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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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Four NCAA Capitals prospects on normalcy, finishing their degrees, and the quiet minority of college players in the NHL

Four NCAA Capitals prospects on normalcy, finishing their degrees, and the quiet minority of college players in the NHL

For many NHL hopefuls, getting drafted into the league overrides everything else in their hectic lives.

A lucky few end up in the big leagues their first season, especially if a team is strapped for options on their roster or wants a fresh start. 

But for the Washington Capitals — who have kept a significant amount of their roster intact since 2015 — those next in line have more time to consider their options. 

At this year’s Capitals Development Camp, a third of the prospects on the Caps’ roster spent the 2017-18 season as NCAA student-athletes.

Although players who choose to finish their college career may not get as much media attention, it doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. 

”I think [about] a third of NHL players nowadays are college guys,” said Capitals prospect Steven Spinner.


Capitals RW Prospect Steven Spinner (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

The league’s quiet camaraderie among collegiate players is obvious in the Caps’ locker room. When approaching Benton Maass, Brian Pinho, Chase Priskie, and Steven Spinner to talk to them on Friday, I found them pressed shoulder to shoulder in four consecutive stalls, chatting about the morning’s defensive drills. All are equally driven to success both on and off the ice.

Pinho, who graduated from Providence College in May with a degree in finance, attended his sixth dev camp this year. He feels like finishing all four years of school was the right choice for both his academics and his NCAA career. 

“I worked so hard the first few years to get my degree. It was important to me to finish,” said the 23-year-old. “I really enjoyed what I was studying.”


Capitals C Prospect Brian Pinho (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

Classes weren’t the only motivator for Pinho, who had a strong team community behind him. After winning the NCAA title in his freshman year, he finished his senior year as captain of the Friars. 

“It was a natural fit. I was assistant my junior year, so I kind of just eased right into it,” Pinho said. “But I really enjoyed it. We had a young team, but everyone really dialed in to [our] process and our game plan and we had a good year.”

Maass, a rising sophomore at University of New Hampshire, still has plenty of time. While undecided about his major, he plans to finish his degree and further his role in his team’s community.

“Being from the United States, college hockey is the only thing I ever planned on doing,” Maass said. “I didn’t look into major junior or anything. I guess it was just always the best option, especially because I wanted to stay in school.”


Capitals D Prospect Benton Maass (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

Spinner, a 22-year-old right wing majoring in marketing and management, also spoke of the desire for normalcy. 

“I just decided that I’m going to go back next year to [University of Nebraska-Omaha], get my degree, finish out – just be a college guy. Be an American [young adult].”

For many players, playing Division I competitive hockey offers a middle ground between developing skills and a normal college experience. The student athlete lifestyle feels like a natural extension for those who grew up going to practice every day after high school classes.

“Time management’s the biggest thing in college hockey,” Spinner added. “That and discipline. If you don’t have a good week in practice, you should expect it [to affect] play. But I think [the NCAA] is a great league, and I enjoy every single day of it. I’m happy.” 

Priskie of Quinnipiac University, who finished his degree in finance and computer science in three years, stressed the chance to mature without major-league pressure. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to be ready to play pro hockey at 18, 19, 20, so I figured I can use the extra two-three years to develop physically. So I just thought it was a better route for myself. Some of the other guys that came out of Florida like Shayne Gostisbehere ranted and raved about how fun college was, such a great experience.”


Capitals D Prospect Chase Priskie (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

When you’re dividing time between hockey and school, fun can be essential. 

“I took an acting class with a couple of my buddies on the team and some of their friends,” Pinho said. “At first we were all really shy, and then our class was pretty close knit, so it ended up being really fun, actually.”

So what’s next? Though everyone is obviously excited about their respective NHL hopes, Spinner and Maass will return to school in August while Pinho and Priskie have an eye on the AHL. Priskie also plans to work towards a masters’ in business analytics this year. 

At the end of the day, both are grateful for the safety net that a college degree offers. 

“When hockey ends, eventually, I have something else I can crash on,” Pinho said. “But obviously, right now, hockey is the most important thing.”

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There was plenty of trash talking at development camp with Switzerland set to play Sweden in the World Cup

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There was plenty of trash talking at development camp with Switzerland set to play Sweden in the World Cup

For the past week, the focus at Kettler Capitals Iceplex has been hockey. For the rest of the world, however, the focus has been on soccer.

With the World Cup taking place in Russia throughout Capitals Development Camp, many of the European players tried to find moments in between practice and camp activities to watch.

"Soon as we get time off, turning on the TV to watch if there's a game on,” Axel Jonsson-Fjallby said.

"We're watching it, we're discussing about it before practice, after practice, in the morning,” Jonas Siegenthaler said. “It's pretty big in Europe."

But sports can suddenly make enemies of teammates and that’s exactly what happened when the knockout matchups were determined.

On Tuesday, Switzerland will play Sweden in the Round of 16 with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line.

Development camp featured two players from Switzerland (Siegenthaler, Tobias Geisser) and two Swedes (Jonsson-Fjallby, Sebastian Walfridsson).

Yes, all of them are aware their countries are playing one another and yes, there has been plenty of trash talking.

“Right away when we know we play against Sweden there a little bit trash talk,” Geisser said.

That was echoed by both Jonsson-Fjallby and Siegenthaler who sat only a few stalls from one another in the locker room. Clearly, they had discussed the upcoming game on more than one occasion.

“I don't even know one Swedish player,” Siegenthaler said. “The one I knew, it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he retired from the national team so I think they don't have that good players as we do so I'm pretty confident."

“[Siegenthaler’s] sure that Switzerland will win,” Jonsson-Fjallby said. “It's the same thing for me, I know that Sweden's going to win."

Camp wrapped up on Saturday so unfortunately, the players will not be in town when differences are ultimately settled in Tuesday’s game. But that does not mean the trash talking has to stop.

Thanks to modern technology, the losers on Tuesday can be sure to hear about it from whoever comes out on top.

"It will be a fun game to watch and we'll probably talk to each other at the same time,” Jonsson-Fjally said, “Just trash talking."

Check out the latest Capitals Faceoff Podcast episode in the player below or listen on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.

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