When Brian MacLellan was hired to replace George McPhee as the Capitals general manager last summer one of his many directives was to restore a strong working relationship with the AHL Hershey Bears.
With new head coaches in Washington (Barry Trotz) and Hershey (Troy Mann), MacLellan wanted the privately owned Bears to keep their autonomy while also aiding the development of the Capitals’ top prospects in a winning environment.
“There’s a synchronicity that goes on between both organizations on a personal level and on a team level,” MacLellan said, noting the growing relationship between Trotz and Mann.
Last season, the Bears and Capitals had strong regular seasons, returned to the playoffs and were knocked out of the post-season in the second round. This season, with the veteran departures of Tim Kennedy, Casey Wellman, Chris Conner and Steve Oleksy, the Bears could have as many as five AHL rookies in their lineup -- forwards Jakub Vrana and Riley Barber and defensemen Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington and Christian Djoos -- and that will pose a challenge to Mann and his staff.
“It could be the youngest team since the affiliation (with the Capitals) began 10 years ago,” Mann said. “…There aren’t too many American League teams that make the playoffs with three rookie defensemen.”
Tucked in the picturesque setting of Chocolatetown, U.S.A., the Bears are one of the most successful minor-league hockey teams in the country, routinely selling out the 10,500-seat Giant Center. During their 10-year affiliation with the Caps, which was recently renewed for just one season, the Bears won the Calder Cup in 2006, 2009 and 2010, adding to the eight previous Calder Cups in their 76-year history.
“They’re the best fans in the AHL and they deserve a good product,” Mann said. “You get spoiled when you’ve won 11 Calder Cups.”
But, as Mann noted, it’s difficult to make the playoffs with a defense core that boasts just one player, 30-year-old Mike Moore, over 25.
“It’s going to be a little bit different and a lot of responsibility for the veteran guys,” Mann said. “It’s certainly going to be a learning curve and we’re anticipating that. With a couple veteran goalies in there (Justin Peters, 28, and Dan Ellis, 35) it’s going to be crucial for them to be on their ‘A’ game for us early because there’s going to be a lot of teaching of these young kids.”
Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney likened the Hershey integration of Bowey, Lewington and Djoos to the ripening of John Carlson and Karl Alzner as a defense pairing in 2009-10, the last year the Bears won the Calder Cup. He said the Caps would prefer to "overbake" their prospects than to rush them into the NHL the way Connor Carrick and Alexander Urbom were in 2013-14.
Mann said he would like to surround his rookies with a few more AHL veterans to help steer the ship. MacLellan agreed.
“I think winning and developing, they both coincide,” MacLellan said. “You want your young guys in a positive, winning environment and we’ve had that with Hershey in the past. There’s always the balance between playing a veteran player and playing a developing player. Players learn to play from other players.
“You can’t throw a bunch of young guys into Hershey and say, ‘Go at it’ in the American League. The American League is a good league. You need guys that have been around and know the league and know how to win in that league and they need to complement your young guys. You need a good balance between the two and for the most part I think we’ve accomplished that over the years.”
Hershey pieces: Mann said he sees Carrick, 21, being first in line to be a Capitals’ call-up next season. Lewington, 20, a seventh-round pick of the Caps in 2013, sat out development camp with a shoulder injury but is expected to be cleared to participate in rookie training camp in early September. Mann said forward Miles Koules, who recorded 26 goals and 32 assists in 67 games for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, could be in line to sign his first pro contract with the Caps, saying he could begin his pro career in Hershey or South Carolina in the ECHL.
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