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).

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