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Bear Necessities

Washington and Hershey's 11-year affiliation moves forward with four-year extension and renewed commitment to winning and development on both sides.

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

Eleven years ago last April, the NHL Washington Capitals and the AHL Hershey Bears announced they had come to terms on a multi-year affiliation agreement. That longstanding affiliation has continued with a string of one-year renewals recently, but on Thursday the Caps announced they've come to terms on a four-year extension of their affiliation agreement with Hershey. 

The partnership between the two sides has been mutually beneficial, with Hershey winning a trio of Calder Cup championships and playing into the Calder Cup final on two other occasions. Washington has reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons, and much of the Caps' success has been fueled via players moving up through the system from Hershey. 

As with any marriage, it's an often-complicated relationship in which the two partners do not always quite seen eye to eye. The most storied and longest standing franchise in the AHL, the Bears traditionally place more emphasis on winning than most of their American League counterparts. Washington, on the other hand, has a greater need and desire for development over winning, especially since they spend to the salary cap ceiling virtually every season.

"I think there has been an inherent conflict of interest where they've had a business to run and they need to make it work for them financially," says Caps general manager and vice president Brian MacLellan. "We have a different incentive where we've had to do what is best for young players. So there has always been a tug of war between the two. 

"I'd like to think that we've made a lot of progress over the last two years and will continue to make more progress going forward here, to do what's best for our guys but also to put a good product on the ice in Hershey, too."

Over the last several months, the two sides have come to a level of accord that has them on the same page and pulling in the same direction. That consensus helped smooth over some rough edges and pave the way for the four-year extension.

"I think it speaks to the comfort level we have with what's going on and what's transpired over the last couple of years, and their comfort level with us," says MacLellan of the length of the new agreement.

Early last season, the Bears announced that longtime president and general manager Doug Yingst would retire after more than three decades on the job, effective at the end of last season. It was fitting that a youthful Bears team advanced all the way to the Calder Cup final in Yingst's final season after a long and fruitful run at his post.

Over the summer, Hershey promoted assistant coach Bryan Helmer to vice president of hockey operations, and the Bears hired assistant coach Reid Cashman to replace Helmer behind the bench. 

Just over a week ago, Hershey announced a quartet of new hires for its own hockey operations and support staff, a significant addition to what had been a somewhat skeletal staff. The Bears announced that Mike King would be the team's full-time video coach. Mike Wagner was added as the team's strength and conditioning coach, and Murphy Luatua was brought on as certified athletic trainer. Hershey also hired Josh Fanuularo to serve as the team's assistant equipment manager.

Those personnel additions signify Washington's commitment to development at the AHL level. 

"When I came to the organization [as an assistant coach] in 2010," recalls Bears head coach Troy Mann, "it was [then-head coach] Mark French and I and [longtime head trainer Dan] 'Beaker' [Stuck] and [then-equipment manager] Justin Kullman. And that was it. There were four of us. I think it took us - and Hershey included - a little bit of time to not get on track, but to catch up to other organizations.

"You could see over the years teams adding assistants, then adding a second equipment guy and then adding a strength guy. It was taking us a little bit longer. When I came back as the head coach [in 2014-15], I really fought hard to bring in that second assistant/video guy. I fought hard and got that, and now going into my third year it is now coming to fruition in terms of my vision for Hershey and ultimately Washington. 

"You just can't have enough hands on deck. You just look at the NHL clubs now, carrying four assistants and two or three video guys. The demands of the player today are so much. For us to be able to develop and to be able to push these guys along, this is important."

It is important. It's important for Hershey, and it's arguably more important for Washington. In the salary cap era of the NHL, success in the areas of drafting and development are critical to success on ice. Identifying young amateur players and moving them up the ladder and into the NHL lineup are of paramount importance, and that's even truer for teams like Washington that spend to the salary cap. 

Next summer, a number of key Capitals players' contracts will expire. Defenseman Karl Alzner and forwards Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and Daniel Winnik will all become unrestricted free agents. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt and forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will become restricted free agents.

Meanwhile, down in Hershey, the Caps have seven players who started their pro careers last season, and who will still be on reasonably priced entry-level deals next season. That group includes goaltender Vitek Vanecek, defensemen Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos and Tyler Lewington and forwards Riley Barber, Travis Boyd and Jakub Vrana. All seven acquitted themselves nicely in their first pro seasons, and all are seen as viable prospects with a legitimate chance to play at the NHL level.

The more of those Hershey players that are ready to step in and help the Capitals next season, the easier it will be for Washington to navigate those difficult contractual waters with its bevy of UFAs and RFAs. 

"We need young, cheap players that can play," declares MacLellan. "And the better they are, the more successful we're going to be. We're going to have some big decisions here with Osh and Karl, Kuzy, Burakovsky and [John] Carlson the following year. I don't know how it all sorts itself out, but everybody is going to get more expensive, and we're going to need players that can come up and play well for us, who are not as expensive." 

"We need three or four of those guys in our lineup, just for financial reasons," says Steve "General" Richmond, Washington's director of player development. "We have to do it. A team like us, we have to do it because we have a lot of guys making a lot of money, and deservedly so. So we need some of those entry-level guys, and they have to get there soon. I think by doing what we're doing down there, we're going to get them there sooner."

With the six aforementioned first-year pros in its lineup last season along with other young hopefuls such as Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker and Liam O'Brien, Hershey improved as the season wore on, and it advanced to the Calder Cup final before bowing to Lake Erie in a four-game set that was closer than most sweeps. Having that success with such a youthful roster may have helped convince the folks on the Hershey end that winning and successful player development aren't mutually exclusive.

"I think it showed Hershey that our way is the right way," says Richmond. "And I know Troy Mann, when he took over, he really had to win with youth and speed down in the American League. We built that last year for him with a lot of young kids and a lot of speed and they had success. I think the Hershey group realized they could do it this way, and it's more exciting this way, too." 

The Development Team

Washington has placed renewed emphasis in the area of player development over the last couple of seasons. Longtime Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig was moved into a pro development role two years ago, helping to support Richmond and Chris Patrick in that role. Patrick had served as pro scout and director of minor league operations, but he has recently been promoted to director of player personnel. 

"He's the head guy for Hershey," states MacLellan of Patrick. "He is the director of player personnel now, and he is responsible for Hershey. Overseeing Hershey, our relationship with Hershey, making sure the relationship runs smoothly and that it's working for everybody.

"We're going to have a development team. Olie, General and Chris Patrick. General is going to do more, the General and Olie. Olie is going to be working more towards development than just being around and being an ambassador. He'll be doing more monitoring of our development plan. We will establish a development plan for everybody and he'll watch games and critique players on whether they are improving in the areas we want them to improve on." 

Patrick, Richmond and Kolzig with work closely with Helmer and the Hershey coaching staff. They'll attempt to ensure that Hershey remains competitive while giving Washington's young prospects the best possible chance to develop into NHL players.

"There has been an evolution of the AHL and how NHL clubs are using their NHL franchises," says Patrick. "I go to the AHL board meetings every summer and they show the number of vets on each team on average, and they show the recalls from every year. Is it the veteran players being recalled or is it the players on entry-level deals? And the trend is definitely going to where there are fewer vets on these teams and there are more entry-level players being recalled.

"For whatever reason, it seems like teams are drafting a lot better now. It seems like players are ready to play a lot sooner than they were in the past. And you need to have those guys on those cheap, entry-level deals if you're a team that spends to the [salary] cap; it helps you manage that cap. I think that's been the trend around the league.

"We've tried to shift our focus to stay along with that trend. But at the same time, it has always been important for us and obviously it's important for Hershey for us to have a good team there. On the surface, Hershey wants to have a good team because they have the history there and a rabid fan base and all that. But the way I view it, there is a certain level of play that you get in an AHL regular season game. And then that level gets ramped up when you get to the playoffs, and an AHL playoff game may be close to the skill level and intensity level of a good NHL regular season game. So the more you can have your prospects playing in that kind of environment, the better for their development.

"For us, the focus on winning is so that our guys are in a winning environment first of all, but also so they're playing this higher level of hockey. I think we saw it last spring with that playoff run. A lot of guys really progressed from October to April, but they took another step from April to June when the hockey got better and the intensity got better. By the last series against Lake Erie, it was really good hockey and that was a good team they played. For our guys to get that experience, that's why you do it." 

Barber, Bowey, Boyd, Djoos, Lewington and Vrana were all regulars on last year's Bears team, and all six improved as the season wore on. But each was expected to maintain a certain level of play and production into the playoffs; a spot in the lineup is not a given for a prospect or a veteran. Barber slumped some offensively in the playoffs, and he was scratched for a few games as a result.

Sprinkling good veteran professionals into the lineup amongst the prospects is a must, too. For an AHL team to have so much success with so many first-year players is rare. Veteran AHL players and leaders such as Aaron Ness, Chris Bourque, Paul Carey and Zach Sill deserve a lot of credit for the Bears' success, as Patrick is quick to point out. 

"From that perspective, I think our interests line up really well with Hershey," says Patrick. "They don't ask for a lot, they just ask that we have a competitive team. They don't expect Calder Cups every year; they're not unreasonable in that regard. But they just want to at least be competitive and be in the playoffs and competing for the Calder Cup. 

"As far as having more - for lack of a better term - more 'control' over the hockey stuff, that seems to be more of a trend around the NHL now. I think there are more clubs now that own their own AHL franchise than there were probably 10 years ago. Even the clubs that don't, it's pretty black and white as far as hockey-related decisions.

"With Doug retiring and the affiliation agreement expiring, it gave us a good opportunity to sit with some people in Hershey and just let them know where our heads were as far as how we'd like to see things go in the future, and make sure they're okay with that. It was a really good process, and we are all kind of aligned in our thinking. That's how I view the evolution. It's been a good thing, and hopefully we can keep it going."

The Development Plan

As MacLellan noted, Washington will have a development plan in place for each of its prospects as those players move into the organization from the amateur ranks. The Capitals' hockey operations and coaching staffs will be responsible for the initial assessments of players - the establishment of the baseline for that player and the improvements required to raise each particular aspect of that player's game or skills set to an NHL level.

"Coaches input, player personnel input and my input," says MacLellan in regards to the establishment of the baseline. "That's developed together as a group, from watching rookie camp, from watching training camp and from watching in Hershey. We have different guys who have different views on guys and we try to incorporate them all into a development plan. 

"It's good. It takes excuses away. We've been doing it and when players don't do what they're supposed to do, the results show. And you keep telling them, 'Here's what you need to do, here's what you need to do. Until you do it, you're not going to make it.' Don't just say, 'I just want to play in the NHL.' Everybody does. 

"Players wander. They need to be focused daily. Our coaches here in Washington are continually pushing guys. [Associate coach] Todd [Reirden] has a plan for all of the defensemen, including guys like Alzner and [Matt] Niskanen who are established veteran players. 'Here's what you need to work on, here's how you need to get better, here's how you can become more of an all-around player.' If he's doing it at this level, why wouldn't we be doing it at the Hershey level, where it's even more impactful because those are the young guys and they can learn the stuff early?"

Those development plans will vary from player to player, and it will be up to the trio of Patrick, Richmond and Kolzig - with significant primary assistance from the Hershey coaching and support staff - to keep each player moving along smoothly toward achieving each of his smaller goals.

"They're all going to be different individually tailored," says MacLellan, "and it will be the things we think they need to work on to get to the next level. Some guys need to put on weight, some guys need to drop some weight. Some guys need to work on skating, some guys need to work on play away from the puck. We've got a plan for every player."

Ideally, if the player is able to improve each of the smaller elements of his game to the desired level, everyone wins - the player, the Bears and the Capitals.

"A lot of times, it's just a matter of giving the guys the opportunity," says Patrick. "And admittedly in the past, anybody in management or coaching, they're always more comfortable with what they know. So it can be hard when you bring in a guy who is a young, first-year pro and you want to try to put him in a position where he can be playing steady minutes in Hershey. Sometimes in the past there was maybe a little trepidation about getting those guys right into the lineup. 

"I think that has become more imperative for all teams - including us - that those guys get more of an opportunity to play significant minutes in the AHL. That's where I think Troy has done a real good job managing those guys. You take a guy like Travis Boyd last season. Obviously we saw him in development camps, and he was always involved offensively, and we knew what he did at the University of Minnesota. But you're not sure how he's going to handle the transition to pro hockey. 

"I thought Troy did a good job with that, bringing him along slowly at first. Not so much that the player felt that he wasn't being utilized well enough, but we kind of had him slowly get more responsibility in the lineup and more time on the power play, to the point where by December or so he was on the first power play and he's one of your top two centers as far as offensive output. 

"So having the coaching staff on board with it is so important. Every coach wants to win, and especially these guys. You can say what you want about developing players, but at the end of the day, which coach from the AHL got a job with an NHL team last summer? It was the guy that won the Calder Cup, [Lake Erie's Jared Bednar, now coach of the Colorado Avalanche]. 

"So I have a hard time telling a coach, 'You have to play this guy and you have to play this guy.' They want to win, because that's good for their career, too. So to have a staff where you're comfortable working with them and you know that they'll work guys into the lineup appropriately and get them going without sacrificing the overall good of the team, I think it's a good mix that we have right now. 

"I think there are several examples of players where Troy has done that. So I think that's a real important piece to developing these entry-level guys. It's hard to just throw a guy into the fire sometimes. Sometimes they need to ease into it a little more, and you've got to be able to recognize that and to execute it as well. I think that's something that we've done well over the last couple of years with guys like [Stanislav] Galiev, Boyd, Barber, Madison Bowey. All of these guys were slowly given the opportunity for success, and they all grabbed it. It's been good." 

"We're treating them like NHL players at the minor league level," says MacLellan. "And I think it's important to monitor the successes - what we're doing nutritionally, what we're doing in the way of off-ice workouts, how we're improving their skating, all the skills stuff we're trying to incorporate into our development program. It's important to be monitoring that and pushing guys to get better."

The Future

While the relationship between Hershey and Washington has been a mostly prosperous one, the four-year affiliation extension seems to have breathed new life into the relationship.

"We are in the salary cap era now," says Mann. "When you think about what is going to happen in Washington next summer, we are going to need two or three Hershey guys to make that jump. Why not give them the best? They have to do it themselves as well; there has to be some ownership on the player's side. But if we can have a strength and conditioning guy in there just to push Djoos or the individual player a little bit more. 

"Having a full time video coach means [Hershey assistant coach] Ryan Murphy can do specific stuff with a forward like Barber, instead of he and I trying to share stuff and having to hurry it up and maybe not getting quite as much as we'd like to do, because there are only so many hours in the day to make that happen. I think from all around, it's the way it should be now. Hopefully it's all going to pay dividends here in the near future."

Mann worked for four seasons as an assistant to French in Hershey. He left for a season to serve as head coach for ECHL Bakersfield in 2013-14, and as it turns out, that's the only season of the 11-year affiliation between Hershey and Washington that the Bears did not make the Calder Cup playoffs. 

"The one thing with Washington that I really love as Hershey's coach, is they truly believe that by putting a winning product down there, it helps develop players," says Mann. "And I don't think all NHL teams are like that. I just think it's an invaluable experience to have these guys winning and trying to win Calder Cups. It's been going on for 10 years now, since '05-06 with winning championships and still ultimately developing players."

During last spring's chase to the Calder Cup final, many in the media were fawning over the Toronto Marlies, a team chock full of top prospects that was expected to win the Cup from virtually the start of the season. Toronto won 54 of 76 games and rolled up 114 points during the regular season, so faith in the Marlies was not unfounded. 

"One thing that really upset me down the stretch in the playoffs was the media would talk about how young Toronto was and how young Lake Erie was," says Mann. "Well, at the end of the day, the Washington Capitals were the best team in the NHL last year while Columbus and Toronto were bottom feeders in the NHL. And those teams had much higher draft picks in terms of the rounds [in which the players were chosen]. 

"We had guys like Lewington from the seventh round and Boyd from the sixth and Barber from the fifth. We had [a first-round pick in] Vrana, but we had a lot of lower picks because not only did we give up picks to try and win the Stanley Cup, we weren't picking in great areas of the draft either, compared to some other teams. So we were as young or younger than Toronto in that round. We started the year with nine guys under the age of 21.

"So I think the youth of our team down the stretch and in the semis and the final was as young as both of those squads that made it. The only difference was those [NHL parent] teams were not very good while Washington was the Presidents' Trophy winner. So I think it's hats off to the whole organization internally, that we were able to not only have a great team in Washington, but still have a very competitive team in Hershey that ultimately went to the final." 

We in the media talk and write a lot about chemistry in sports, mostly in terms of how it relates to teams on the ice or the field of play, and the atmosphere in the locker room. But developing and having chemistry isn't just important in those areas. The staffs at Hershey and Washington genuinely seem to enjoy being around each other and working together. 

"I think there has been a huge integration of everybody," says MacLellan. "The coaching staffs are all working together - the [defense] coach with the [defense] coach and the forwards coach with the forwards coach - and it's pretty well integrated now. We're just trying to incorporate a lot more things and a lot more guidance and monitoring of what our guys are doing."

Helmer and Mann have worked together behind the Hershey bench, and their relationship extends back to when Helmer was a player and Mann an assistant coach with the Bears. Patrick, Richmond and Kolzig have worked together for two years now, but their relationship extends back much further. 

"It is exciting and I think it's a continuation of what we've been doing," says Patrick. "General is so good at what he does with the guys after we draft them, and he has been for a long time. Not only is he like that father figure to them, if you will, but his level of communication and knowing what's going on in the guys' lives on and off the ice and really just being a guy they can trust and talk to - he forms relationships with all these guys. 

"What we were missing was that next step. When they turn pro over those next couple of years, they still kind of need that communication and they need someone telling them, 'This is what Barry is saying, this is what Mac is saying, this is what we need you to do and this is the kind of player we think you can be, and this is what we think you need to do to get there.' Hopefully this will be that next step where Olie will do what General does with the kids after we draft them, and be able to do that at the pro level. He's been around and doing this to some degree, and I see that the guys really respect Olie a lot. I think what he says will carry a lot of weight with the players. 

"And really, this generation of players, the communication is important to them. It's not like it was 30 years ago where the coach sent you down [to the minors] and that's all you heard from him until they called you up. You can't do that to players now. You have to make them part of the process, let them know why they're going down, what they need to work on and let them know what kind of deliverables you expect. 

"You put a little bit of the onus on them to get to where we need them to get. Hopefully this process is another step toward getting there. Olie works well with the coaching staff down there, and everybody seems to be on the same page. It would be great if we have close to the amount of success at the pro level that General has had with the guys after we draft them, it's going to be a very successful thing for us." 

As they head into the 12th season of their affiliation, the relationship between Washington and Hershey is the eighth longest among the 30 NHL clubs. Washington's prior affiliation with Portland ran for a dozen seasons before it signed on with Hershey in late April of 2005. After a string of one-year deals, the current four-year arrangement signifies the level of commitment on both sides.

"I think we've been doing one-year deals because we keep trying to change things to the way we want to do them instead of the way Hershey wanted to do them in the past," says Richmond. "I think we're at a place now where we're comfortable that they're on the same page we're on. We want to win down there, but we want to do it our way. And we proved last year that we could do it that way and we've won Calder Cups that way. So I think they finally bought into it. They made some changes there, and we finally have things the way we've wanted them.

"It's probably 10 years overdue, and I think we suffered for it. We need guys down there to step in and be able to play quickly. And having these people down there - especially the strength coach, full-time every day with these kids - is really going to help us. That's why we made the decision to make the long-term deal, because it's going to be a professional organization down there now, with professionals that we want teaching our kids, the coaching staff, Helms running it and a strength coach and a trainer and everything. It's just the way that it should be."

If a good but less than perfect relationship resulted in five trips to the Calder Cup final and three championships in 11 years, it's tantalizing for these guys to think about what they can accomplish when they're all pulling the rope together in the same direction at the same time.

"There are a lot of positives in our relationship with Hershey right now," says MacLellan. "We have a good comfort level with Helms throughout our organization - Barry, me, our pro scouts, Chris Patrick, Fitzy [pro scout Jason Fitzsimmons]. Everybody's got a relationship there, so relationships make the thing work.

"The coaching staffs have a good relationship. They can pick up the phone and call, which we haven't always had in the past. Now we have a strength coach that Nemo [Caps' strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish] is comfortable with. We have a trainer that Smitty [Caps' head athletic trainer Greg Smith] is comfortable with."

All of this comes about at one of the most anticipated times on the hockey calendar, days away from the start of a new season. It's the time when hope is always at its pinnacle. 

"We're going to have what should be 16 returning players, that's a huge number," notes Mann. "I remember coming into the organization, and they brought 18 guys back from the '08-09 championship team. I came in '09-10 and I was part of the second [championship] team, but that was 18 returnees. And my whole time since then, it's been 50 or 60 percent turnover. And to have potentially 16 returnees this year, that should be good. Now it's just managing expectations and making sure no sophomore jinx or anything like that is going to happen."

"We're making a lot of progress and doing the right things," says MacLellan. "We're going to continue to add things. We're doing some skills stuff now, for development on their days off. We have skating coaches who come in three or four times a year to try and give guys some instruction on how they can be more efficient and what they need to work on off ice to complement their skating. Nutritionally, I think we're doing good things. A lot of good stuff."

And ideally, the right stuff.

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