Capitals Have a Lot to Look Forward to With AHL’s Hershey Bears

The Hershey Bears faced the Bridgeport Islanders in a home-and-home series matchup between the best and worst teams in the Eastern Conference in the American Hockey League (AHL). The Bears didn’t play down to their competition and took care of business, beating the Islanders 5-4 and then making a statement with a 4-0 shutout road win.

Related: Capitals Prospect Miroshnichenko Making Impact In AHL

At 12-4, the Bears have the best record in the Eastern Conference and look poised to repeat as Calder Cup champions. Their recent wins not only showed off their high-powered offense but proved they can win in a variety of ways. The Washington Capitals might not have the best prospect pool, but their AHL team is providing a lot of optimism for the future.

The Bears Are a Well-Coached Team

Rod Brind’Amour’s Carolina Hurricanes are often the team that fans and experts alike look to when they want to find one that is well-coached. The cliches surrounding the team are that they play disciplined hockey, win the shift, win the period, and win the game, but their on-the-ice play reflects a team with great coaching. The Hurricanes control the puck and the pace of the game and when they generate shots on the net, every skater knows where to be to help deflect the puck into the goal. It’s a system that has made them one of the best teams in the NHL in recent seasons and allowed them to reach the Eastern Conference Final in 2023.

The Bears’ performance against the Islanders on Nov. 18 checked off all those boxes. They had a great forecheck and kept the puck in the offensive zone throughout the game. They limited high-danger chances and forced the Islanders to take difficult shots on the net. Most importantly, when they fired shots from the blue line, the forwards would play the shooting lanes, resulting in two tip-in goals in the four-goal victory. Todd Nelson was hired as the head coach in the 2022 offseason, but his vision for the team is already taking shape.

Todd Nelson Griffins
Todd Nelson, head coach of the Hershey Bears (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Nelson, at 54 years old, has had quite the journey to the Bears. He coached the Oklahoma City Barons and the Grand Rapid Griffins in the AHL and was an assistant for the Dallas Stars under Rick Bowness when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. Bowness is known for coaching disciplined teams that play great defense, and it’s something Nelson has noticeably picked up as the Bears allow only 2.31 goals per game this season.

Since Nelson’s hiring, the Bears have gone 56-22-5-4 and have won the Calder Cup. With a handful of AHL coaches leaping to the NHL with the most recent being Kris Knoblauch, who went from the Hartford Wolfpack to the Edmonton Oilers, Nelson could be next.

Promising Prospects Lead The Way

The Capitals aren’t one of the teams that come to mind when it comes to having a great farm system. On the contrary, the first thought with the Capitals is that they are an aging team that went all-in at the trade deadline too many times, leaving them with a depleted pipeline. The Bears have a handful of young skaters who can join the NHL roster by next season, if not sooner.

The top prospect is Ivan Miroshnichenko, the Capitals’ first-round selection in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. He has four goals and four assists but has struggled in recent games, resulting in a healthy scratch for the Nov. 18 game against the Islanders. He’s still learning how to adapt to the AHL game, and at 19 years old, he has plenty of time to learn how to become an elite forward. Miroshnichenko has a high upside but isn’t the most productive forward on the Bears, with four skaters scoring five goals or more this season to lead an offense that is scoring 3.25 goals per game.

Ivan Miroshnichenko Washington Capitals
Ivan Miroshnichenko, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ethen Frank, who scored the Bears second goal on a deleted puck, is a 25-year-old forward who has seven goals on the season. Riley Sutter, who is part of the next generation of Sutters to make their way to the NHL, isn’t a prospect who beats teams with skill but is a wild card to join the NHL roster. He has great instincts and is one of the Bears’ best checking and defensive forwards, making him a viable fourth-line skater at the NHL level. Then there’s goaltender Clay Stevenson, who has been a pleasant surprise for the Bears but also looks poised to someday backup Capitals’ starter Darcy Kuemper.

Stevenson blanked the Islanders with a 25-save shutout on Nov. 18, his third shutout of the season. With a .927 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.75 goals-against average (GAA) in eight starts, he looks like one of the best goaltenders in the AHL. The Capitals will take their time with the 24-year-old goaltender, but his strong starts are hard to ignore. If he keeps it up throughout the season, a big if considering he has struggled at times and goaltending, in general, is difficult to evaluate, he can be on the NHL roster by the start of the 2023-24 season.

Calder Experience is Paying Off Early

The one reason to pump the brakes with the Bears’ strong start is that this team is similar to the one that won the Calder Cup last season. With a lot of familiarity and chemistry, it’s easy for them to take advantage of teams that are still learning their rosters. The Bears know Nelson’s system, and a good roster from last season is showing no signs of slowing down, but the rest of the AHL has a full season to not only adapt but also build strong rosters of their own.

The good thing about the AHL is that the seasons are long, and there’s plenty of time for development and maturity. The league itself is designed to develop and mature prospects to prepare them for the NHL. The season provides plenty of experience for the players, and the teams change throughout the season as well. The Bears are overwhelming opponents, but there’s still playing of games left to be played, and the rest of the league could catch up to them. That said, the experience is helping turn the Bears into a great team and allowing some skaters to turn into talented prospects for the Capitals.

Bears Provide Positive Outlook For The Capitals

The Capitals are in a difficult spot as a franchise. They don’t have a roster talented enough to compete with the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and at the same time, they can’t rebuild with Alexander Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, and a handful of elite skaters still on the roster. The result is a middling team that, at best, can slide into the playoffs as a wild-card team. One of the things that can turn the Capitals into a contender is a strong farm system, specifically, a handful of players joining an older NHL roster.

Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Bears have a high-upside skater who can play the same role that David Pastrnak did with the Boston Bruins, and Jake Guentzel did with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Miroshnichenko can eventually become a top-line skater and possibly spend a few seasons alongside Ovechkin, the Russian scorer he looked up to growing up. Likewise, when they are ready, the Bears have a few forwards who could add depth to the forward unit as middle-six players. Lastly, Stevenson has become a goaltender that the Capitals and a lot of teams around the league are watching closely, and he’ll make an impact at the NHL level one way or another.

The Capitals missed the playoffs last season and replaced head coach Peter Laviolette with Spencer Carbery. With a 9-4-2 start to this season and the Bears playing exceptionally, the future looks bright for the organization from the top down.

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