HERSHEY, Pa. – When the Hershey Bears hit the ice again in 2021, plenty will have changed about the team’s identity since they last played a game. Plenty has been said about the team’s changes both upfront and on the blue line, but the club will be very fortunate to have stability at its most important position… in goal. The Bears are set to have both Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek return in goal, as Hershey’s stellar tandem was among the league’s best in 2019-20, and having the duo is crucial to the team’s success this season.
Washington’s depth in the crease has been well documented during the summer and throughout the free agency process. With Braden Holtby’s departure, it seemed possible that Hershey’s parent club could look within to the promising Vanecek as a replacement. At least in the short term, the Caps looked elsewhere, signing legendary free agent goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year contract as the team looks to push its championship window as far as it can. Both the Bears and Caps made some free agency moves that ended up solidifying depth instead of making a major splash on the roster, with the former signing decorated UMD goaltender Hunter Shepard and the latter adding former Montreal pick Zach Fucale.
Both of those signings will ultimately be to the benefit of Hershey’s ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays, who lost both of their goaltenders over the course of the summer. Parker Milner, the beloved Stingray netminder and frequent call-up option for the Bears, retired after last season, and promising young goaltender Logan Thompson was signed to a deal by the Vegas Golden Knights before he could suit up for the Bears. The Stingrays are set to begin the 2020-21 season on December 11, and watching the progression of the two new goaltenders will be an important item to watch for Bears fans while the AHL awaits the February 5 start date.
When the Chocolate and White take to the ice next season, all eyes will be on Vanecek and Copley to guide the team in what is anticipated to be a big year for the league’s senior member. The tandem is respected for good reason, as Vanecek finished fifth in the AHL among goaltenders and Copley at tenth, with only the duos from the Providence Bruins and Milwaukee Admirals looking arguably better from a statistical perspective. Both goaltenders played 31 games, with Vanecek finishing with a 2.26 goals against average and a 0.917 save percentage, and Copley posting a 2.47 goals against average and a .905 save percentage.
Having one goaltender of such a caliber is rare, and two even more so. The Capitals will no doubt have to decide on the future of their crease after next season, and there’s no way that the brass in D.C. can ignore the success the pair in Hershey have had for much longer. The Bears will need to capitalize on what has become a pleasant surprise for the stellar tandem to return and make a deep playoff run with both goaltenders logging big minutes.
Although Hershey will be making a significant push with their excellent duo, the team will undoubtedly keep an eye on their depth for the future. While both goaltenders are under contract through the 2021-22 season, the uncertainty of Washington’s situation leaves some room for change on the horizon. Not only will Ilya Samsonov become a restricted free agent after this season in addition to Lundqvist’s contract expiring, but the Seattle expansion draft will take place and require the Caps to expose players to the incoming Kraken franchise. Among players the Caps would be willing to expose, Copley could be an option from their standpoint to be easier for their current roster. The Bears wouldn’t want that to happen, of course, but it would be easiest for the Caps to deal with losing.
Hypothetically, if that were to happen, the musical chairs of goalie spots would become an important issue for the Bears in 2021-22, should the Caps take Vanecek. Fucale will be a restricted free agent at the end of next season, while Shepard will be coming off his AHL contract with Hershey. If both perform well this season, they will be the future goal with the Bears, and will be important pieces for the team to retain. The most recent draft selections for Washington in goal were Mitchell Gibson (2018) and Garin Bjorklund (2020), but both remain unsigned by the Caps. At this point, it would be most ideal for the organization to retain and promote Shepard and Fucale as the need arises, and it would be best if the two would get time in Hershey in some fashion this season.
For the short term, Hershey has a great chance to make a run for the Calder Cup with Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley tending the goal, and even though the future beyond next season may be different, the team has been graced by two great hockey players and even better people. The Bears will be fighting to get these two players the reward they deserve for the hard work over the years with a run towards the Calder Cup.
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