HERSHEY, Pa. – In a season unlike any other, there’s plenty of opportunity to be seized for players like Hershey Bears defender Will Graber. Signed as a free agent by the Bears over the summer after skating with Dartmouth, Graber has worked his way into a regular in the Hershey lineup and looked like a player with much more experience in the AHL than what his record would show. One of 12 different defenders to be dressed for a Hershey game this season, Graber’s size and smarts have earned him a lineup spot this season.
Graber signed alongside a few different college players over the offseason as a jack-of-all-trades type of player, someone who played both forward and defense in his collegiate career but quickly settled into a defensive role with Hershey. The six-foot-five skater made his AHL debut in a trip to Binghamton on February 17, only days after the team lost both Paul LaDue and Eddie Wittchow to injury in the team’s first win over Wilkes-Barre, and helped the Bears earn a 2-1 victory over the Devils in a very physical, defensive contest decided by Damien Riat’s first AHL goal. Graber tallied his first AHL goal in a 4-2 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on February 24, showing flashes of his experience at forward with a slick move to beat the defenseman and a bit of fortune for the puck to cross the line.
Will Graber with the great move scores his first AHL goal to make it 1-0 Hershey! pic.twitter.com/ikoNeGEhUo
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) February 24, 2021
Graber had his first multi-point game on March 19, a footnote of the debacle in Binghamton in which the Bears blew a big lead and lost by a 6-5 count at RWJ Barnabas Health Hockey House.
Graber was one of two players in that game to finish with a plus-two rating for the game (the other being Eddie Wittchow). Through 11 games played, Graber’s plus-six ranks fourth on the team in that category, and he’s not had a negative game in that category in his past five games played.
Graber’s defensive style is something that old-school hockey fans will appreciate, as Graber is very responsible and is very rarely out of position. Although he has that background in playing offensively and can play the offensive-defenseman style that is craved in defenders in this day and age, he’s focused on playing strong in his own zone first. It’ll be interesting to see if he gets more shifts in that regard even as players like Alexander Alexeyev return to the lineup.
Defensive depth is a huge topic of discussion at the AHL level, as teams are always one or two injuries away from having to test how deep their talent pool is. Hershey nearly ran out of defenders to utilize at one point in the season, but Graber’s strong play has helped to mask the issue and potential issues with the team’s bottom-six. As Hershey has come back to health, Graber has continued to earn ice time and it’s never a bad thing to have a solid right-handed shooter that he provides.
Graber’s success is particularly impressive considering that the Bears have still been relatively stacked on defense despite the key absences of Alexeyev and Bobby Nardella. Hershey lost a substantial portion of its defensive group over the offseason, losing longtime players like Tyler Lewington and Colby Williams, and two more losses plus a few more offseason acquisitions had many wondering what kind of group would take the ice in this shortened season. Graber didn’t get into the lineup right away, but stayed patient and earned the chance to shine this season, and he’s seizing the opportunity. Hopefully, it leads to another stint in Hershey next season, and it’s just the latest in another great free agent signing by Bryan Helmer and the Bears’ staff.