HERSHEY, Pa. – To round off our series on free agents for the Hershey Bears, we’re taking a trip to South Carolina today to discuss players under contract with the Bears who had limited or no looks at the AHL level in 2019-20, but played mostly for the very successful South Carolina Stingrays.
The Stingrays had already clinched a postseason berth in the Kelly Cup Playoffs before the season’s pause and untimely cancellation. South Carolina was also looking to make a deep run in the postseason. Helping our assessment of the Stingrays in today’s post is Travis Rogers, who covers Hershey’s ECHL affiliate for The Sin Bin through @SinBinStingrays on Twitter. Give him a follow for all things Stingrays!
Logan Thompson was signed to an AHL deal by the Bears for 2018-19 and excelled with the Stingrays, finishing fourth in the ECHL with a 2.25 goals against average and a 0.929 save percentage in 32 games played last season. He and fellow Stingrays netminder Parker Milner were the top goaltending duo in the league, with Milner finishing second in the ECHL.
Goaltending was a huge factor in South Carolina’s success this past season, particularly with a difficult schedule like Hershey’s at times. Arguably, if Washington’s goaltending depth wasn’t so strong, Thompson would have been an easy choice to suit up for the Bears and skate in Chocolatetown, which he was unfortunately only able to do in the preseason.
Rogers expounded on Thompson’s contributions to South Carolina last season.
“Thompson (was) arguably better than Milner last year at times. Didn’t get an AHL look, but that was probably due to season ending abruptly. With a record of 23-8-1, two losses were 0-1 and another 2-1. When he gave up goals, they were in spurts.
“Coming into his second pro season, I would expect him to be a number one goalie anywhere in ECHL and could legitimately contend for a number two AHL spot depending on the organization. I’ve heard very positive things about him from the Bears and Stingrays organizations.”
Unfortunately for Hershey, Thompson will not be returning for the 2020-21 season, as it was revealed on July 13 that the 23-year-old was signed to a two-year, entry-level deal by the Vegas Golden Knights. It’s certainly a blow to the goaltending depth within the organization, particularly with the recent retirement of Milner. However, the signing of Hunter Shepard at the beginning of July helps address the need in net for Hershey moving forward.
Tariq Hammond played 56 games with the Stingrays in 2019-20, scoring three goals and 11 assists for South Carolina. Hammond, along with Kris Bindulis and Tommy Hughes, were the only blue liners skating under Hershey contracts at the ECHL level for the majority of the season. They didn’t get to play with the Bears partially due to depth at the defensive position last season.
Hammond previously played 43 games with the Binghamton Devils in 2018-19, proving to be a reliable option at the AHL level, scoring one goal and added two assists with the Devils. He finished with a plus-29 with South Carolina, which is a tremendous statistic for grading a defenseman.
Rogers echoed the sentiment that Hammond truly belonged at the next level with the Bears.
“Hammond (is an) AHL caliber D. The Only reason he didn’t get a look was the depth at D in Hershey last year. (He’s a) Solid stay at home defender with a plus-29 in 56 games. Never flashy, but never gave up a big play. Never. (He was) Consistent all season.”
Hammond’s ability as a defensive defenseman would made it interesting to see him suit up for Hershey this past season as a depth option. It certainly worked out for his numbers with the Stingrays, and he would have been an important piece towards a run at the Kelly Cup. It would be nice to see Hammond get another contract to remain with the organization as he still has plenty of potential to be tapped.
Bindulis is a curious case. The 24-year-old completed the third year of his entry-level contract with the Capitals in 2019-20, but did not suit up for the Bears. Instead, he skated 50 games with the Stingrays, scoring six goals and 17 assists — good for second best among defensemen on the team.
Injuries have played a major factor in the young career of Bindulis. His 50 games this year is his single-season high, surpassing his previous best split between Hershey and South Carolina in 2017-18. Bindulis played just four games with Hershey last year before losing the rest of the season to injury.
Rogers believes Bindulis may not be long for the North American game, thinking he could thrive elsewhere now that his contract is up.
“The Caps won’t re-sign (Bindulis). (He’s a) good scoring defenseman, ranking ninth overall on the team and second amongst d-men. (He’s) Not as aggressive as you would think with his size.
“Injuries haven’t helped him. (He) Would probably dominate on a European sheet. He has speed and agility with Some inconsistent moments, but (is) a quality bubble ECHL/AHL D.”
Bindulis has shown he has the ability to compete for an AHL spot, as he’s split time between Hershey and South Carolina. Spending the season in South Carolina while remaining healthy is a big step towards his progress. Despite this, it would be hard to see the Capitals spending more time and another contract on the young defender, but it could be an ideal situation for the Bears to possibly sign him back if the situation works out. At the very least, his plus-eight rating shows he had a solid contribution to the Stingrays this past season.
Matthew Weis did get some experience with the Bears in 2019-20, suiting up for six games particularly while the team was without some players due to injury. Weis did not tally in Hershey but finished with a plus-two rating. Weis absolutely dominated at the ECHL level, though, finishing with 11 goals and 30 assists for 41 points in 39 games with the Stingrays, proving that he most likely should be in a consistent AHL spot as he was a year before with the Western Conference Champion Chicago Wolves in 2018-19. His plus-25 rating is another demonstration of how good he and the Stingrays were this past season.
Sin Bin Stingrays: “Weis. Best overall forward for Stingrays. Point a game (41) forward who was also +25 in 39 games. Playmaker. Can definitely play at AHL level. Knows systems and would be an excellent bubble player for any organization. Added some grit to his game last year and I think he will be a top tier depth signing if he doesn’t crack the lineup with an AHL club.”
Weis would have been an incredibly important player for the Stingrays going into a run at the Kelly Cup, as his point-per-game pace was such a big reason why the Stingrays were so dangerous in 2019-20. Weis didn’t quite get a long enough look in Hershey to say he got to prove himself, especially on a depth role, and would more than likely make the cut on an AHL roster. If he were to sign again with Hershey, he’d likely be a depth forward and right at the top of the forward list to get the call when needed.
Cole Ully did not get to suit up with the Bears in the regular season of 2019-20, instead spending the year in South Carolina and skating 53 games. Ully tallied 12 goals and 36 assists for 48 points as well as a plus-21 mark, single season highs in plus/minus and points for his career. Ully has a wealth of experience between the AHL and ECHL, with over 120 games of experience with the Texas Stars and over 120 total ECHL games prior to joining the Stingrays, and it’s surprising he did not get a shot with the Bears at any point.
Sin Bin Stingrays: “Ully. Not sure why he didn’t get a look. Similar stat lines to Weis. A bit more gritty. 48pts in 53 games. COVID shutdown inadvertently made him more marketable. He has tons of experience. Is a point a game player in the ECHL with lots of AHL experience. He has 259 games. 1 shy of vet status. Being a vet going into next year may have forced him out of NA and over to Europe. Would be a huge signing for whatever organization he lands in.”
The Bears will be hard pressed to find another depth signing as high quality as Ully, who not only has experience under his belt but proved to be a major contributor to the Stingrays, who were set to make a big push to the Kelly Cup. As Travis mentioned, his status as a veteran due to all this experience may lead to him going overseas, and not getting a shot in Hershey may have made him less likely to sign again.
Hughes played 33 games in South Carolina this past season, logging two goals and six assists with the Stingrays, as well as getting into a game with Hershey. He is a veteran of four seasons with the Hartford Wolf Pack, as well as playing ten games in Hershey and 39 in South Carolina during the 2017-18 season. Hughes finished with a plus-13 rating in South Carolina, a single-season best for his professional career. He has a lot of experience, and should fit well into a top role for South Carolina (and as a top depth option on the blue line if the Bears need it).
Even if the Bears are unable to retain these free agents over the summer, the quality of each player speaks to the remarkable job that Hershey’s front office did last summer in signing these players. It helped reinforce Hershey’s depth (which was tested at points during the regular season) and allowed players like Eddie Wittchow to shine and make a case to stick at the AHL level. Much like how the Capitals contribute to the success of the Bears with the players they draft, it seems that the link between the Bears and Stingrays will continue to produce successful seasons for the entire organization for many years to come.
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