Are changes coming for the Washington Capitals?
Sic Transit Ursi (Thus Pass the Bears) – 2011-12 Edition
Hope can be a dangerous thing. It can inspire greatness, but it can also make a fall that much more painful when you’ve stopped bracing for it. The Hershey Bears fell hard on Saturday night, watching their season slip away as they fought to close a one-goal lead that would remain just out of reach.
Let us remember – going into last Wednesday’s Game 3 against the Baby Pens, many in the Hershey community were fully prepared for the worst – another blowout loss, perhaps slightly more dignified than Game 2’s 7-2 showing since it would take place at home. There were no changes in the lineup to make, with the exception of losing Patrick McNeill to an upper-body injury (hardly positive). After ten losses in a row, things were looking bleak.
Then Hershey rallied, shaking off the weekend and utilizing that oft-referenced hockey tendency for a short memory. The recently healthy players settled back into the lineup, the pressure kicked up a notch, and they fought off elimination. Twice. That’s where the hope comes in, because suddenly there was no reason to believe that this team wouldn’t advance to Round 2. They didn’t, but the chance was there right up until the last seconds of Game 5’s 2-1 loss.
We look back now at the team (complete roster here, playoffs here), and season, that so closely mirrored their NHL affiliate (the Washington Capitals). The pendulum went through the full spectrum in dramatic fashion, with comfortable winning streaks and cruelly coincidental injuries and call-ups causing no end of grief right up through the last few games of the playoffs. It’s a situation hardly unique to the Bears, but still difficult to stomach when you’re watching familiar faces struggle with it.
Season in Brief (By the Numbers)
By most standards, the Bears held their own in the East. During the regular season their record was 36W-28L-4OTL-8SOL. That totaled up to 88 points, and it allowed them to slide into the 5th seed in their conference (third in the East Division). It was a solid showing, but not the kind of result fans had hoped for in October – especially since the Bears only backed into their playoff berth at the end of March, two weeks after the Norfolk Admirals.
One area where the Bears have had consistent success is in special teams (Penalty Kill & Power Play). On the PK, the Bears closed out the regular season with an 84.4% kill rate – 6th in the AHL. The PP numbers are even better, with the Bears snagging best in league honors for a 25.5% success rate. They also had more short-handed goals than anyone else, and the dubious honor of logging more penalty minutes than any team except the Worcester Sharks (the Sharks had 1620; the Bears had 1611 and four fewer bench minors).
A Shot of Flavor
Every team (and season) has a handful of idiosyncrasies that makes it unique. The 2011-2 Bears have plenty. On the more mundane end of things, there’s that AHL penchant for specialty jerseys. Hershey has sported the full color spectrum, including Caps gear, party hats & fireworks, Hershey’s kisses, and four-leafed clovers.
In addition, there’s that whole AHL Outdoor Classic thing. On January 6, Hershey faced off against the Adirondack Phantoms on the same ice used for the NHL Winter Classic (the Phantoms won 4-3 in OT, but that’s beside the point).
Finally, an accomplishment with a direct relationship to this year’s playoffs – after 9 losses at Giant Center, dating back almost two years, the Bears finally logged a victory against the visiting WBS Penguins (twice). Breaking the streak became doubly important when the Bears drew the Pens in the first round and faced elimination in both home games.
One thing that Hershey was not lacking this year was a veteran presence in the locker room. There are plenty of cliches about the impact of “leadership,” but there’s something to be said for having players around who’ve been there & done that. They can settle down the youngsters, are less likely to be shaken up, and understand how to put their heads down and get things done. All of those listed in the header for this section displayed those skills.
Boyd Kane (19-22-41 in the regular season, 2-1-3 in the playoffs) wasn’t shy in the points department (or penalties), and carried the best +/- on the team. He was also named Captain of the Eastern Conference team at the 2012 AHL All Star Game. Keith Aucoin is a bit of an oddball in the numbers department. He lead the league in scoring prior to his February call-up, earned a slot on the AHL All Star Team as well, and managed to hang onto second in the league when it comes to assists despite only playing 43 games in the season. Chris Bourque rounds out the Hershey All Stars, as well as claiming second overall in PPG and best-in-league in overall scoring.
Ryan Potulny joined the Bears this year from Binghamton (last year’s Calder Cup Champions), and he carries the experience well. Despite an early season injury, he led the league in power play goals (19), and his total of 33-32-65 in the regular season wasn’t too shabby, either. He also had the lone tally in the elimination game against WBS on Saturday night.
Andrew Carroll is one of the odd men out in the leaders circle, well-deserving of this year’s Unsung Hero award without being a visible presence on the scoreboard (1-5-6 regular season, 0-1-1 playoffs). He’s also the regular center for the fourth line, which has consistently served as a barometer for the team’s success. He’s joined on the fourth line by either Joel Rechlicz or D.J. King (a veteran and emerging mentor in his own right) and a rotating second winger (most recently Graham Mink). Joel Rechlicz is the other low-scoring leadership type on the team. Not only is “Recker” number two in the league for penalty minutes (a dubious honor with 267), but he was also praised by the team for his off-ice community service work.
Capitals fans have had their eye on Cody Eakin ever since the redhead first attended development camp in 2010. For one thing, he’s hard to miss (or forget) with such bright hair. For another, he’s demonstrated a strong competitive drive and will to improve, earning both repeated call-ups to the Capitals and the Rookie of the Year Award from the Bears. He was one of the last to be cut from the Caps last fall, and you can expect he intends to better that performance come September.
Garrett Mitchell has been a pleasant surprise, working his way up from the South Carolina Stingrays a week into the regular season and never going back down. He’s been noted for a willingness to play where he’s placed, and seen time on all four lines over the course of the season. He was also singled out for the team’s Most Improved Player award.
Hershey swapped out three slots on the roster this past season, all of them at the behest of their parent club. In November, RW Francois Bouchard (0-0-0 pre-trade, 3-7-10 post-trade) went to the NY Ranger‘s Connecticut Whale in exchange for Tomas Kundratek (0-2-2 pre-trade, 12-11-23 post-trade, plus 0-4-4 in playoffs & a five game call-up to Washington). Bouchard would later break his wrist on his first visit back to Hershey, while Kundratek went on to win Hershey’s Defenseman of the Yearaward.
The other two trades occurred on February 2, one day before Keith Aucoin hit the road for Washington. D Danny Richmond (0-4-4 pre-trade, 2-5-7 post-trade) went to the Avalanche‘s Lake Erie Monsters in exchange for F Mike Carman (3-3-6 pre-trade, 7-5-12 post-trade), in a move which clearly benefited the Bears (especially in light of the center shortage which struck in the months after Aucoin’s call-up, when Carman stepped up to both the second & third line center positions as needed).
The decision to trade F Matthew Ford (10-18-28 pre-trade, 19-12-31 post-trade, for a total of 29-30-59 on the season) to the Flyers‘ Adirondack Phantoms for D Kevin Marshall (2-3-5 pre-trade, 0-1-1 post-trade, with a 0-2-2 spike post-season) has garnered more criticism for obvious numerical reasons. Marshall has been a solid blueliner, bouncing between first and second pairing, and it’s hard to fault his dedication to the game – during his first “home” game as a bear, he blocked a shot with his face and donated his two front teeth to the ever-present hockey gods. His role has downgraded a bit since Cameron Schilling‘s addition to the team (and a temper tantrum in a game v. Syracuse, which has hopefully been put behind all parties involved), but he was still logging consistent minutes through the end of the post-season.
Both Carman and Marshall are due to become Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) this summer. Kundratek belongs to the Caps for another year.
Hershey’s had a rough time in net this year, through no fault of their two principle goaltenders (Braden Holtby & Dany Sabourin). Holtby is a name that everyone should recognize at this point – he’s been the talk of Washington ever since Michal Neuvirth went down with injury, and he was an AHL All Star during the 2010-11 season. He’s had a decent run this year as starter, even though he only saw time in 3 more games with the Bears than his “backup.” What’s most notable is that the two goalies have such similar numbers for the season: both GAA and save % were within .15 and .003 respectively (Holtby’s lower in both cases).
After signing with the Caps last year, Sabourin suffered a knee injury mid-season which had him sidelined until the 2011 training camp. He came back strong after six months of rehab, and between Holtby’s call-ups and three-game weekends, Sabourin saw time in 37 regular season games with the Bears and five additional playoff starts. He also backstopped the Bears through a seven-game winning streak in the midst of their college signing circus (see below), part of a 27 day (11 game) stretch during which it was clear the coaching staff had no intention of playing his backup (Neumann University’s Matt Tendler) barring an injury.
When Sabourin got the call from Washington, Hershey got to engage in a further goalie shuffle, which resulted in signing a new backup (Scott Greenham) and calling up Daren Machesney from South Carolina. By that point in the spring, prior-call-up Philipp Grubauer had undergone season-ending wrist surgery and was unavailable.
As mentioned previously, there was a surplus of college talent in the Hershey lineup during the months of March and April, in addition to a few visits from Stingrays players like Billy Ryan. Normally, the influx of college players would fall into the category of Black Aces. Given the injury situation in Hershey, however, many of the recent signees were able to gain valuable game experience – often with positive results.
Almeida, Civitarese, and Syner are all expected to be back in Hershey next year. Each of them also scored at least one goal in a Bears jersey. Schilling has signed with the Capitals, so he’ll play wherever they assign him. He tallied two goals during the five-game series with WBS.
Injuries are part & parcel of professional hockey, but sometimes they just seem like a slap in the face. As the season wound down, Christian Hanson, Jacob Micflikier, and Graham Mink were all sidelined for prolonged periods. While Micflikier and Mink were cleared for play the weekend before the playoffs, Hanson’s clearance came frustratingly late. Per Tim Leone of the Patriot News, Hanson received permission to return to practice two days after the Bears elimination.
On the blueline, Tomas Kundratek missed the last game of the playoffs due to a hand injury. Patrick McNeill sustained an upper-body injury in the second game against Wilkes-Barre and was out the rest of the series.
With an ending like Hershey’s this spring, it’s hard not to ask the inevitable “What If?”
No, I’m not talking about the absence of Braden Holtby, although that certainly didn’t help matters late in the year. The player with the biggest “WI?” factor for Hershey was definitely Keith Aucoin. A four year veteran with the club, and an integral part of the Bears top line and power play, Aucoin was also the AHL’s scoring leader by a significant margin when the Capitals recalled him to Washington in early February.
It took the Bears months to accommodate to his loss, specifically his eye for play-making and ability to act as the cornerstone of the power play (which had a greater than 30% success rate while he was behind it). Like the problems in net, Aucoin’s absence also exacerbated the domino effect already striking the forward lines due to injury.
Change is a constant in the AHL. Prospects come and go in the blink of an eye, while the experienced veterans weigh secondary factors that influence decisions to stay or go above and beyond the contracts that may be tendered. No matter what does (or doesn’t) happen over the summer, the 2012-13 Hershey Bears will be a very different group than the team discussed above. So as the players prepare to scatter to the four winds in the off-season, take a few moments to appreciate the team that was. They’ve earned a stick-tap or two.
Photos: A collection of photos from the season can be found here on flickr.