigator) in the second for going after Rosehill before Spencer got involved in that fight.

This Phantoms team played a lot better than I expected and definitely had the backing of their boisterous hometown crowd. However, this loss is a good early lesson for the young Bears. As Mann further stated post game, "you've got to buckle down and play the right way." A tough lesson to be sure, but next time they'll be ready when another game like this arises.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bears over Hartford 1-0 in OT

So…how does one go about scoring on a 6'8" goaltender? Very good question.

First let me try to wrap my head around this. A 6'8" goaltender. That's like having Zdeno Chara, but with quick reflexes and the ability to move about on the ice even faster, in net. Many of you may already be familiar with Jason Missiaen since he's been with Hartford for a couple season now. However, he's definitely fallen under my radar for prospect goalies.  And I thought Pekka Rinne and Anders Nilsson were big.

Anyway, back to my question. How does one score on such a goaltender. The answer is with as many shots as possible and hope for a lucky bounce. And that's exactly what Hershey got on Sunday afternoon as they defeated the Wolf Pack with a power play goal in overtime with 1.5 seconds remaining.

This was a very high tempo game for both clubs as they definitely matched each other for speed. However, it was the Bear's continued excellence in the defensive zone that really stood out last night. In Saturday night's game against the Falcon's, the Bears allowed just 8 and 7 shots in the first and second periods, respectively. Last night, 8 total shots were allowed in the first and second periods (4/4). And Hartford's first shot of the second didn't come until 7:43 left in the period. That's pretty amazing against an offensively talented team like the Wolf Pack.

That being said, this was the goalies' night. And while much of the spotlight was put on Missiaen because of his numerous outstanding saves, Pheonix Copley, though not facing as many shots, was equally up to the task and deserved the shutout.

As Scott Stuccio mentions in his post game PennLive blog post, Missiaen's best saves came in the third period when he stopped both Chandler Stephenson and Garrett Mitchell back-to-back at point blank range. However, about a minute before, Copley made his own save of the game with a diving blocker on a Hartford 2 on 1. What's interesting about the lead up to this save is that the Bears had the Wolf Pack pinned in their zone 5-on-5 for what felt like at least 2 minutes. And Hershey played it like they were on the power play. You see plenty of times when one team has all the momentum but the opposition fights through and scores a goal. And it just kills the other team's energy. So Copley's save was definitely big.

So in overtime on the power play with both the Bears and Wolf Pack scrambling around the front of the net, Casey Wellman was somehow able to get the puck free and sort of flip it over Missiaen who was sprawled on the ice. Plenty of shots and a lucky bounce. I must admit that I was relieved that the Bears scored with 1.5 seconds left because I was wondering how they were going to get anything past Missiaen in the shootout.

One last thing. The Bears briefly played 3-on-3 in overtime per the new rules implemented in the off season. Scott Stuccio called it weird to watch. And I agree. However, I'm going to wait until after this weekend to see if we get another game where the 3-on-3 is played before I give my opinion on this new overtime setup.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bears beat Falcons 4-1

While the two games against Norfolk displayed the Bears excellent play in the first period, last night's game in Springfield, MA was all about the 3rd. The first and second periods were pretty uneventful despite Casey Wellman scoring in each.

Actually, it seemed like most of the action was taking place with the rowdy crowd that was sitting directly below the press box and really giving to the Bears and refs. Scott Stuccio noted it all game long and hilariously stated in the early third period that they should close the concession stands; "and not the ones where everyone can buy something."

The Bears played a very strong defensive game in those periods and didn't allow many scoring chances (only 8 shots in the 1st and 7 in the 2nd). However, the Bears did allow too many odd man rushes; with 2-on-1's for the Falcons way too prevalent. Luckily, Springfield wasn't able to generate much from those opportunities. Even with those chances, Philip Grubauer wasn't tested a whole lot and was well positioned and strong for the few times he needed to be.

The great puck movement of the team is really a bright spot this early in the season. And it especially showed on the power play in the first when Tim Kennedy took a pass from Kris Newbury and then needled a pass between a Falcon's defenders legs to Casey Wellman for the tap-in goal.

The third period really broke loose and opened up after Springfield finally scored their first goal of the game. Both teams traded scoring chances and power play opportunities in end-to-end action that didn't have many stoppages. The teams were pretty much evenly matched with only a slight edge going to the Falcons because of the momentum from their goal. And up until Philip Cornet's goal with about 7 minutes left, the Bears best scoring chance came from Joel Broda's short handed breakaway.

Philip Cornet, who received a nice backhand pass from Caleb Herbert, showed great patience in front of Falcon's goalie Anton Forsberg as he was able to sneak the puck up under Forsberg's arm on the blocker side. Really glad to see Cornet get his first of the year in a Bears' jersey. Let's hope he reaches that 20 goal mark like he did back in 2011-12 when he was with Oklahoma City and an AHL All-Star.

Next the Bears move on to Hartford where they'll face former Hershey hero Chris Bourque, former Bear Ryan Potulny and the Wolf Pack, who are 2-0-0 to start the season.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Complete 60 Minute Game

If Monday night's game against the Norfolk Admirals was an indication of what Hershey fans can expect from the Bears this season, then it's going to be an exciting year. Granted, I realize that it is only the second game of the season and there will be more difficult teams that the Bears will face but this was a very solid game throughout the lineup. The Bears played a full 60 minutes and didn't let up the couple of times the Admirals tried to shift the momentum to their side.

As Scott Stuccio noted in his post game PennLive post, the Bears once again came busting out of the gate in the first period and peppered opposing goalie Igor Bobkov with 15 shots. In addition, they continued their excellent play along the boards and close in around the goal. Both first period goals, by Stan Galiev and Chris Conner, were shot right in around the hash marks. However, Kris Newbury gets the goal of the game with the beautiful tip in about half way through the third period as he drove to the net. 

Pheonix Copley put in a very good performance for his AHL debut. While facing at least double digit shots every period, there weren't a whole lot of incredible scoring chances for the Admirals. However, Copley's biggest challenges were Norfolk's first two power plays (one in the first and one in the second). The Admirals had some really good chances on both power plays and Copley fought them off really well. Throughout the game he looked calm in the different types of situations that were thrown at him. Let's hope he gets a fair amount of starts this year in Hershey.

The defense played very stable and gave up few turnovers or chances to Norfolk. The defensive play of the night was made by Steve Olesky when he broke up a 3-1 about mid-way through the third period. The score was still 4-2 so there was still a chance the Admirals could sneak back in. Olesky blocked the pass with his body and calmly sticked the puck to the side boards. Perfectly played.

And let's not forget the stand up check by Mike Moore on Chris Wagner at the Bears' blue line, which resulted in a quite a melee. Speaking of which, Brad Winchester was quite a loose canon last night and got what he deserved with the 2 and 10 from that "so called" fight; which consisted of Wagner hanging onto Carrick while Winchester pummeled him. This, in addition to Winchester fighting Mitchell early in the first.

The biggest take away from these first two games of the season: LOTS of shots. 37 each game both Saturday and Monday. Troy Mann has put together a very up tempo system and this team is not afraid to shoot.

Next up is a trip up to New England for a Saturday tilt against Springfield and Sunday against Hartford.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Plenty of Work Needed

As was mentioned at the beginning of the third period on Saturday night, no matter at what level of the game "opening night jitters are always a factor". This seems to have been the case for the Bears as they dropped the opening game of the 2014-15 season to the Norfolk Admirals 5-4.

The game started off well enough for the Bears as they took the lead in the first period three different times. However, Norfolk was able to come back each time and tie the score; notably on Chris Wagner's two short handed goals of his three total for the night.

A bright spot for Hershey in that first period was its play below the face-off dots, in the corners and behind the net. Instead of using the usual grinding tactics along the wall, the Bears really used their speed to cycle the puck between the half wall to the corner and to the hash marks to generate the majority of its scoring chances and produce those three goals.

Unfortunately, the Bears' defensive game gave them the most problems. It seemed to get progressively worse over the course of the game and that prevented the Bears' from being able to maintain any pressure in the offensive zone. This was unexpected considering the coaching and system changes in the off-season. Even still, the team looked fairly solid in the first period.

The same can not be said for the second and third periods. Credit should be given to the Admirals for adjusting their game between both periods and it showed in the first half of the second period. The turning point appeared to be in the beginning of the second period when Steve Olesky took a hooking penalty. The ensuing delayed call had Hershey running around in its defensive zone for at least a minute and a half despite the Bears touching the puck about half way through. Granted, the rules state that the team needs to gain control of the puck but I have seen play at both the NHL and AHL levels stopped for less than that. It was almost like giving the Admirals a four minute power play. And the resulting goal to give Norfolk the lead just sort of killed any momentum the Bears might have had coming out of the first period.

The second period settled in and while Steve Olesky was able to tie the game 4-4 the Bears always seemed be playing reactionary instead of proactively. From there the game became bogged down in the latter half of the period due to a series of penalties. The third period didn't fair much better with the Bears not being able to get any sustained pressure on Norfolk. And Chris Wagner's hat trick half way through the period pretty much ended it.

Hershey's continued defensive breakdowns in the third period prevented them generating many quality scoring chances despite having 11 shots. Their best opportunity  of the period was when Chris Conner blew past the Admirals defenseman down the left side wall for a partial breakaway and looking to sneak it short side on Jason LaBarbera. And the play basically went completely unnoticed by everyone.

While certainly not a bad game for the Bears, it is clear that two areas they need to work on are overall team defense and putting in a complete 60 minute game. The next game is on Monday still in Norfolk. Let's hope the Bears can split this two game road trip to Virginia to the start the season.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bears Start the Season in Norfolk

9 of the first 11.

That is how many games the Bears play on the road at the beginning of the season.  From tonight through November 7, basically 4 full weeks, the Bears will play a total of 2 home games.

Tough way to start the season.

The first two games are in Norfolk, tonight and Monday night.

Last season the Norfolk Admirals finished 8th in the Eastern Conference, just edging the Bears on the final weekend of play in April for that spot.

Many of us remember that all too well.

So let's move on.

Tonight our new Bears will take the ice against a new looking Norfolk team.

In 2013-14 the Admirals had 9 different players that scored double digit goals.  Of those 9 only 4 remain.

Their top returning scorer is 21 year old Max Friberg who had 17 goals and 23 assists in 74 AHL games last season.

4 of their top 5 scorers are no longer even on the team as 3 graduated to the NHL with the Ducks and one (Andre Petersson, their top scorer) went to the KHL.

So like I said...a mostly new team.

And still a pretty young one.  Of their top 11 scorers last season, 5 were AHL rookies.  4 of them are still in Norfolk (including Steven Whitney who I am guessing is injured as he doesn't show up on Anaheim or Norfolk's roster).

In addition to them, a number of late season tryout players are shown on their roster for this season.  Including Nic Kerdiles, Matt Bailey, and Stefan Noesen.  Those guys didn't light the world on fire in their 19 games - 3 goals 4 assists combined - but I suspect they will get additional minutes this season.  (Although Kerdiles did record 1 goal and 3 assists in his 6 games, so he is one to watch.)

They also brought in a couple of veterans to help out.  Specifically two former double digit goal scorers in the NHL, Brad Winchester and Brandon Yip.

Neither are prolific scorers any more, but both are capable of contributing.  Winchester scored 19 goals last season and Yip tallied 14.

Add in Louis Leblanc and his 13 goals last season for Hamilton and you have a lineup that looks quite similar to the Bears.  Lots of potential offense, but a bit of an unknown on who will be the main scorers throughout the year.

Based on their roster the Admirals will be able to roll 3/4 solid scoring lines throughout the year.  Just like Hershey.

On defense they also seem to be similar to Hershey.

Of their 7 defenseman, 2 are older than 25 and 6 of the 7 are 6'1" or taller.  In Hershey it is similar, 3 of 7 are older than 25 and 6 of the 7 are 6'0" or taller.

And they are puck movers.  Jesse Blacker and Kevin Gagne return to Norfolk after both finished in the top 10 on the team in scoring last year, combining for 9 goals and 38 assists.

Goaltending is where the teams no longer compare.  Jason LaBarbera is likely at least goalie #1a for the start of the season.  He is coming off an average season with a 15-15-2 record, 2.94 gaa, and .901 save % in 32 games with Rockford.

But he will turn 34 midway through the season.

Sharing the goaltending duties will be Igor Bobkov who only played in 10 games for Norfolk last year.  He had decent numbers though going 5-3-1 with a 2.43 gaa and .919 save %.

While goaltending is probably Hershey's strength, it is probably Norfolk's biggest weakness.

Obviously rosters will change a lot during the season and injuries can change a teams fate early and often, but these teams will likely have many close battles throughout the season.

Tonight's game is game 1 of 8 against the Admirals this season.  And after Monday night the Bears don't return to Norfolk until their road trip in April.  (In fact, the two teams don't meet again until December 30.)

All I know for sure going into this one is that I am excited for the season to finally be here.

It was too long of an offseason and what is hopefully game 1 of the 12th Calder Cup season in Bears franchise history starts tonight at 7:15!


Friday, October 10, 2014

A Look at Your 2014-15 Hershey Bears

A new season is upon us.  The question is, what type of season will it be?

From 2005-2010 the Bears saw unprecedented success.  Since that 2009-10 team won the 11th Calder Cup in franchise history, the Bears have failed to win a playoff series.

So, what should we expect from this group of Bears?

The Goalies

Philip Grubauer is back for another season in Hershey.  Last year (as it was for many Bears) wasn't his best.  He went 13-13-2 with a 2.60 goals against average and a .916 save percentage.

Not terrible numbers.  But definitely down from the 15-9-2, 2.25 gaa, .919% we all saw in 2012-13.

Until injuries in Washington dictate otherwise, we should see plenty of Gruby early in the season.  Mann has said that he will split games between the tenders early in the season, but my guess is that Gruby solidifies himself as the #1 in that time period.

Backing him up to start the year will be Pheonix Copley.  Copley is entering his first full professional season after getting a brief stint in South Carolina last year and finishing his college career.

You can't tell much about Copley from his stats, but the organization has been impressed with him.  Once Eddie Pasquale returns to health I would expect Copley to head back to South Carolina, but who knows.  Being able to split games in Hershey to open the year could result in him sticking around.

And since we know something will happen in Washington, he will likely get plenty of chances to earn his stripes in Hershey.

Pasquale is out with a hip injury right now and I don't think he is expected back anytime soon.  He spent the last few years with the St. John's Icecaps.  Last year was his best year as he posted a 17-13-1 record with a 2.43 gaa and .920 save percentage.

He was signed with the vision of him backing up Gruby but his injury has left the door open for Copley to take that role.

Beyond them is Brandon Anderson who returns for his 3rd season in the organization and is coming off a pretty good year himself.  He spent the entire season with Reading and posted a 25-10-2 record with a 2.35 gaa and .916 save percentage.

Not bad numbers.

All in all it means that no matter who the Bears put between the pipes, there shouldn't be too much concern from the coaching staff or the fans.

In the crease...the Bears look pretty damn solid from the top down.

But what about outside of the crease.  I mean let's be honest...the crease hasn't really been Hershey's issue the past couple of years.

The Defense.

While there are plenty of new faces at forward for the Bears this year, the defense remains largely intact.

The opening night roster will look like this:
  • Cameron Schilling
  • Tomas Kundratek
  • Steve Oleksy
  • Patrick Wey
  • Connor Carrick
  • Mike Moore
  • Jon Landry
And Nate Schmidt will likely report to Hershey once the Capitals injuries work themselves out (although he looked pretty good in the Caps opener last night).

I think we are all excited to see Kundy back on the ice after he missed almost the entire season due to a knee injury early last season.

There doesn't seem to be much of a weak link beyond him either.  This is a unit that is mostly built on the new premise that d-men should be puck movers first and physical players second.

With the exception of Oleksy (who isn't a bad puck mover either) the rest of these guys fit that mold pretty well, including the two new names on the list.

Moore comes to the Bears after 1 season in Providence.  He is an AHL veteran that has produced decent offensive numbers over the years.  Last year he scored 7 goals and added 21 assists in 75 games.

And he is solid in his own end too.  Only one of his career AHL seasons has finished with him as a minus player.  Obviously that stat isn't cut and dry, but still a positive.

Landry comes to Hershey after only his second full season in the AHL with Iowa.  When I first learned that he wasn't a veteran I figured he was a younger guy.  But in actuality he is the oldest defenseman on the team at 31 and spent many seasons in the recently-folded Central Hockey League.

After finally getting a chance to play a full season a couple of years ago he did alright for himself producing 8 goals and 25 assists in 2012-13.  Last year he didn't score a goal but recorded 18 assists in only 50 games.

Calling them all puck-moving defenseman doesn't mean that they don't have size or hit.  Landry is 6'3" 220lbs and I am sure he can lay into someone.  Moore is 6'1" and over 200 as well.

While the defense last year might not have been as consistent as needed I don't think they were the weak link on the team either.  And with so many guys returning after playing together last year it should help keep things moving nicely.

The opening night roster will likely feature Wey as a healthy scratch, but my guess is that there is no "weak-link" among them and they will all just rotate through with each guy playing the role of healthy scratch from time to time.

But again, I don't think the defense was really a problem last year.  And neither was the goaltending.  So (other than the coaching) that would leave the forwards as the main problem.

And they were.

The Forwards

It seemed that no one was capable of scoring goals last year (or the year before).

And while I hate to say might be a problem again.

I have said it each of the past couple of seasons.  The Bears forwards look really good.  The team looks quite stacked.  Yet there is one weakness.

They don't have a go-to scorer.  Someone that you can count on late in games (or on the power play) to score the big goal.

An Alexandre Giroux type.  Or Andrew Gordon.  Or even for a bit, Chris Bourque.  Those guys could all score in bunches.

The 2014-15 Bears?   That remains to be seen.  The last thing any of us want to see is a bunch of players still looking for that perfect pass instead of getting the pucks on net.

First let's look at the group:
  • Dustin Gazley
  • Kris Newbury
  • Nathan Walker
  • Casey Wellman
  • Stanislav Galiev
  • Garrett Mitchell
  • Dane Byers
  • Chris Conner
  • Caleb Herbert
  • Chandler Stephenson
  • Joel Broda
  • Tim Kennedy
  • Philippe Cornet
  • Tim Spencer
That is your opening night roster (although Herbert is currently sidelined with an injury).  At some point the Bears are likely to see Chris Brown, Liam O'Brien, and possibly even Michael Latta, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, or even Evgeny Kuznetsov.

All of those players are currently with the Caps, but assuming injured players return to the lineup and no one else gets hurt, some or all are likely to spend some time in Hershey.  Quite honestly I think the most unlikely one will be Latta due to his having to clear waivers to come down.  That doesn't mean I expect to see the other guys either, but losing Latta isn't something I suspect the organization wants to risk.

But let's focus on the opening night guys.

Talented.  No question.

And productive.  Wellman, Conner, and Kennedy have all averaged at least .75 points per game in their careers.  And Newbury is just behind them at .70.

Awesome.  Except none of them are pure goal scorers.  They are more the guy who sets them up.

Think of them as the Keith Aucoin to Giroux.  Sure, they can score goals, but they are better at setting them up.

Combined, the four players I mentioned have played 27 AHL seasons.  In those they have a combined FOUR 20 goal seasons.  And three belong to Newbury.

Now, in fairness, that is because many of those seasons resulted in trips to the NHL.  But still, they never have been consistent, go-to scorers in the AHL.

Is anyone else on the roster?  Well, we aren't sure yet.

Galiev has that ability.  He scored about .5 goals per game in the ECHL the last two years.  Unfortunately when he would get recalled to Hershey the coaches insisted on putting him on the 4th line.  Maybe if Mann gives him top 6 minutes he could blossom.

Broda maybe?  He was Mann's captain in Bakersfield last year when we scored 21 goals in 41 games.  And in his last 2 years of junior hockey he scored 92 goals in 137 games.  (And was actually drafted by the Caps but never played for the was Kennedy actually.)

Gazley scored 25 back in 2011-12 in the ECHL but only 8 last year in Hershey.  Byers scored 25 back in the 2009-10 season, but he isn't a top 6 forward anymore and doesn't pretend to be.

Cornet scored 24 in 2011-12 but only 13 last year.  Stephenson scored 30 last season in juniors.

The potential is definitely there.

The one thing that I basically touched on without actually mentioning is depth.  I just went through 10 of the 14 players on the list and all of them are offensive weapons.

And the 4 I didn't mention - Walker, Mitchell, Herbert, and Spencer - all have offensive skill of their own...well, maybe Spencer is limited, but he is the only one.

I think this Bear's team will score plenty of goals to win.  I think they will make the playoffs.  And once they are there I am certain they can win it all.

But who are they going to look to late in a close game to get them that goal?  Who is Coach Mann going to put out on the ice with time running down in an effort to get that elusive tying goal?

That player isn't known yet.

Hopefully someone steps up.

Quite honestly, I like this team MORE than last year.  The 2013-14 Bears were talented, but they were also old.

The 2014-15 Bears finally have some youth returning to the lineup.  After years of waiting, Washington prospects are finally making their way back to Chocolate Town for some seasoning.

In addition, some good trades have resulted in a few prospects being added to the pool.  Granted the top prospects are still skipping Hershey altogether, but at least we are seeing some of them.

And they should bring some speed to the lineup that we in Hershey haven't seen in a while.

Last year we all saw the difference when Gazley was in the lineup.  His speed changed the games and that resulted in scoring chances and the opposing defense being on their heels.

More speed is expected of this group.

It will be fun to watch.

Image Credits - I borrowed all these images from Sweetest Hockey on Earth (hope they don't mind).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

East Division Preview - Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part look at the Bear's East Division opponents.  See part 1 about Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Lehigh Valley

Now we'll take a look at the Binghamton Senators and Norfolk Admirals. I included these teams for a separate post not only because they're non-PA teams but because they have similar characteristics. What I mean is that both are typically middle to lower division teams that found brief bursts of success recently with Binghamton winning the Calder Cup in 10-11 and Norfolk in 11-12. 

Binghamton has benefited greatly from Ottawa's strategy of rebuilding from within. This is one of the reasons the Senators won in the Cup in 10-11 with Robin Lehner taking the reigns and becoming Playoff MVP. All the while management has continued to stockpile draft picks, which has allowed Binghamton to be a very formidable team. Now the question becomes if players like Mika Zibanejad, David Dziurzynski and Stehpane De Costa are ready to move up to the big club.

With Ottawa's draft picks and trades, such as Bobby Ryan, finally starting to show success, now seems the time for those young guys to move up. And I suspect that Zibanejad and Dziurzynski will be in Ottawa on opening day. Because of this, I don't see Binghamton taking the division again. Even with youth and recent success on their side, the Senators are going to have a little tougher time this season.

For Norfolk, I sure hope they enjoyed that record breaking season and Calder Cup championship back in 11-12, because it's most likely never going to happen again. Norfolk's management and parent club (Anaheim) just don't appear to care enough about building a solid minor league team the way Tampa Bay did when it was associated with Norfolk during that winning year. Looking at how the Anaheim Ducks are now operating, they are definitely a win now team. And Norfolk will continue to suffer because of it.

And it's clear that some of the top prospects that played well in Norfolk will be making the move to Anaheim. Notably, John Gibson from the way he performed in the playoffs for Anaheim last year. But also possibly defenseman Sami Vatanen and forward Devante Smith-Pelly. Though the Admirals played well last season and made the playoffs, I suspect that if, much like Binghamton, it's time for the top performers to graduate to the next level then the Admirals will struggle throughout the season.
Which brings up an interesting point. As the majority of NHL teams have copied both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks and gone the youth route, it now appears that the AHL could be entering an era in which the parent club and management are seriously interested in building solid, winning minor league teams. There was even talk over the summer about more AHL teams moving closer to their respective NHL affiliate. So in the future, we could see more AHL teams migrating out West. Or at least to the Mid-West.

For many years Hershey has been and continues to be the standard for how to operate an AHL team and be successful. Since for NHL teams the focus is on drafting young players and developing them in the minor league system, it's only logical that management would want to build competent minor league teams that develops those draft picks correctly. I'm just surprised  it took this long. Whatever happens, it appears that there is more and better competition coming to the AHL and that only means a better quality product on the ice for the fans.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

East Division Preview - Part 1

With the preseason ending this weekend and rosters being finalized in the coming week, now is a good time to look at the other teams of the East Division and how the Bears can expect to matchup against them. With Syracuse moving to the Northeast Division and the Phantoms returning to eastern Pennsylvania, the division feels more "local" now. I really wish it was Norfolk that moved out and Syracuse that stayed. I like the sort of "I-81" rivalry between Hershey, Wilkes-Barre, Binghamton and Syracuse with a trip up to the War Memorial within just a 3 hours drive or so. Anyway, this will be a two part preview with Wilkes-Barre and Lehigh Valley first, being that they're from PA and the teams the Bears will play most this season. Binghamton and Norfolk will be previewed in Part 2.

To a certain extent, it appears that the days of East Division teams dominating the Eastern Conference are gone. If it wasn't a year in which the Bears were running away with the division and conference then one could almost expect one of their division rivals to be the top team. However, it appears that most of the East Division teams, right along with Hershey, are feeling the effects of the various stages of rebuilding or retooling by their respective NHL affiliates. That being said, with the exception of Syracuse the rest of the teams finished within 10 points of each other last season. Wins one way or another and any of those teams could have been bumped out of the playoffs. But that could be a good thing this year. With the teams pretty much on par with each other, the Bears have plenty of opportunity to define themselves under Troy Mann and reclaim the top spot in the East. 

Because of the changes in Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre is in a bit of a youth movement right now. There were no notable free agent signings over the summer, besides Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, and most returning players are young draft picks that have been in the AHL for a couple of years now. So Hershey will get its fair share of seeing Jason Megna, Zach Sill, Simon Depres, Philip Samuelsson, and Matt Murray again. While this is certainly not the Pens that reached 117 points a few years ago, this stage of the team's development could be very dangerous for battling in the division.

The young players either continue to get better as players and learn how to win (leading to a tough fight at the top of the division) or they struggle to develop and middle out in the division like they have done the past 3 years. The key is whether that progress pays off with success. Another issue is call-ups. The past couple of years has seen a lot of forwards being called up to Pittsburgh to fill spots on the third and fourth lines. This year should be the defensemen's turn. With Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen now Capitals, the Pens could see Philip Samuelsson, Simon Depres and Brian Dumoulin called up to the big club quite a bit this year. This will make for a weaker back end in those close games the Bears and Pens inevitably find themselves in.

I cannot express enough how pleased I am that the Phantoms are back in PA as a rival for the Bears. If New York can have as many AHL teams as they do, why not Pennsylvania. Especially in the Allentown area. Big win for that area. Hopefully they'll be able to pull enough Philly fans up that way to make the rivalry games as contentious as when the Phantoms were located in Philadelphia.

That being said, it may be a long season for the first year Lehigh Valley Phantoms. It doesn't appear that the Flyers organization knows whether it's in a rebuilding mode or a retooling mode and this has trickled down to the Phantoms. Much like Wilkes-Barre, the Phantoms are stocked with younger guys who have been around for awhile now. Likewise, they have not made very few moves in the off-season except for Derek Whitmore (having a brief stint with the Bears), who has shown to be a good contributor, and Hershey favorite Andrew Gordon. Let's be honest, signing Gordon was a great move by the Phantoms. This will really bring something to the rivalry in the Phantom's first year back in PA.

The question is will the change of location and division make any difference? Most likely not. The Phantoms have struggled since leaving Philadelphia and there doesn't appear to be any improvement on the horizon. At best they're a middle division team although the most likely position is to replace Syracuse at the bottom. But here's hoping that the renewed State rivalry brings out the best between the Bears and Phantoms. And the Phantoms and Pens. With the Bears on top and the Pens and Phantoms battling for the second and third spots.

And now, a bit of a rant and point to be made. A lot of hype was made about the owners getting the stadium built in Allentown and bringing the Phantoms back to PA. As I said previously, great for the State and couldn't be happier. However, in all this build-up the management forgot one thing: THE TEAM! How can they go to this much trouble in bringing the team back to PA and forget the product in the marketing process? I'm specifically referring to the Phantom's website. Basically, it's terrible. The first thing one is faced with is the team's schedule and purchasing tickets. I get it, you need to sell tickets. But when clicking the link to the "Phantoms" website, it takes you to Adirondack Phantoms old site that hasn't been updated since before last year's playoffs.

If I'm a Phantoms fan, this is unacceptable. They should have Andrew Gordon's and the Flyers' prospects faces and videos plastered all over a new site exclaiming how good the team is going to be. But no news is had on any team developments. Just very poorly executed.

Anyway, next up we'll look at Binghamton and Norfolk.