The summer in Chocolatetown was short this year, as the Hershey Bears are just starting to get back to business coming off of a climactic Calder Cup championship which witnessed the Bears playing hockey well into the month of June. With the season right around the corner, there is a sense of optimism that the Bears can again establish another lengthy playoff push this season, as the Hershey roster is again stacked with young and talented players, many of whom were catalysts in the team’s recent success.
Perhaps the biggest blow to the front line core was the loss of free agent left winger and team captain, Boyd Kane. Kane’s toughness will definitely be missed, as the rugged winger was easily one of the steadier and more physical Bears forwards.
The Bears also waved goodbye to prospects Jared Aulin and Owen Fussey, as the Caps organization decided not to renew their contracts and opted to move forward with other players. Hershey may also be losing the services of winger Jakub Klepis to the Washington Capitals as well. The Caps recently placed forward Matt Pettinger on IR to start the season, thus allowing Klepis a little more time to see if he can stick at the top level.
Kris Beech, the former seventh overall pick in the 1999 NHL draft, is another player lost to the NHL level. Boyd Gordon will also be remaining in Washington for now, providing penalty-killing depth and solid hustle on the Caps’ checking unit — something the Bears will surely miss.
Returning to the Bears are top scoring winger Eric Fehr, and Calder Cup hero Tomas Fleischmann. Both were early training camp cuts and will be beginning the season in Hershey — although it is likely they will see some time in the NHL this year. Talented second-year pro Chris Bourque will also be returning for the “Burgundy and Brown,” as will steady pivot and penalty-killing specialist, David Steckel.
Alexander Giroux, formerly of the Hartford Wolf Pack, will be joining the team this year and should add some extra firepower. In 73 games last season with Hartford, Giroux scored 36 goals and tallied 31 assists for 67 points.
Although Hershey will be losing last season’s standout blueliner Mike Green to the Caps, the Bears will see a few familiar faces this year, including last season’s defensive point-scoring leader, Lawrence Nycholat. He will be joined by the rugged and steady backliners Dean Arsene and Deryk Engelland, and after the departures of veteran defenders Martin Wilde, Jeff State and Mark Wooton, the aforementioned three will be counted on to provide mentoring and leadership for a handful of younger defenders joining the club this fall.
As for new additions, Jamie Hunt, Tyler Sloan, Timo Helbling and Trevor Byrne, all be vying for roster spots. Also competing for playing is Caps’ 14th overall selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Sasha Pokulok. Pokulok decided to forgo his final two remaining seasons in the NCAA, and signed an entry-level contract with the Caps.
In addition, his towering defensive counterpart, Jeff Schultz, will also be playing with the Bears this season and is looking to improve upon his already impressive stats. During his short stay with the Bears last spring, Schultz appeared in seven playoff games, registering one goal and three assists. He finished his stint with an impressive plus/minus of +3, and looked very comfortable playing in a league of men coming off of four seasons in the WHL with Calgary.
Calder Cup hero and fan favorite Frederic Cassivi will be the starting netminder for the Bears this season, and should provide the team with a solid answer for what is sure to be a few rookie mistakes from time to time — a job Olaf Kolzig in Washington has been settling into with the rebuilding Caps.
Backing him up this season will be prospect Maxime Daigneault. Daigneault, a once very promising prospect, has really never had the chance to log full-time minutes in the AHL. He should see his playing time increase some though, as he will no longer be competing for playing time with Kirk Daubenspeck — who will not be returning. It would appear that Daigneault’s time to make and impact would be now, as the Caps recently addressed their lack of goaltending depth at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by selecting highly-regarded European goaltenders Simeon (or Semen) Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth with very high picks (23rd and 34th respectively).
Daren Machesney, a 2005 draft pick, will be playing for the Caps’ ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays and will be the one called upon in case of injury.
With their two main offensive weapons Fehr and Fleischmann returning, the Bears should still continue to rack up goals. However, their blue line appears to be a little bit inexperienced, and it is likely that Hershey will spend a fair amount of time killing penalties instead of trying to score on their own man advantages. But all in all, the team’s main pieces are still in place, and supported by solid goaltending in Cassivi, the Bears should continue to establish a competitive edge within their division as well as the rest of the league.
Look for Schultz and Pokulok to mature steadily throughout the year and become solid players by springtime, and also expect veteran Lawrence Nycholat to continue to rack up points as the Bears’ featured power play quarterback. A back-to-back championship may be too much to ask for this year’s squad, but a serious playoff run where they surprise a team or two is certainly far from unattainable.
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