We decided to take a little detour from previewing NHL clubs and instead made a trip to the Land Of Chocolate, where the two-time defending Calder Cup Champion Hershey Bears set to open training camp this week. With most of the Bears’ potential top players still residing in Washington for the time being, there is still time to speculate on who will be “Bearing The Brown” before “Rocking The Red” (Bearing The Brown? Get it? They’re bears, they wear brown…play on words…patent pending).
Stocking Stuffers (notable additions): RW Brian Willsie (free agency via Colorado); C Matt Hendricks (free agency via Colorado); G Dany Sabourin (free agency via Boston); D Joe Finley (call-up from South Carolina).
Gift Receipts (notable losses): LW Alexandre Giroux (free agency to Edmonton); LW Chris Bourque (KHL); C Kyle Wilson (free agency to Columbus); D John Carlson (call-up to Washington); D Karl Alzner (call-up to Washington); G Michal Neuvirth (call-up to Washington).
Ghosts Of Christmas Past (last season): 60-17-0-3 – First in East Division – First in Eastern Conference – Calder Cup Champions
Could last season have been any better? The Bears absolutely rolled through the regular season, winning 60 games (an AHL single-season record), setting franchise records in consecutive wins (12) and consecutive home wins (24) and punctuated it with their second-straight Calder Cup. It was the Bears’ AHL-record 11th championship and third in five years. Five Bears played in the AHL All Star Game and three started for their respective squads. It was truly a record-breaking year in Hershey.
Wish List (season outlook): Considering all of the aforementioned records, it would be easy for the Bears to have a let down this season. Quite frankly, any season would be considered as such compared to last season’s unprecedented totals. Hershey has proven that their players are arguably the most talented in the AHL and rightfully so. Just looking at how many former Bears now hold permanent positions on the Capitals is proof enough.
Possible newcomers Willsie (technically) and Hendricks can provide a scoring punch and fresh leadership. Willsie, who once scored 19 goals for the Capitals and had two 20-goal seasons with the Bears while they were the affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, scored 26 for the Lake Erie Monsters in 2009-10. Hendricks scored nine of his own in his first full season with the Avalanche and added a hat trick in the Capitals’ 6-2 preseason win over Columbus. Not only does Hendricks, who just signed a one-year, two-way contract, bring more scoring, but also the grit and tenacity that seemingly evades the Capitals every season.
Joe Finley’s maturation process will continue during his first season in Hershey. After a freak arm injury sidelined him for almost the entire season in ECHL South Carolina, Finley will fight for a top spot on the Bears’ defensive corps. At 6-7 and 229 pounds, Finley is an imposing figure, but as Bears head coach Mark French said during rookie camp, Finley needs to tighten up his game before he can make an impact in the NHL. Watching Finley progress should be a treat for Bears fans.
The goaltending duo of Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin will be one of the most formidable in the AHL. With Varlamov and Neuvirth finally in Washington, it is Holtby’s time to prove that he is the next great goaltending prospect. Sabourin will be a great mentor for Holtby.
The area to watch this season is who will fill the void left by Giroux, Wilson and Bourque, who were three of the top five scorers last season. Giroux, who scored 110 total goals over the last two seasons, left for Edmonton, while Wilson signed with Columbus and Bourque left for the KHL. That leaves Keith Aucoin (106 points) and Andrew Gordon (71 points) as the top returning scorers. Yet, Gordon’s return is not guaranteed. If Gordon does not make the Capitals, he must go through waivers before returning to Hershey. That is a risky proposition; the chances of Gordon going through waivers unclaimed are quite slim.
The Bears have the proverbial target on their backs entering the 2010-11 season, but the team has proved that they can be successful regardless of extreme roster turnover. The third time could be a charm.