If the Hershey Bears manage to become the first American League club since 1962 to win three consecutive Calder Cups, it would be the most impressive championship of their trifecta.
While last season's Bears club blasted through the AHL with a 123-point season and then mostly stormed through the Calder Cup playoffs, this season's Bears have battled a variety of foes. Significant roster turnover, injuries, inconsistent goaltending and, perhaps most importantly, brutally difficult divisional and Eastern Conference competition have all posed major challenges to coach Mark French and his Bears.
Dany Sabourin, a major off-season signing brought in to replace the departed Michal Neuvirth, struggled and incurred the wrath of a portion of Hershey's demanding fan base.
Keith Aucoin, last season's most valuable player, suffered an injury in a November game at Charlotte and missed 16 of Hershey's first 37 games. Talented third-year winger Mathieu Perreault, expected to be a major piece of the Hershey offense, has only played 18 games in the AHL and has spent 17 up with the parent club Capitals. Injuries have limited NHL veteran Sheldon Souray to spot duty so far. And steady Patrick McNeill, a quiet influence on the Hershey blueline, underwent major off-season shoulder surgery and only returned to action in December.
The Bears also lost important pieces Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Kyle Wilson, captain Bryan Helmer, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, among others, to promotions to the parent Washington Capitals or opportunities elsewhere.
A force on home ice last season, the Bears have somewhat struggled in familiar territory this season, going 11-8 in 19 games so far.
Moreover, the Bears find themselves in the AHL's toughest division, one headlined by the AHL-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who engaged the archrival Bears in a free agency arms race last summer. Division mates Charlotte and Norfolk also are legitimate Calder Cup contenders and the Bears also must contend with a variety of clubs that could play spoiler roles in the second half.
"We won 60 games last season, but, no disservice to anybody, the division was down," French said. "Wilkes-Barre, they were down from where they usually (were). This year, Wilkes-Barre is obviously very strong.
"Charlotte might be the deepest team we have seen. They can roll four lines at you and have a ton of offensive skill. And Norfolk is the kind of team that jumps and surprises you a little bit. They have been excellent. Their offensive firepower is a little bit more unexpected, but what a culture change for that whole organization."
And through it all, the Bears could very well hit 100 points again this season, which would be the fifth time they’d reach that mark in the six seasons they’ve been affiliated with the Capitals. Hershey's 3.41 goals-per-game places the club second overall in the AHL and the Bears sit third-best in the AHL in goals-against.
Rather than be content with two Calder Cups in as many seasons, the Bears reloaded in the of-season, bringing back former Bears Lawrence Nycholat and Brian Willsie, who French considers the club’s most valuable player from the first half. Also coming aboard over the summer was AHL veteran defender Brian Fahey and power forward Kyle Greentree, who rolled up 39 goals with Quad City two seasons ago.
So, the Bears had talent to start the season, but blending so many new faces is always a challenge. And while French said it was by design to turn over a portion of the roster to keep it fresh and hungry for a third Cup run, the process has not been easy.
"It's been different," French admitted. "I think last year was a little of an anomaly that we were able to carry over players from the year before."
But French figures his hungry roster can be a dangerous one.
"You have that new blood in there to (spur) you on," he said.
• Chicago left winger Nigel Dawes won weekly player honors after a five-goal week for the Wolves.
• Along with French, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach John Hynes and Peoria bench boss Jared Bednar will serve as coaches in the AHL All-Star Classic later this month at Hershey. Hynes and Bednar will co-coach the Western Conference.
• Bryan Helmer, who captained Hershey to last season's Calder Cup championship, finally landed an AHL job for this season when he signed with Oklahoma City last week. With two more points, Helmer will tie John Slaney's 519 career points, the most ever by an AHL defenseman. Helmer's 985 AHL games ranks first all-time among AHL blueliners.
• Worcester coach Roy Sommer will be behind the bench for his 1,000th AHL game Friday, Jan. 14 and become one of only four AHL bench bosses to ever reach that milestone.
• Larry Landon, executive director of the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, will remain in the position after signing a new five-year agreement.
From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.