HERSHEY, Pa. – The Hershey Bears’ defensive group is a far cry from what projections were back before the season started. Although several key players have either not yet joined the team due to assignment overseas or been lost to injury, the Chocolate and White find themselves at 5-1-2-0 through eight games in the early going of this 2021 season. Part of it is credited to the excellence in coaching with Patrick Wellar, a Calder Cup Champion in the past with Hershey. Another part is certainly to be credited to excellent signings by another Calder Cup winner in the organization in Bryan Helmer. In the most depth-tested season in some time, the Bears have passed the test in the early going this season.
Hershey’s defensive group already looks a bit different due to the absence of two key players: Alex Alexeyev and Bobby Nardella, two players assigned overseas by the Washington Capitals to the KHL and SHL, respectively, back when those two leagues began play earlier this fall. Both players should join the Bears at some point this season. Still, Alexeyev’s excellent two-way play and Nardella’s emerging offensive presence at the blue line (the likes of which matched Christian Djoos’ output before he was traded last season) were major losses for Hershey. The Bears already had a solid group to work with in their absence, and the Capitals had even added reinforcements to the mix with Cameron Schilling and Paul LaDue through free agency. Returning players like Lucas Johansen, Eddie Wittchow, and Martin Fehervary gave a sense of familiarity and have plenty to prove in their own right. The Bears added Macoy Erkamps, Tyler Nanne (who was injured before the season playing in South Carolina), and Will Graber via AHL contracts. Hershey signed proven AHL defenders Reece Willcox and Rob O’Gara to professional tryout agreements even before training camp. By all counts, the Bears should have been stocked and then some this season.
Then, the injuries started happening early in the season. The Bears were without Schilling for a brief time in the early part of the season and lost both Wittchow and LaDue in the team’s first win in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. LaDue and Schilling would eventually return, but Hershey lost Johansen and Erkamps in a February 20 win over the Penguins. It got to the point that, in this past Wednesday’s game against Wilkes-Barre, that the Bears utilized forward Kale Kessy as a sixth defenseman while recent signee Zach Malatesta was completing his quarantine. It’s been a very different look than anticipated in Hershey, but it’s been a job well done so far this season.
In particular, Graber’s debut has been especially impressive, as the rookie defender scored his first AHL goal in Hershey’s only regulation loss of the season on February 24 in Wilkes-Barre. Graber has a goal and an assist in five games as well as a plus-two rating jumping into highly competitive AHL play, and although he’s had to learn on the fly, he plays like he’s been in the league for more than five games. Not to mention the solid play of Willcox and O’Gara, who have more than proved their mettle as reliable AHL veterans who have been the most consistent presence of them all, skating in all eight games so far this season. When their professional tryouts are set to expire, it would be nice to see them given AHL contracts for the remainder of the season for their great work so far this season.
Fortunately, there’s been some relief in other areas on the blue line, particularly with the Washington Capitals. The Caps have an abundance of defenders on contract, and their continued health has been a blessing for the Bears. The Capitals have been able to stash a defender on the taxi squad lineup and thus not had to dip into their depth in Hershey at any point so far this season, and it would take a lot for Hershey’s NHL affiliate to have to consider a recall from the Chocolate and White. Hopefully, that stays the case to help the Bears’ depth this season.
One area that’s important to watch as March unfolds will be Alexeyev and Nardella’s eventual return. The KHL’s regular season ended this past week. Although Alexeyev will be participating in the playoffs in Russia, it leaves room to believe that he and Nardella will return once their respective seasons conclude. Hershey’s season extends towards where a normal postseason might conclude, with the regular-season finale taking place on May 16. Even if there are no Calder Cup Playoffs (no decision has been made on that front, and it’s entirely too soon to speculate there), it should provide for ample opportunity to them time with Hershey.
For now, it’s been an impressive start to a very tough season for Hershey defenders, and by all counts, they’ve passed the test in the early going this season.