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4 reasons Capitals fans should pay close attention to the Hershey Bears this season

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Scout Pruski

4 reasons Capitals fans should pay close attention to the Hershey Bears this season

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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Ovechkin looks to match career point streak as Capitals visit Carolina tonight

Ovechkin looks to match career point streak as Capitals visit Carolina tonight

The Capitals visit the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night at PNC Arena (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington). Alex Ovechkin can tie his career-best point streak (13 games). Washington (18-9-3, 39 points) has won three straight games. It is the first meeting this year with the Hurricanes (13-13-4, 30 points), who are in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division.                          

Here are four things to watch:

Ovechkin’s Best

Alex Ovechkin has a point in 12 straight games and is one away from matching his career high (Dec. 30, 2006-Feb. 1, 2007). Ovechkin has 19 points (13 goals, six assists) during in this streak and 18 of those have come at 5-on-5 or with the opposition's net empty (three goals). 

Going Streaking

The Capitals have a three-game winning streak and have won 11 of 14 overall. That has allowed them to extend their lead in the Metropolitan Division to three points over Columbus and seven over the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh. Even better for Washington is it has won seven of its past nine games on the road. 

Holtby starts

Interesting decision by Todd Reirden, but he goes with Braden Holtby tonight on the road in the first game of a back-to-back. Division rivalry comes into play here. Holtby gets the Hurricanes while Pheonix Copley likely plays against the Buffalo Sabres at Capital One Arena on Saturday night. Holtby has a .934 save percentage since Nov. 7. He is one shutout shy of tying Olie Kolzig (35) for most of franchise history.   

Injuries mounting

The Capitals will be without defenseman Christian Djoos, who had surgery on his left thigh and will be out “a substantial amount of time,” according to Reirden. Djoos was hurt in the Detroit game on Tuesday. That gives an opportunity to rookie Jonas Siegenthaler, who will play with Madison Bowey tonight on the third pair. Brooks Orpik is not yet back from knee surgery and it could still be some time for him. Expect a recall from AHL Hershey for Saturday's game. The Caps are down to six defensemen. 

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Djoos out indefinitely giving Seigenthaler a chance to cement himself in the NHL

Djoos out indefinitely giving Seigenthaler a chance to cement himself in the NHL

Capitals defenseman Christian Djoos is out indefinitely after undergoing a successful surgical procedure on his left thigh Thursday, the team has announced. Djoos sustained the injury in Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.

Djoos did not practice on Wednesday and the team initially labeled him as day-to-day.

Head coach Todd Reirden said after Wednesday’s practice that he would get an update on Djoos’ status later that day from the trainers and was hopeful he could play in Friday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

“He got some treatment instead of going on the ice and hopefully when I get the update from the trainer, he’s headed in the right direction and can be back there on Friday.”

Reirden also said the team would wait to make any recall until they knew Djoos’ status.

The injury, evidently, was worse than feared prompting an in-season surgical procedure. Djoos has four assists in 28 games this season.

Despite Djoos’ injury, however, when asked if there would be a corresponding recall from Hershey, a team’s spokesman told NBC Sports Washington via text, “Not as of right now.”

With Djoos on the shelf and Orpik still on LTIR, this gives Jonas Siegenthaler a chance to cement himself as an NHL defenseman. Siegenthaler looked poised to make the NHL roster after a strong training camp, but Tom Wilson’s suspension forced a number of roster moves that ultimately saw the waiver exempt Seigenthaler reassigned to the AHL. He was recalled later in the season and has impressed with his play.

In five games, Siegenthaler has yet to record an NHL point, but offense is not his game. He is a physical defenseman with a similar playing style to the veteran Orpik, but much more mobile. He has not looked out of place at all since coming to the NHL despite regularly playing on a third pair with either Djoos or Madison Bowey, both of whom are only in their second NHL season.

If Siegenthaler keeps up his current rate of play, it will be very difficult to send him back to Hershey even after Djoos and Orpik return from injury.

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