Looking to defend their championship title from 2009-10, the Hershey Bears struggled with injuries and inconsistency in 2010-11. They will look to rebound in 2011-12, as they added several quality AHL veterans and some talented youngsters as well.
Hershey bolstered its forward depth this past off-season, bringing back former stars Chris Bourque and Graham Mink and adding respected AHL scorers Ryan Potulny and Jacob Micflikier.
The Capitals added some grit this summer in signing Christian Hanson and Mattias Sjogren, but both were cut and will add physicality and defensive prowess to the Bears. Hanson will likely be an injury call-up this season, whereas the hope is that Sjogren will become a quality bottom-six NHL player within a year.
With solid performances in training camp, former Bears Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault have made the Capitals’ opening day roster. Both will look to contribute right away, Beagle as a grinder and Perreault in a scoring role.
WHL graduate Cody Eakin will look to build upon his impressive junior career with a strong rookie season in the AHL. With a year or two of seasoning in the pros, he should develop into a competent third-line center and penalty killer for the Capitals.
Garrett Mitchell, former captain of the Regina Pats, was expected to compete as an energy guy on the third line, but was sent down to South Carolina (ECHL) to get acclimated to the pro game.
Veterans Keith Aucoin, Kyle Greentree, Boyd Kane, and Joel Rechlicz will also be relied on to contribute to Hershey’s seemingly annual success.
A player to watch this season is Francois Bouchard. With Dmitry Kugryshev bolting for Russia, Bouchard is one of Hershey’s only young forwards with a shot at the NHL. Bouchard is known for his one-on-one moves and his playmaking, but he’s struggled to find consistency in the AHL. If he wants to make it to the Show, he’ll have to show his dedication and his desire to succeed or else he’ll just end up another skilled player who couldn’t crack the NHL.
The blue line has some promising youngsters in Dmitri Orlov and Brett Flemming. Orlov got into 25 regular and postseason games with the Bears last year after his KHL season was completed, and will be relied on to provide offense from the back end. Orlov is still raw, but he oozes offensive potential and could be a competent puck-moving defenseman in the NHL sooner rather than later. Flemming finished a superlative season in junior with St. Michael’s and will look to lock up a top-four role in the pros this season. Down the line, he could prove to be a serviceable NHL defenseman or perhaps a depth defender.
Aside from those two, the Hershey blue line has a wealth of experience. Sean Collins, Patrick McNeill, Danny Richmond, and Patrick Wellar are all quality defenseman who’ve logged loads of time at the AHL level. Collins and McNeill are some of the first injury call-ups for the Capitals. Collins may only ever be a depth defenseman, but he’s perfectly adequate in that role as he demonstrated last season. McNeill has a chance to crack the lineup next season; the organization is very high on him, but he may have been passed by the shining star Orlov.
Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin will return as the Bears’ netminders this season, after solid campaigns in 2010-11. Holtby saw his stock skyrocket after a fantastic showing with the Capitals last season, picking up ten wins while notching a 1.79 goals against average and a .934 save percentage. In the process, he’s become one of the hottest goaltending prospects in the world and should be on the Capitals’ opening day roster as soon as next season. As he gains technical experience and combines good positioning with his excellent athleticism, he could prove to be a valuable starter in the NHL. Sabourin, a savvy veteran, will give Holtby the night off when he needs it in addition to serving as a solid mentor.
Mark French will return for his third season with the Bears, looking to build upon a successful, if injury-marred campaign in 2010-11. Hershey wasn’t as dominant as it was in the previous season and was bounced in the first round with of the playoffs. With assistant coach Troy Mann at his side, French and the Bears will look to improve upon their good campaign last season.
The Capitals will ice a veteran-laden core in 2011-12 as they look to make a push to the later rounds of the playoffs. But several prospects still had solid camps and pushed the veterans for roster spots. Stanislav Galiev (QMJHL) looked good, but is still a little too small and green the handle the rigors of the NHL. Unfortunately, Galiev suffered what is likely a broken wrist in training camp and will likely miss serious time in his final junior season.
On the back end, Samuel Carrier (QMJHL) looked solid as well, but needs more seasoning in the QMJHL to solidify his all-around game. Brandon Anderson (WHL) didn’t get into any preseason action, looked a little raw in training camp, and was returned to the Hurricanes. The cupboard most certainly isn’t bare beyond Hershey, but these guys are still at least a couple of seasons away from contributing at the NHL level.