The 2008-09 edition of the Hershey Bears are loaded up and ready for a sweet season in the Chocolate City, as a roster, deep in prospects at all positions, fortified by an elite prospect joining the the blue line are set to take a run at regaining a Calder Cup that last called Pennsylvania home in 2006.
The Bears have long been an elite team in the AHL — making a return visit to the Calder Cup finals in 2007 when the club fell short against the Hamilton Bulldogs. And while the club enjoyed a solid 42-30-2-6 record last year, an early loss in the first round of the AHL playoffs left the team with a bitter taste in its mouth.
Despite losing its starting goaltender and a veteran blueliner, the club has added elite talent to those positions and look to have, in fact, upgraded their roster in spite of the departures. All in all, a strong and deep farm system has created a roster that should challenge for their second championship in four seasons, and potentially add to their shared league-leading total of nine Calder Cups.
Leading the Bears’ attack is fourth-year forward (and son of NHL Hall-of-Famer Ray) Chris Bourque who returns to the club after being among the Capitals’ final cuts from training camp. Bourque made a strong case for inclusion on the Washington roster, but finds himself back to play a key role in the Bears’ fortunes. The Boston native finished last year’s campaign with 28 goals and 35 assists in 63 games and will be looked upon to improve those offensive numbers while maintaining his defensive responsibilities, which led to a plus-11 rating last season.
He’ll be joined up front by Alexandre Giroux, a retread in the Washington Capitals organization, who is picking up where he left off the last time he was in Hershey. As a member of the Bears in 2006-07, Giroux scored 70 points in 67 games, including 42 goals. Following that season, he was signed by the Atlanta Thrashers as a free agent. He returned to the Capitals’ organization mid-way through last season and promptly added 27 points in 22 games — finishing the season with a compiled total of 68 points in 68 AHL games split between the Chicago Wolves and Hershey.
With the return of Andrew Gordon and Kyle Wilson, the Bears return all four of their top scorers from last season (their fifth-highest scorer, Joe Motzko, was peddled to Atlanta last season in return for the aforementioned Giroux).
The Bears also return some impressive size and physicality to their lineup with the arrival of Quintin Laing. Presuming Laing clears waivers, the rugged forward will benefit from his NHL experience, which entailed 38 games with the Capitals last season. And while the focus has been on the returning veterans coming to the club, there will be a measure of new blood infused into the lineup with the arrival of Oskar Osala, who spent last season playing in Finland following a pair of impressive seasons in the OHL.
The club features a number of veteran blueliners on its defensive corps, but the bulk of the attention will be paid to the arrival of the highly-touted Karl Alzner. Selected fifth overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft, Alzner will have the opportunity to showcase his dynamic two-way play at the professional level for the first time. In addition to 24, 47, and 36-point seasons over the past three years with the Calgary Hitmen, Alzner is a two-time World Junior gold medalist — including a stint as the team’s captain last year.
Alzner, another late cut from the Capitals’ camp, will be joined by a veteran crew of blueliners who should help him transition to the next level. And while none of them have Alzner’s talent or potential, the Bears’ defense is more than capable at playing solid, responsible defense and complementing the forwards in the offensive game. Another newcomer to the ranks who is looking to make an impact is rookie blueliner Josh Godfrey. The former Soo Greyhound has enjoyed a solid pre-season and has put his big shot on display early and often — netting a hat trick in the Bears’ penultimate exhibition contest.
Players like Greg Amadio and Bryan Helmer have come from other AHL organizations to lend a veteran presence in Hershey, while others such as Dean Arsene and Tyler Sloan are veterans of the Bears’ organization. The most prominent blueline returnee is Sami Lepisto, who enjoyed a spectacular campaign last season who scored 45 points in 55 games, en route to a team-leading plus-29 rating. He will be counted on to key the power play and, of course, mentor Alzner on that part of his developing game.
One key loss from the club’s blue line contingent is veteran Josef Boumedienne, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization in the off-season.
The parent club underwent wholesale goaltending changes — riding the netminder merry-go-round, which saw long-time veteran Cap Olaf Kolzig end up in Tampa Bay and last year’s trade acquisition Cristobal Huet sign with Chicago; and former Vezina-trophy winner Jose Theodore take up residence between the pipes in the U.S. capital, with Brent Johnson backing him up.
So despite the turbulence at the NHL level, there is little opportunity for a Bear to join the NHL ranks. In Hershey, it appears to be a two-man race between a returning Bear — 21-year-old Daren Machesney, who appeared in 38 games (winning 20, losing 10); and 2006 first-round draft pick Simeon Varlamov, a 20-year-old Russian playing his first season in North America. However, a third youngster is mounting a dark-horse campaign to crack the lineup. The Capitals also have 21-year-old Michal Neuvirth, a 2006 second-round selection, likely starting the season with the club’s ECHL affiliate in South Carolina.
Long-time AHL star Frederick Cassivi, who was never able to have the impact at the NHL level that he enjoyed in the AHL, left the organization to take up residence in Germany as the main man for the Nurnburg Ice Tigers.
When Bob Boudreau took over the reins of the parent Capitals organization mid-way through the 2007-08 campaign, Bob Woods ably shifted down the bench and assumed the head coaching title, leading the Bears to the playoffs in his first season. This year Woods is guiding the club right from the get-go and appears to have Hershey running on all cylinders — the Bears successfully completed Woods’ first exhibition season without a loss.
Of course, as the old adage states, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Woods was signed in the summer of 2005 to join Boudreau’s staff in Hershey, following a few years with the ECHL affiliate. In fact, Woods’ experience with the Bears extends back to his playing days when he suited up with the Bears in the 1992-93 and 1996-97 seasons (Woods also spent his last three years as a player-coach with the then-Mississippi SeaWolves from 1998-2001.)
In 1997, Woods won a Calder Cup as a player with the Bears. In 2006 he again raised the Calder Cup, this time as an assistant coach. And in 2009, it’s certain that Woods would like to complete the hat trick, but this time as a head coach — and he just may have the roster to do it.