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Hershey finding its way after rough start

AHL affiliate of Capitals overcoming injuries, promotions in quest to maintain winning ways

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

Plans rarely work out as drawn up in the American Hockey League.

Troy Mann, coach of the Hershey Bears, can attest to that after going through an most unexpected October, a four -week stretch that placed his best-laid plans in shambles.

Offseason turnover for the parent Washington Capitals led to the graduation to NHL work for forwards Jakub Vrana and Nathan Walker along with defensemen Christian Djoos and Aaron Ness. So, an uphill battle was to be expected.

But, it has become an even steeper trek as injuries rippled through the Washington lineup, necessitating the recalls of forward Chandler Stephenson and defenseman Madison Bowey from Hershey to the Capitals.

The loss of the top two goaltenders in Hershey, Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek, further complicated matters for Mann. Copley did not return until Nov. 3, and Vanecek made his season debut this past Sunday. Each had a lower-body injury.

It all added up to a 1-5-0-1 start for Hershey in the stacked Atlantic Division.

Winning has been a way of life through the Washington-Hershey affiliation that started in 2005. Hershey has delivered a steady stream of players to Washington, won three Calder Cup championships, reached the Calder Cup final an additional two times, and reached the postseason in 11 of 12 seasons.

The early roster issues put several of Mann's young players, especially rookie defensemen Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, and Jonas Siegenthaler, under a fair bit of duress.

"I think our young [defensemen] have grown and gotten better with every week," Mann said.

"We're not out of the woods by any means. We're in the toughest division in the league, so there is a lot of work to be done here."

Hershey has gone 5-2-0-1 in its past eight games to get back into the thick of things, trailing Atlantic Division-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins by seven points, but only two behind fourth-place Providence Bruins.

Here's a look at five facets that will bear watching as Hershey attempts to overcome its slow start:


Copley (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) is 25 and on the brink of NHL duty. The Capitals acquired him from the St. Louis Blues at the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline last season, and he took Hershey to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs before a lower-body injury ended his season.

"To see what he was able to do for our team [late] last season and all of a sudden you don't have him for four weeks [this season], there is certainly a calm presence back there [missing]," Mann said. "Copley, like many No. 1 goalies, covers up mistakes."

Vanecek (6-1, 187) is 21, but in his third pro season after Washington selected him in the second round (No. 39) of the 2014 NHL Draft. Before Copley arrived last season, Vanecek held the starting job in Hershey for a long stretch. With Braden Holtby firmly established in Washington, the Capitals can afford to be very patient with Vanecek, but they remain quite high on his potential.


Lucas Johansen

Johansen (6-2, 182) does not turn 20 until Thursday, but Mann does not hold back in his praise of the first-round pick (No. 28) by Washington in the 2016 NHL Draft.

"At some point, he is going to play for the Washington Capitals," Mann said of Johansen, who has nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 14 games.

"I think from a defensive perspective, there is a still a lot of room to grow," Mann said. "But as he grows and matures and gets stronger, that will come. From an offensive perspective, he has shown some things that we had seen from Djoos the past couple of years, some poise with the puck."


Still more young defensemen

Hobbs, 20, fractured his wrist against Toronto on Nov. 4 and will miss up to eight weeks. A 2015 fifth-round pick (No. 143) by Washington, he blossomed last season in the Western Hockey League with Regina and had 85 points (31 goals 54 assists) in 67 regular-season games and added 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in 23 playoff games.

Siegenthaler (6-3, 206) had three seasons of high-level pro experience in Switzerland before making the full-time jump to the AHL this season. The Capitals selected him in the second round (No. 57) of the 2015 NHL Draft. With plenty of playing time available among the Hershey defensemen, the 20-year-old will receive ample opportunity to acclimate fully to the North American game.

Colby Williams (6-0, 199) is in his second pro season. The 22-year-old benefited considerably playing with former NHL veteran Tom Gilbert last season and is tracking nicely as an NHL prospect.

Travis Boyd

A top-line AHL player, Boyd (5-11, 185) can distribute the puck and get into dangerous scoring areas. He was a second-team AHL all-star last season, and his 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 15 games place him in a fourth-place tie in AHL scoring. He is 24 and still well within the prospect window in his third pro season.


Chris Bourque

At 31, Bourque (5-7, 174) is no longer considered a NHL prospect. In his 11th AHL season, he is a proven point producer and power-play quarterback. This season, he leads the AHL in scoring with 21 points (five goals, 16 assists).

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