Despite the relative level of success the Caps have experienced so far this season, it doesn’t seem to have trickled down to their AHL affiliate in Hershey just yet - so we checked in with Kyle Mace of Chocolate Hockey for his take on what’s going on with the Bears so far this year.
G: Obviously the Bears have struggled a bit this year. What’ve been some of the problems?
K: The Bears have been very inconsistent this season. There are nights this team looks like they could beat any team in the league by five goals and other nights where they can’t keep the puck out of their own net. In my opinion, it comes down to getting consistent performances from all lines every week and sustain that level of play. That can be tough with losing six defensemen since the middle of November to call-ups, injuries, and players leaving Hershey. The Bears put up a good performance against Wilkes-Barre on consecutive Friday nights, but it remains to be seen if they can put those same performances up three times a weekend.
G: Spencer Carbery is in his first year on the job…how has he looked so far? What is his philosophy like in balancing playing young prospects and trying to win?
K: Carbery has gotten rave reviews from his players. The line I’ve heard a lot is “he’s a player’s coach.” He communicates what needs to be done and expects his team to get it done. When it comes to this year’s struggles, he’s not afraid to call his team out for their performances, doesn’t sugar coat anything, and demands the best from his players. I think the whole coaching staff this season has provided a different message for some players who have been around a few years and have been strong for those new players who are coming up in the system.
When it comes to balancing prospects and trying to win, the goal is to win with those prospects. Hershey’s old 5-5-5 philosophy with five top quality AHL veterans, five “tweeners” who would be Washington’s top call-us, and five young, high-end prospects to build out the core of a team seems to be gone after Doug Yingst’s retirement in 2016. If I had to assign some of those categories to Bears players, I’d argue Hershey has three “veterans” in Aaron Ness, Jayson Megna, and Mike Sgarbossa, all who could also be “tweeners.” Liam O’Brien and Riley Barber fall into that “tweener” category along with Nathan Walker. Then the top end prospects include guys like Vitek Vanecek, Lucas Johansen, Shane Gersich, and Connor Hobbs. The rest are young players adjusting to the pro game, and the Bears are trying to find a way to be successful with that.
G: On that note…it has been speculated that there have been issues with the Bears in the past with not playing Caps prospects (including scratching Jakub Vrana in 2017). Have you noticed a shift in thinking around this since Carbery was hired?
I think this idea Hershey has not played prospects in the past is tough to understand because of the lack of information that comes out of Chocolate Town sometimes. In the case of Vrana being scratched during the 2016-17 season, Troy Mann continued to send messages to Vrana to be better off the puck. When he wasn’t responding in the ways Mann wanted, he was benched. I think in any situation when a player is developing and are given lessons to improve, yet they don’t respond on the ice, they’re going to get benched. I don’t think that philosophy has changed at all because Carbery holds players responsible. The only difference is I think players are responding quicker to the lessons they are given this season. And that’s not a knock on Troy Mann at all. It’s a different group of players with a different style of teaching.
G: Ilya Samsonov is one of the Caps top prospects…though he’s struggling this year, particularly over the last few months. How seriously should we take this? How has he looked generally, aside from the stats?
Samsonov has really struggled this season and I would say it’s slightly concerning. I made a comparison recently about Capitals goaltenders that have come through the system since 2008. Since Hershey’s second Calder Cup, five netminders have been “prospects” in Hershey that then saw time with Washington were Varlamov, Neuvirth, Holtby, Grubauer, and Copley. If you include Vanecek and Samsonov in that group, only two have not started their careers in the ECHL were Varlamov and Samsonov. Varly had a terrific first season and became Washington’s number one netminder in the 2009 playoffs, while Neuvirth led Hershey to the first of two Calder Cups. Holtby, Grubauer, and Vanecek each saw at least a dozen games in the Coast, and Copley went right to South Carolina out of college. I think Samsonov would have benefitted from three to five games in South Carolina to get adjusted to North America before jumping into what many argue is the hardest league in all of hockey, in one of the toughest divisions the past few seasons.
I doubt Samsonov would see any ECHL time now, and he’s going to have to make some significant adjustments to get to the level of play many expect out of him. I’m worried he’s facing a confidence issue, as well as losing some comfort with Shumakov leaving and Bindilus being injured with him being out indefinitely, the two players who know the most Russian on the team. I believe if Hershey puts a run of wins together and he’s in net, Sammy will begin to show that form that made him a first-round pick on a more consistent basis. He’s also so young at only 21-years-old. The first year Holtby played more games in Washington than Hershey he was 23 years old, so at that pace, Sammy should be looking at another two years in Hershey before getting a majority of games in Washington.
G: Nathan Walker has had a hectic last few months, from playing in the Stanley Cup finals to being optioned back to Hershey. How has he looked, and do you think he’s NHL-ready at this point?
An argument could be made that Nathan Walker is Hershey’s best offensive asset this season. Walker’s current scoring touch is something I haven’t seen from him since he shared a line with Scott Gomez and Riley Barber in 2015-16. At times he’s injected needed energy into Hershey’s lineup and provided a depth netfront presence the team was looking for. I think he’s received a similar message to what Chandler Stephenson received last year when he was sent down and not picked up on waivers. I think if it wasn’t for the logjam up in Washington, Walker would be in the NHL right now along with a few other Bears players.
G: Have any other players been particularly notable? I know a lot of Caps fans have been impressed with Jonas Siegenthaler…are there any other names for us to watch out for?
Riley Barber and Liam O’Brien are both having career years right now. O’Brien’s on pace for 28 goals and Barber is on pace for a 60 point season. Despite being injured currently, defenseman (and podcast host) Connor Hobbs has found his groove as of late, and I’ve been really impressed with Garrett Pilon (2-9-11 32 GP) and Beck Malenstyn, who Spencer Carbery has called “our Tom Wilson.” Carbery said Malenstyn needs to develop his skill a little bit more, but he has been Hershey’s unsung hero this season in my opinion. I will also say Vitek Vanecek has looked the best I’ve ever seen him during his time in Hershey. He’s found a grove and when he’s on his game, he’s on his game. I fully expect him to be ready to go if Washington were to give him a shot in net at the NHL level, and I think he would not disappoint.
G: Finally…I can’t imagine what it was like to watch 34,798 teddy bears get tossed on the ice! What was that like?
I’m lucky enough to take photos on the ice during teddy bear toss night, so I get to see it from a totally different perspective from anybody else. Before the game, I kept saying “I’m not so sure they’re going to break the record. 30-thousand bears is a lot of bears.” Almost right as the bears started flying I went “Nope, they’re breaking this record and they’re breaking it with ease.” Watching the teddy bear toss in person is amazing and something I suggest everybody who has the ability should do once in their life. What Bears fans have created is special, and I expect them to break it again next year with 40-thousand bears.