The Capitals and Hershey Bears have reached a four-year agreement that extends the clubs’ affiliation through the 2019-20 season, Washington announced Thursday morning.
The Bears have been the Capitals’ minor-league affiliate since 2005. This extension, though, is longer than previous agreements, underscoring a stronger relationship between the two organizations.
“It’s important for development reasons,” GM Brian MacLellan told CSN. “You have a lot of your young players going though there, and trying to make your NHL team. Most of them have things they have to work on.”
In the past, the Capitals and Bears at times seemed to be at cross-purposes. The Caps needed to develop their prospects while the Bears wanted to ice a winning product for their large and loyal fan base. In recent years, though, they’ve each managed to achieve their goals.
Last season, a mix of minor league veterans and Capitals prospects helped the Bears reach the Calder Cup final, where they were swept by Lake Erie. Despite a disappointing showing the championship round, the Bears’ performance throughout the season reinforced a growing sense of synergy between the organizations.
“We feel we have a great environment in Hershey, where we can monitor [the players], help them out and get them to the NHL at some point,” MacLellan said.
MacLellan also noted that the Bears have beefed up their staff, recently adding a assistants to head coach Troy Mann’s staff, including a video coach and strength and a conditioning coach. Addition such as those not only help the prospects develop at a faster rate, it also means they’ll be able to make more seamless transition during call-ups to Washington.
“We needed to get it to the next level for development,” MacLellan said. “We’re trying to mirror what we we’re doing up here, with the NHL team, down there in Hershey. Get our guys the help and support they need, whether it’s off-ice fitness work, nutritional stuff, help with the mental game, skating, skills work, we’re trying to do as much as we can do to get those guys to be successful.”
“And,” MacLellan added, “with the salary cap the way it is, we are going to need good young players to come in and play a significant role on our team as some of our unrestricted [free agents] get paid more. “
Drafting and, just as important, developing those prospects into productive NHL players is more important than ever in the salary-capped NHL. Teams can’t afford to re-sign all of their unrestricted free agent and, as a result, must have prospects ready to step in. The Capitals, in fact, could face that situation next offseason as T.J. Oshie, Karl Alzner and Justin Williams hit unrestricted free agency. At the same time, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andrew Burkovsky, Dmitry Orlov and Philipp Grubauer, among others, become restricted free agents. It’s doubtful the Capitals will be able to squeeze all of them under the cap.
Which is where the Bears come in. If all goes as planned, prospects such as Jakub Vrana, Madison Bowey, Nathan Walker and others should be closer to being ready to make the leap.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Capitals and Bears are only 130 miles apart, allowing players and front office personnel to get back-and-forth relatively easily.
“It’s not too close and it’s not too far away,” MacLellan said. “It’s about the perfect distance, so it works out great for our guys.”
MORE CAPITALS: GRUBAUER'S NEW GOALIE MASK REVEALED