HERSHEY, Pa. – Although there won’t be a frozen sheet of ice directly involved, this week represents one of the busiest weeks in the hockey world unlike any other in recent memory.
Two major events in the summer schedule are taking place this week with the NHL Entry Draft and the start of the free agency period, both of which normally impact the Hershey Bears. The first round of the draft is set for Tuesday, with the remaining rounds happening on Wednesday followed by the start of free agency on Friday.
Last season, the Bears got a very unusual addition to the roster when the Washington Capitals drafted Brett Leason in the second round. Leason signed with the Caps and joined the Bears in a whirlwind rookie campaign that should lead into a great second season.
This year, the Capitals have the 24th (first round), 80th (third round), 117th (fourth round), 148th (fifth round), and the 179th (seventh round) overall picks in this year’s draft. Although it’s not likely the Bears will see a similar situation as Leason’s this season, the draft always provides names for Bears fans to familiarize themselves with before they join the team after their time in juniors, college, or overseas. A number of Bears players rose from similar ranks, and it’s a glimpse into the future worth tracking.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on social media to get the latest on news pertaining to any movement made leading up to Friday, as anything can and will happen during free agency. In the recent past, one of the biggest additions to the Bears to come during the NHL’s free agency was Mike Sgarbossa, who signed with the Capitals on July 1, 2018 and was re-signed for two years nearly a year later. Although the Bears have a solid squad under contract with many returning faces this season, it’s always possible the Caps might have a trick or two up their sleeve in order to bolster their AHL affiliate for next season.
Free agency will be an interesting time to see if Hershey’s remaining free agents have their contracts resolved. The Bears still have two players who spent time on the roster in 2019-20 as restricted free agents in Shane Gersich and Connor Hobbs, as well as unrestricted free agents Liam O’Brien, Tyler Lewington, and Colby Williams. The Capitals most recently signed restricted free agent Lucas Johansen, but still have decisions to be make (or perhaps have already made) in regards to the remaining free agents. Restricted free agents don’t necessarily have to be signed by Friday, as negotiations and potential salary arbitration take place later in the offseason timeline.
As a bold prediction going into the week, it’d be surprising if O’Brien did not return to the organization in some way. Not only has he been a big leader during his long tenure in Hershey, but he’s been active in the community even after the season ended. O’Brien interacts often with the Bears on social media (liking recent player signing announcements like that of Kale Kessy), and the team has featured him on Twitter via their September Superlative post (see below).
It’s easy to forget the forward isn’t signed to a contract with these interactions, and it feels like a foreshadowing of another season for O’Brien in a Bears uniform, which would be a win-win proposition across the board for the organization.
Ending the month with our last #𝑺𝒆𝒑𝒕𝒆𝒎𝒃𝒆𝒓𝑺𝒖𝒑𝒆𝒓𝒍𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒗𝒆!
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) September 30, 2020
It’ll be interesting to see how the Capitals handle free agency. The team hired a new head coach in Peter Laviolette after their first round exit in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the team might want to move some pieces around in order to capitalize (pun intended) on Alex Ovechkin’s remaining years as the centerpiece of the organization. Although no players are off-limits when it comes to potential trades or other deals, it helps that the Bears have a strong group of skaters under contract & returning from last season in order to reduce the impact that a move would have on the team.
If the Capitals were to address any needs for the Bears in free agency, adding an experienced blue liner would be high on the list. As it stands, Hershey’s defensive group consists of Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Bobby Nardella, Tobias Geisser, Eddie Wittchow, and Lucas Johansen (who all spent time in Hershey this past season), as well as Tyler Nanne, Will Graber (who played both forward and defense in college), and Macoy Erkamps. It’s been rumored that Fehervary is due to spend time in Washington, and coming off of a season in which the Bears had a large pool of defenders, it would be nice to see that depth be increased with another player added to the mix. Bears fans would be perfectly content with seeing any or all of Hobbs, Lewington, and Williams returning to fill that void.
The Caps could try to sign a forward to join the Bears, too. With the exceptions of Gersich and Travis Boyd, all forwards who skated in Hershey last season are returning (not including Chris McCarthy, who announced his retirement this summer). But, with the Bears seemingly set to lose a forward to the Capitals (Daniel Sprong or Brian Pinho being likely candidates), the team would do well to give themselves options to choose from and give their AHL affiliate some help if that is the case. The emergence of Pinho and the addition of Sprong were big storylines at the end of last season, and the Chocolate and White could use one more great skater to push them over the top in a competitive division this season.
Of course, that’s entirely a bold prediction at this point. Although Friday is the start of free agency, it’s not just one day that all signings have to occur on as teams can continue to add players well beyond the date.
Follow Corey on Twitter for all the latest news and notes regarding the AHL’s Hershey Bears! Don’t forget to also follow The Sin Bin on social media via Facebook and Twitter for additional AHL, ECHL, and SPHL minor league hockey coverage!