Back in 2010, when the Hershey Bears last won the Calder Cup, defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner, center Jay Beagle and goaltender Michal Neuvirth used the experience to springboard themselves into the NHL and never looked back.
It took them another season or three, but 2010 Bears alumni Cody Eakin, Mathieu Perreault and Braden Holtby did the same.
Following their 8-2 rout of the Toronto Marlies Wednesday night, the Bears find themselves one win away from a series sweep and a return to the Calder Cup Final.
“Quite a few of our guys have gone through Hershey and won championships in Hershey,” MacLellan told NHL Radio Network. “It’s like the NHL. It’s a high level of play at the end of the season and all of our guys are getting better. Chandler Stephenson is getting better, (Riley) Barber is getting better. (Jakub) Vrana, (Nathan) Walker. We’ve got a bunch of young guys going through a tremendous learning opportunity here. It’s just a great opportunity for them to play at a high level.”
Through 15 games, Vrana, 20, is tied for the AHL lead with seven playoff goals and ranks fourth in the league with 12 points. Stephenson, 22, has one goal and four assists in 11 games; Barber, 22, has one goal and one assist in 12 games, and Walker, 22, has one goal and three assists in 14 games.
On the back end, the Bears are receiving significant contributions from three AHL rookies: Bowey (6 assists in 15 games), Tyler Lewington (3 goals, 1 assist in 15 games) and Christian Djoos (1 goal, 5 assists in 15 games).
All three defensemen are 21 years old and have gotten strong direction from Bears assistant coach Bryan Helmer, who was also a member of that 2010 Calder Cup team.
“Madison has come a long way just like every one of our rookies,” Bears coach Troy Mann said after Wednesday night’s big win in Toronto, where the Bears can close out the series on Friday night. “Our goal as a coaching staff is to try to get them to improve on a month-to-month basis and that’s what we’ve done.
“To be able to be at this point in the playoffs with three rookie defensemen, hats off to the organization and the individual kids themselves for listening to the coaching staff, being very coachable and improving on a game-to-game basis. Even though Madison is kind of the higher profile of the three, I think Lewington and Djoos deserve just as much credit as Madison.”
Whether or not the playoff performances of Vrana and Bowey will vault them into full-time jobs with the Capitals next season remains to be seen. Vrana missed three months of the Bears’ regular season with a broken wrist but managed 16 goals and 18 assists in 36 games. Bowey had four goals and 25 assists in his first 70 AHL games. MacLellan said he believes both players will see their first NHL action next season.
“I don’t anticipate them playing a full season, but I think in a call-up role next season they should get 10 to 20 games, I would think,” MacLellan said. “And then the following year I think I’d be looking for them to crack the NHL lineup.”