If you’re someone who follows the Capitals’ prospects closely, chances are you probably follow the Hershey Bears pretty closely, too. The Bears are, after all, Washington’s AHL affiliate.
Many Caps fans, however, are not as into minor league hockey and take a “wake me up when they get to Washington” attitude towards the team’s prospects.
This year, however, you really should be paying attention to the Bears and everything going on in Chocolate Town. Here’s why.
Ilya Samsonov’s start in North America
Widely seen as the team’s future in net, Samsonov is finally on this side of the pond, ready to start his North American career.
General manager Brian MacLellan said Samsonov will start this season in Hershey as he begins to adjust to the North American game. The smaller rink size makes it a difficult adjustment.
But Samsonov is not graduating from junior hockey to pro, he spent the last three seasons playing in the KHL and posting some impressive numbers.
While the plan is to bring Samsonov along slowly, how quickly he develops and how he plays this year in the AHL bears watching. Pheonix Copley is expected to start this season as the backup goalie for the Caps and is also entering the last year of his contract.
Will Samsonov be ready to back up Braden Holtby next season? If Copley struggles, will he play well enough in Hershey to earn a call up this year?
The team’s defenseman will start the season on Hershey’s roster
Jonas Siegenthaler, Connor Hobbs and Lucas Johansen are three prospects believed to have NHL potential and it was clear at development camp those three remain the closest to being NHL ready.
It seems unlikely any of those three would be slated to start the season with Washington, however. If the Caps go with the six defensemen they currently have on the roster, that would mean a third pairing of Christian Djoos – Madison Bowey and it’s likely too soon to turn to those two as a pair for 82 games. That means the Caps will likely bring in a veteran defenseman to cycle into the lineup.
An injury to Matt Niskanen last season, however, saw Bowey graduate to the NHL where he ended up playing 51 games. Depending on how Siegenthaler, Hobbs and Johansen play in Hershey, one of them could be in line to be the next injury call-up.
An influx of offensive prospects
The Bears’ leading scorer from last season, Chris Bourque, announced via Twitter that he will not be returning to Hershey. This team will be going in a very different direction in 2018-19.
Juuso Ikonen, Shane Gersich, Max Kammerer, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Brian Pinho all signed entry-level contracts with the Caps in the spring and all are expected to start next season in Hershey, though Gersich may be in the running for a spot on the Caps’ roster as well. In addition, Garrett Pilion and Beck Malenstyn, who signed entry-level deals in 2017, will be graduating from juniors to professional hockey this season.
That’s a lot of new offensive talent to work with. Not everyone is going to get a roster spot and some of these players could end up in South Carolina playing in the ECHL. But, if you want a chance to look at the next batch of forwards who will be competing to one day reach the NHL and put on the Caps’ sweater, you need to be watching Hershey's forwards this season.
A new coach
Troy Mann will be replaced this season by Spencer Carbery. Carbery was the head coach of the South Carolina Stingrays for five seasons starting in 2011 at the age of 29 giving him a level of familiarity with the Capitals organization.
Carbery was at Capitals development camp and spoke of the delicate balance between wanting to win at the AHL level while still focusing on developing the team’s NHL prospects.
It's a little bit tricky with Washington-Hershey just because Hershey has such a rich tradition of winning there and their fans are very passionate. They expect a certain standard and they want to win championships. That's a good thing to me as a coach. The development component, making sure that young players are getting better and they're able to make mistakes, but then we correct those mistakes. But I think going into a situation in Hershey where there is an expectation to win, I don't think that's a bad thing for a young player. We all want to win hockey games at every level you play at, even when you're a young player. Learning that early for development for me isn't an issue.
Carbery is being entrusted with several new, young offensive players, three defensemen hoping for a shot at the NHL as early as this season and a goalie pegged to be the future of the Capitals. No pressure there.
How will this first-year AHL coach handle the influx of young talent and balance Hershey’s desire to win with Washington’s desire to develop?
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