Hershey Bears 2009-10 preview

By Dan Watkins

Last season, the Hershey Bears set an AHL record by winning their 10th Calder Cup championship. This storied franchise was boosted by the addition of several key veterans and rookies to make a well-balanced and dangerous roster.

This year, expect more of the same from the Bears, who are dressing a virtually identical roster to last season. With the growth of the first and second-year prospects in the organization and the return of key veterans, look for the Bears to be strong Calder Cup contenders.

Forwards

The top line retained two of its three players in Keith Aucoin and Alexander Giroux, and prospect Andrew Gordon is looking to have a big year filling in the hole on the right side left by departed winger Graham Mink. Gordon played his heart out all preseason with the Capitals, so he is poised to have a breakout year alongside talented linemates in Chocolate Town. Second-year pros Francois Bouchard, Mathieu Perreault, and Oskar Osala look to build on their solid rookie efforts while working on staying more consistent.

Center Anton Gustafsson headlines a small group of first-year Bears who hope to add depth to the organization. While the 19-year-old Gustafsson has made the team, it appears that he needs more time to adjust to the North American game, and there have been doubts cast on his chances of staying with the Bears for the entire season. Since the 2008 first-rounder is further down on the depth chart, it has been speculated that he may possibly return to Sweden for one more year before making the permanent jump to North American professional hockey.

Trevor Bruess is another forward in his first season with the Bears. The Minnesota State graduate hopes to make an impact on the bottom two lines with the Bears, using his hard work, aggressive checking, and quickness to make an impact in his first professional season. The Bears also added an enforcer on their bottom lines, signing AHL veteran Brandon Sugden. He will not be an everyday player for the Bears, but will provide toughness up front when they need it.

Prospects Steve Pinizzotto, Kyle Wilson, and Jay Beagle all look to fill out the roster up front with continued solid play. With Pinizzotto’s crash and bang style, Wilson’s scoring ability, and Beagle’s mix of both skill sets, the Bears look to be very balanced at the forward position, despite the loss of versatile winger Chris Bourque to Pittsburgh. 

Defensemen

The Bears are absolutely loaded on the defensive end. Top prospects Karl Alzner and John Carlson look to continue to make strides in their game. With more power play and penalty killing time for both, 2009-10 could be the last season we see either of these players wearing the chocolate and white. Third-year professional Patrick McNeill had a strong training camp with Capitals, and will try and build on inconsistent performances in the past. The Ontario native appeared to be playing in much better position during camp than in previous years.

Another player who had impressed during Washington’s training camp was rookie Zach Miskovic. The former St. Lawrence standout appeared to have a solid overall game in the offensive and defensive zones, and should vie for time on the very deep Hershey blue line throughout the season. Sean Collins also is fighting for time on the deep back end. Collins made his NHL debut last season and did not look out of place. While his ceiling is not very high, Collins could still make an impact as a depth defenseman in the organization.

Rounding out the defensive core are veterans Bryan Helmer, Greg Amadio, and Patrick Wellar. Helmer returns to the Bears as team captain once again, and he should have no problem helping some of the first and second-year defensemen along their way.

Goaltending

Hershey returns playoff MVP Michal Neuvirth between the pipes, after a terrific training camp. Often outshining Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore this fall, Neuvirth is always in the correct position to make the first stop. With his solid rebound control, Neuvirth should get the opportunity in Washington again this year when injuries occur.

Veteran Jason Bacashihua and rookie Braden Holtby are both still on the Bears roster. Both have something to prove. Bacashihua is trying to prove that he has what it takes after a few seasons of suspect play. Holtby is entering his first full professional season, and the quick, butterfly style goalie must prove to the Capitals organization that he is not as far behind top prospects Neuvirth and Varlamov as some think. It’s likely that Holtby is assigned to the ECHL soon, however.

Coaching

With former head coach and Calder Cup winning Bob Woods now an assistant for Washington, Mark French steps in to take the reins of this talented and deep team. French was doing a fine job at the assistant coaching position, the organization felt as if he was ready to have his own team once again.

New assistant coach Troy Mann brings playing experience and solid head coaching gigs to the Bears. Last season, Mann was an associate coach with the Charlotte Checkers in the ECHL, and before that was head coach and director of hockey operations for the Columbia Inferno.