Barely a month ago, the town of Hershey was ensconced in celebration. Again. A fitting conclusion to the best season in AHL history — and arguably one of the greatest in all of hockey — the Bears hoisted the club’s 11th Calder Cup.
But the revelry was short-lived. Just days after the boys in Chocolate and White captured the AHL crown, the team quietly dispersed, its members scattering to their respective hometowns. Shortly thereafter, the mood in Chocolatetown shifted to one of anxiety and anticipation. No secret: there would be notable graduations from this championship Bears’ club to the parent in Washington. And with free agency looming a mere two weeks away, Hershey braced itself for the inevitable depletion of its roster.
Last year’s squad saw 19 members of the 2009 championship team return, including its captain, top two scorers, and starting goaltender. Despite the expected turnover of players as is customary in minor league affiliates, Hershey’s roster remained largely intact. The Bears did not escape unscathed this offseason, however.
The first casualty came well before the start of free agency, as European sources reported that playoff MVP Chris Bourque had signed with HK Atlant of the KHL on June 23. Although Bourque called the claims “premature” at the time, he failed to sign his qualifying offer from Washington prior to the July 15 deadline. The Russia-bound 24-year-old was the only member of the team to earn a Calder Cup ring in each of the Bears’ last three Cup runs. One skater does not a winning team make, but the loss does strike a significant blow to the Hershey offense, especially the power play.
Next to depart was centerman Kyle Wilson, who inked a two-way deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 2.
The following day the Bears’ offense was further crippled when goal scorer extraordinaire Alexandre Giroux signed a one-way contract with the Edmonton Oilers. In the past two seasons Giroux potted 139 goals and added 113 helpers en route to Hershey’s consecutive Calder Cups. He and linemate Keith Aucoin sat atop the AHL in points the past two seasons, with each claiming a league scoring title—Giroux in 2009, Aucoin in 2010.
With Giroux moving on and East Division foe Wilkes-Barre/Scranton already overflowing with big-ticket players courtesy of parent Pittsburgh, the Bears appeared to be in trouble. By early July the only player acquired was veteran goaltender Dany Sabourin, and the lack of moves early in the free agency period left many questioning the resolve of the organization. A couple of weeks later, not so much.
John Walton, voice of the Bears and communications guru, assured the skeptics that management was not idle while the rest of the league appeared busy.
On July 7, the team announced that left wing Kyle Greentree and defenseman Brian Fahey had both signed with Washington. Both proven performers at the AHL level, Greentree is expected to provide offensive prowess, while Fahey boasts better than 400 AHL games (regular season and playoffs combined) in his career, as well as a Calder Cup with Chicago in 2008.
The Chocolate and White bolstered the blueline the following day, as Lawrence Nycholat signed with the Bears. An integral part of Hershey’s Calder Cup run in 2006, Nycholat returns after stints with Binghamton and Manitoba. Via Tim Leone of the Patriot-News, Head Coach Mark French was pleased with the acquisition.
“Anytime you can add a guy with strong character and experience, especially winning a championship, it benefits your team,” the coach said.
Defenseman Bryan Helmer was not re-signed by the Bears. Bereft of its captain and lacking veteran leadership, Hershey continued to reload to fill the void. The club inked former Bear (and Capital) Brian Willsie to a two-way contract on July 14. He skated in 284 games with the Chocolate and White between 1998-99 and 2002-03, amassing 96 goals and 108 assists in that time.
Walton commended the return of Nycholat and Willsie, saying “[They] are among the best character guys I’ve been around in my nine years here, so to have them back here to help this team win is an incredible boost to our chances next season.”
“The loss of Giroux is a big one, but the addition of Kyle Greentree (a non-vet) and now Willsie makes up for a whole lot of offense,” he added.
“There’s no reason to think that Hershey won’t be at the very top of the league in goal production again next season.”
Concerns for the upcoming season were further eased when five Bears accepted deals with the Capitals on July 15. Andrew Gordon, Patrick McNeill, Zach Miskovic and Jay Beagle all signed qualifying offers, while Andrew Joudrey earned a two-way deal after playing on a Hershey contract last season. Miskovic claims a spot on the Bears’ blueline after totaling six goals and 26 points in his rookie year; each of his counterparts is entering his fourth professional season.
Also still under contract through the 2010-11 season are reigning AHL scoring champion Keith Aucoin, Steve Pinizzotto, Mathieu Perreault, Francois Bouchard and defensemen Sean Collins and Patrick Wellar.
Despite the carnage of free agency this offseason, the Bears have responded by once again assembling an enviable array of talent and character. In addition, there looks to be another infusion of high-end and impact young Capitals’ talents headed Hershey’s way this fall — the likes of perhaps Marcus Johansson, Stefan Della Rovere, Dmitry Kugryshev, and Joe Finley. Come fall, the most storied franchise in the AHL will look to extend its dominance over the league. Like the New York Yankees the Hershey Bears win and then reload; the juggernaut looks poised to defend its back-to-back championships and will be a formidable force as it contends for the three-peat.
Jess Mikula is a statistician and web writer for the Hershey Bears. She files for OFB intermittently, most especially when we offer her free beer.