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Summer Mailbag: Coaching Search, Goaltending, and More

Summer Mailbag: Coaching Search, Goaltending, and More

06/14/2018 - UPDATED: 6/18/18

Hello Bears fans! 

Zack Fisch here. I hope your summer is going well and you’re staying busy away from the Giant Center. This is the first of several Summer Mailbag features I am thrilled to bring you. Send me your questions on Twitter via my account @zackfisch or email me at This week, we chat about everything from the coaching search, to goaltending, to prospects, and more. 

I’ll start by saying it was a thrill to watch 14 former Bears raise the Stanley Cup last week for the Capitals. It brought tears to my eyes. Hershey fans should take great pride in this. I know we’d love to have the Stanley Cup visit Hershey and that possibility is certainly being explored. 

With that said, an important few weeks are ahead. While the Capitals have some players they'd like to keep, and are now looking for a new coach, we will focus on the Chocolate and White. With a search for Hershey's new coach narrowing, as well as the NHL Draft and free agency looming, it’s an exciting time for the future of this proud organization that is looking to get back to the top. 

Let’s get to the questions. Thanks to all who submitted! 

How long until a new coaching staff is in place?

Washington and Hershey would ideally like to have a head coach for the Bears by Washington’s annual Development Camp, which is traditionally the last week of June. With the Capitals playoff run just ending, that timeline is coming up quick. I’d imagine the NHL Draft next week in Dallas would be a great place to conduct final interviews as we lead up to the decision. Regarding the rest of the staff, that will fall into place once the head coach comes in. With Barry Trotz resigning in Washington on June 18, this certainly complicates things as well. 

How will AHL contract signings be impacted by not having the coaching staff in place?

With the hope of having a coach in place before free agency, the cloud of uncertainty will be gone for any players looking to sign with the Capitals or Bears. 

A little more on this process: Per the four-year affiliation agreement signed in the summer of 2016, the Washington Capitals have the final say on all player personnel decisions. This includes AHL contracts.  The Capitals build Hershey’s roster. Key names from Washington who help with this are Director of Player Personnel Chris Patrick and Pro Scout Jason Fitzsimmons. Hershey’s VP of Hockey Operations Bryan Helmer gives a great deal of input to Washington on signings and trades. Everyone is on the same page that winning in Hershey is important, and that producing players who play important games for the Chocolate and White only helps their development as prospects.

Does Hershey have a say in choosing a coach or is it all Washington?

The Bears play a giant part in this, but as outlined above, Washington technically has the final say on this. Ultimately, they had the final say on not renewing Troy Mann and Ryan Murphy’s contracts, and they’ll make the final judgment on this decision, too. However, the Capitals are not working alone on this. They value Hershey greatly in this process and work in tandem with the Bears on something of this magnitude. Getting a coach that can help Hershey win is very important. Hershey’s Bryan Helmer has been thoroughly involved in this process and has been part of the many phone interviews conducted. As it’s narrowed down to a handful of finalists, Helmer will continue to be involved in the decision making process until the next bench boss of the Bears is decided. 

Any names to know about when it comes to the Bears head coaching search?
- @Joe_Szymansking

This process has been kept very quiet and I have not heard the names of any of the many candidates interviewed. With that said, I do believe there is interest in bringing in a young up-and-coming coach. I’d guess the hire comes from someone who has had success in the major junior ranks, or someone who has experience in both pro and juniors that is a current AHL assistant coach. The Providence Journal's Mark Divver mentioned Spencer Carbery, former South Carolina Stingrays head coach and current Providence assistant, as a canidate on June 18. 

Jeff Halpern has been an assistant in Syracuse the past two seasons. He was a longtime Capital and all reports say he’s very well-liked among Crunch players. The OHL has numerous intriguing head coaches that NHL fans may remember: Derian Hatcher, Todd Gill, Cory Stillman, and Jay McKee, to name a few. 

Ted Dent was the coach of Rockford for six years from 2011-17 and developed a great deal of prospects who have gone on to play for the Chicago Blackhawks. He spent last year as an associate coach with Niagara of the OHL, but I’d imagine he wants to get back behind the bench at the pro level.  

Will any of these names listed be the next head coach in Hershey or for another AHL team? Are any of them finalists? That I do not know. But it’s certainly fun to speculate and guess, isn’t it? 

Your take on goalie depth within the organization? 

Prepare for a long answer here. There are some moving pieces, but here’s my stab at this:
The biggest piece of the puzzle in the goaltending equation is former Bear Philipp Grubauer. He’s a restricted free agent coming off a one-year, $1.5 million deal. His name has already been mentioned in trade talks with teams like Carolina and the Islanders. Grubauer is ready to get a shot as an NHL starter, and it’s not going to come in DC. I think he gets moved in the coming weeks.

If that happens, then the tandem in DC would be Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley. The Capitals felt so highly about Copley that they re-acquired him in Feb. 2017, and he’s under contract on a one-way deal this upcoming season, meaning he makes $650,000 in the NHL or AHL. While Copley’s injury hampered him last year and led to below average numbers, if he returns to the form we saw in 2016-17, he’s ready for a shot in the NHL.  

That would put incumbent Vitek Vanecek back between the pipes with Hershey for a third straight season. He’ll be joined by the highlight of Washington’s prospect group, 2015 first round selection Ilya Samsonov, who has signed his entry-level deal with the Capitals and will make the jump from the KHL to North America. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan has said Samsonov will start in Hershey.  All reports say Samsonov is the real deal and his potential is off the charts. There will certainly be an adjustment period and a language barrier, but Samsonov will be given key minutes in Hershey. The Russian has been playing against some of the best players in the world in the KHL, and is clearly the goaltender of future in DC. 

Parker Milner got an AHL deal with the Bears and is ticketed to again be the go-to guy in South Carolina and a depth option for the Bears. While Milner struggled in limited AHL action last year, he was the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Year and loves Charleston. It’ll be interesting to see who South Carolina brings in to play with him. The Stingrays had fan-favorite Jeff Jakaitis with Milner last year. Jakaitis is an ECHL legend who is still playing great between the pipes at 35 years of age, but his last AHL win was in 2010-11 with Portland. I’d love to see another established AHL call-up option join Milner to give the Bears more depth. Lehigh Valley had both John Muse and Mark Dekanich in Reading last year. Both have extensive AHL experience, and Muse turned in some key wins when there were injuries in Allentown. 

The only name I have not mentioned is Adam Carlson, who struggled in South Carolina, but turned in strong numbers with Kansas City of ECHL, and went 2-3 with the Bears. He is a restricted free agent, and while nothing is set in stone, it wouldn’t be surprising if he did not get a qualifying offer. He’s a great kid, but at this point, I’m not sure where he fits. 

With the D Core and goaltending locked up for next season. What route do you think the forwards will play speed like Vegas or speed and neutral zone clog? 

Speed is the name of the game, and some of the young prospects like Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Maximilian Kammerer, both who are expected to join Hershey for this upcoming season, are known for being quick. You have to be a fast team these days, and I think that’s something this group of younger players coming in will help address. I think the style depends on the coach in Washington and in Hershey. Barry Trotz is not returning to DC, so it will be interesting to see if the the organization continues to play a puck possession game that focuses on quality opportunities. It obviously worked quite well last year in Washington. The new head coach in Chocolate Town will add their own touches to the team once they arrive. 

First off, how’s your summer going? Second, how do you think the Caps’ Cup win will impact the Bears, if at all? I know it seemed like players like Walker might be in Hershey again, but could change and having some degree of familiarity up front next year.

It’s been a nice summer so far. The Capitals run certainly satisfied my hockey hunger, but it’s been far too long since we’ve seen hockey in Hershey, and I’m excited for what is ahead. 

Washington winning the Cup changes a few things. Despite it looking like Barry Trotz would be back, he will not, as he resigned on June 18 after the two parties could not come to terms. As far as players go, they’re going to want to keep this group together as much as possible. A guy that was probably not a candidate to be re-signed like Devante Smith-Pelly had an unbelievable playoff, and I’d have to think there is interest in bringing him back. Defender Michal Kempny was sensational in the playoffs and the Capitals have said they want to re-sign him. John Carlson played out of this world this year, and if Washington can make the money and term work, they’d love to have him back. Had the Capitals lost in the first or second round, not everyone would be coming back. Now, I think we see fewer opportunities for Hershey players looking to move up.

I think Travis Boyd will make the Capitals next season. I know Washington would love to keep Jay Beagle, but if Beagle goes the route of free agency, Boyd would be a solid replacement. There is no doubt that Nathan Walker is extremely well-liked in DC, and played exceptional in his one playoff game. He will get a good look in camp, and he has improved his stock to make the team, but as of now, I think we see him in Hershey again next year.   

Washington winning with so many former Bears also shows the Capitals that these players having success in Hershey is important. The Capitals have been so focused on winning the Stanley Cup the last few years, and now that they have, they certainly realize that developing players who are winners in the AHL is key. I don’t believe a guy like Chandler Stephenson is as good in the playoffs for the Capitals without the experience he gained playing big games in Hershey.  

Of all players who aren’t waiver eligible who do you see earning place with Caps, who probably won’t clear and who will clear waivers? 

Per CapFriendly, pretty much all of Washington’s prospects looking to make the jump next season will require waivers. That includes Boyd, Barber, Copley, O’Brien, Lewington, Ness, Walker. Some of the young defenders like Hobbs, Johansen, and Siegenthaler are waivers-exempt, and of those, I think Siegenthaler is the closest to NHL ready, but he could still use seasoning. 

It’s really tough to say who might get claimed on waivers, if anyone. With all teams passing on a guy like Chandler Stephenson last year, I’m sure more NHL teams will look at Washington’s prospects and consider a move. Remember, if a team claims a player, they have to keep them on the NHL roster or they risk losing them on waivers right back to the team they took them from. 

Which vets are most likely to stay and who do you have an eye on with free agency in a few weeks?

I think there will be a big change to the leadership and landscape of Hershey’s roster next season. When you have a season like the Bears did, changes will be made. As of now, my gut feeling is it’s unlikely Garrett Mitchell, Chris Bourque, and Zach Sill return next season. Anthony Peluso will become an unrestricted free agent. Joe Whitney impressed during his first month in Hershey, and will certainly get a look from an AHL team if not the Bears. 

There are some really talented prospects coming that have a resume of scoring. Garrett Pilon tore up the WHL. Jonsson-Fjallby is highly regarded. Free agent signing Juuso Ikonen, 23, is a player who has produced strong offensive numbers in Sweden playing against men. Mathias Bau will be better and more consistent in his second year. 

All of that said, the need in free agency will be proven goal scorers. Hershey probably needs at least 2-3 high-end, veteran forwards that are slam dunks to be goal scorers at this level. Guys like Chris Terry (32 goals), Brandon Pirri (29 goals), Bobby Butler (24 goals), Ben Street (21 goals), and Kenny Agostino (16 goals, but 24 goals in 2016-17 in a year he won AHL MVP) all fit this description. Andrew Miller had 52 points in Charlotte last year and is someone that all AHL teams would covet. (UPDATE: Miller signed in Switzerland recently, so a name you can probably scratch off your list). Nic Dowd, a former Calder Cup winner with Manchester, struggled to produce in the NHL this year, but is a talented top-line center in the AHL. 

Every team should be interested in Austin Czarnik, who finished second in the AHL with 69 points last year. He may not re-sign in Boston as he is looking for a place where he has more of a chance to become a full-time NHL player. He is a former collegiate teammate of Riley Barber’s at Miami. Forward Michael Mersch is a player I have my eye on. He hasn’t been able to become a full-time NHL player, but there is ton of talent there, and he had 21 goals this past year for Mike Stothers in Ontario. I’m a big fan of Matt Lorito who had 23 goals in Grand Rapids, and also like Penn State product Casey Bailey, who tallied 18 goals with Bridgeport last season.

Probably the most important question you'll get all offseason: is a hot dog a sandwich?

Oh, Kyle. I’m very adamant it’s not a sandwich and I refuse to be convinced otherwise. 

Lastly, I want to end on a serious note. Thoughts and prayers go out to the family of former Hershey defender Hubert Labrie. His sister, Chloe, was murdered in Quebec. Absolutely tragic & heartbreaking. Hubert is one of nicest people you'll ever meet. I am thinking of him today.

Thanks for reading, and keep the questions coming. Enjoy the summer, Go Bears! 
-Zack Fisch

Hershey Bears in a victory embrace

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