Perrenially, the Hershey Bears are an American Hockey League powerhouse. Even among the league’s toughest division, the Atlantic, the Bears have held their own. So far in 2017-2018 however, the best they’ve been able to muster is .500 hockey. So what’s up? Why are they are where they are?
- Drawing First Blood
In all but one of Hershey’s 13 regulation losses, the opponent has scored the first goal. Overall, Hershey is 5-12-0-0 when surrendering the first goal. Additionally, opposing teams have scored within the game’s first five minutes seven times. The Bears are 2-5-0-0 when giving up the early first-period goal. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, in particular, has a knack for striking early when playing the Bears as they have done so three times:1:18 (Nov 5), 2:39 (Nov 12) and 2:12 (Dec 3). On Sunday, the Penguins twice in the game’s first ten minutes at 7:15 and 8:36.
- Offense Anyone?
Chris Bourque is carrying the load and off to a strong start with 11 goals and leading the AHL in points. Unfortunately, he’s the only player with double-digit goals. Danish newcomer Mathias Bau has been helpful and will likely join Bourque soon sitting at eight goals currently. Secondary scoring from the likes of Jeremy Langlois, Dustin Gazley, Zach Sill and John Albert hasn’t quite been where they want yet. In fairness to Albert, he missed a lengthy amount of time due to injury and will likely need a few more games to get up to a level where he’s able to be productive.Hershey is hunting for goals mostly because the team lost all three of its 20-goal scorers to free agency in the offseason. Speaking with the media after the Bears win over Milwaukee on December 2nd, head coach Troy Mann acknowledged the lack of natural scorers on the roster.
“We’ve got some talent but we don’t have a lot of natural goal scorers… you can go through our lineup and we’ve got good players but to say we’ve got a natural goal scorer? I personally don’t see it,” said Mann.As a whole, the Bears are in the bottom half of the league (16th) with 75 goals scored. Lehigh Valley is pacing the Atlantic Division at 105 Goals For followed closely by Charlotte with 101.
“We’re going to have to find a way to get goals. I’m confident that when our goalies are on and our defense is playing well if we get to three goals we’re going to win a lot of hockey games… I don’t see us blowing teams away from an offensive perspective on a night to night basis,” said Mann.
The offensive struggles came to a head in the Bears latest game against league-leading Providence. Hershey held the better of the play for the majority of the game but couldn’t finish on any of their scoring chances. Riley Barber had the best chance to score by deking out Zane McIntyre giving himself a wide open net. He sent the puck wide off the far post. The season in a nutshell not only for Barber personally but for the Bears overall, the finish just hasn’t been there.
Injuries to both Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek to start the season put Hershey behind the eight ball early. The duo of Parker Milner and Adam Carlson showed promise but were clearly not ready to carry the mail of an AHL team. Considering the Bears roster was in a flux and relying on lots of young defensemen, both did an honorable job. By the time both Copley and Vanecek were healthy to return, Milner and Carlson had a combined record of 3-6-1 compared to 9-6-2 by Vanecek and Copley.
The Bears just haven’t been able to get two goalies playing hot at the same time. Copley started off on fire winning five of his first six games but has recently hit a rough patch. The 25-year-old netminder has just one win in the past seven tries. Vanecek, on the other hand, seems to be on the right track since returning. He’s won three of his four starts including a 21 save shutout over Milwaukee.
- Turnover and Turnovers
The loss of Veteran Tom Gilbert in the offseason paired with the promotions of Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey left the Bears with six defensemen 23 years of age or younger. Four of those six had never played a full season at the American Hockey League level. Jonas Siegenthaler has the most experience of the bunch while playing pro in Switzerland. He’s shown he can use his size and he can score:
And then said Siegenthaler "fight" pic.twitter.com/qsaxGGoRLJ
— Sin Bin Bears (@SinBinBears) December 10, 2017
ICYMI: Jonas Siegenthaler's first career AHL goal last night. What a shot. pic.twitter.com/slIqO8Sc1U
— Sin Bin Bears (@SinBinBears) October 16, 2017
But Siegenthaler still needs work in his defensive zone. As seen below from last Sunday’s game, the Bears defender is feeling pressure and blindly throws the puck toward the middle of his own zone. The feed ends up as a perfect pass for Wilkes-Barre’s Tomas DiPauli to bury making it 3-0 Penguins at the time.
Jonas Siegenthaler's pass that led directly to a goal against on Sunday. Still needs some work. pic.twitter.com/x6U2QAdHHj
— Sin Bin Bears (@SinBinBears) December 12, 2017
The Swiss defender is not alone in his mistakes. Understandably the younger players like Lucas Johansen and second-year pro Colby Williams have each had lapses in positioning and turning the puck over. Both, in particular, tend to get caught pinching in the offensive zone allowing aggressive teams like Wilkes-Barre and Lehigh Valley to take advantage. The entire Bears blue line needs to do a better job of getting pucks out of the zone and up to forwards. There are too many instances to count where a failed clear ended up on an opposing player’s stick and in the Bears net.
The primary issues have been touched upon and surely the coaching staff is aware of them. Can they be fixed? Maybe. Remember last year it took Hershey until about February before they figured things out and turned into a playoff team. If they can find a way to improve their starts to games it will certainly help. Win the opening faceoff, don’t take an early penalty or three, better pressure from the jump.
Things will be a little more difficult this season however because largely who the Bears have right now is likely to be who they’ll have come April. The Capitals are as close as you can possibly be to the salary cap making deadline moves seemingly unlikely this time around but you never know. It also came out recently that Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, and Madison Bowey have all been told to get a place in Washington, via Isabelle Khurshudyan, Washington Post. Stephenson and Djoos both would require waivers to be sent down. There’s a significant chunk of last year’s offense now in Washington.
Why There Might Be Hope…
Recent returns of Tyler Graovac and veteran defender Aaron Ness should provide a major boost. Graovac’s first few games as a Bear on his conditioning stint were positive and he’s been one of the Bears most noticeable players since being re-assigned to Hershey by Washington on December 8th. His line with Riley Barber and Liam O’Brien was clearly Hershey’s best line of the game on Sunday. “Gravo” has four points (3G, 1A) in seven games as a Bear.
Aaron Ness got in eight games for the Capitals at the beginning of the year and then was a healthy scratch for almost a month. Ness began chipping in offensively almost right away upon his assignment back to Hershey. In seven games, Ness has five points (2G, 3A). He should help stabilize the young defensive corps and has allowed the organization to send 22-year-old Kris Bindulis to the ECHL to further develop his game.
- While Pheonix Copley is in a rough patch at the moment, Vanecek seems ripe to go on a run. He’s shaken off the rust and starting to roll right along.
“You always want competition in all areas of your lineup and I think Vitek right now after tonight’s performance is certainly gonna push (Copley) for more ice time as we get into tomorrow and then next week as well. A Very likable kid, he works very astute with (associate goaltending coach Alex Westlund) in terms of what needs to be done to become a better goalie and his teammates love him and love the fact that he’s playing very well and has recovered from that tough injury to start the season,” Mann said.
- Lucas Johansen is a bright spot on defense and has a similar playing style to Christian Djoos. Sure his defensive game needs a little work but offensively, he has potential to eclipse Djoos’ 13 goals from a season ago. Some of his work:
Johansen's goal to make this a 6-5 game. pic.twitter.com/kzGOoQzyYw
— Sin Bin Bears (@SinBinBears) November 4, 2017
Here is a look at Lucas Johansen's goal tonight in Lehigh. pic.twitter.com/vzrnsKMSrL
— Sin Bin Bears (@SinBinBears) December 9, 2017
Troy Mann sees the similarities between the two as well.
“That goal he scored (12/8, seen directly above) where he changed the angle to get us back in 5-2 was a little bit of a Djoos type move… There’s a lot of work to do from the defensive side of things and that’s just normal with any young defenseman. But we need our defense contributing from the back end of we’re going to get to four or three (goals),” Mann said.
- Connor Hobbs has been missing since November 4th when he fractured his wrist crashing into the boards. We are now in the midst of week five of the six to eight weeks given by the team. He is skating now and once is able to return will bring back his tough physical play and booming slapshot.https://twitter.com/SinBinBears/status/940718920771801093
Hobbs scored 31 goals with the Regina Pats of the WHL last season so his return could be beneficial to the Bears secondary scoring woes.
Fixing a hockey club’s problems isn’t done simply with the flip of a switch. At times it becomes a balancing act between working toward living up to high expectations while realizing with the pieces lost and all the young defenders, there will be growing pains. Adjustments can be made and play could improve as the young guns continue to develop and veterans find their scoring touch again. It is possible they make a similar run to last year if that happens. Or with the offensive firepower they once had not quite there and developing D, don’t be surprised if they can’t make that run in such a strong division.