Capitals Prospect Report: Hershey coach says AHL playoffs will be ‘almost impossible’

Caps Prospects: Bears coach does not expect to see a Calder Cup champ originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The challenges that face every NHL coach heading into the 2021 season have been discussed and written about ad nauseam to this point. But what about the AHL? In the AHL, coaches have to deal with all the same pandemic issues, but do it with fewer resources, more uncertainty and with a number of their top players on NHL taxi squads. Coaches also have to motivate their teams to play amidst the chaos and with no set plan in place for the playoffs.

So far, however, the head coach of the Hershey Bears, Spencer Carbery, has done a masterful job of leading Hershey to a 5-1-2-0 record through eight games.

“It’s been very unique and challenging at the same time, but in a good way where it’s keeping us as coaches on our toes and we’re having to make adjustments and we’re having to challenge one another to figure out effective ways to run a practice, to teach, to keep players motivated without potential of not having a Calder Cup handed out,” Carbery told NBC Sports Washington. “How do you keep players really motivated to try to win each night and try to play the right way and how to teach?”

One of the stories coming into the season in Washington was the challenge that faced Peter Laviolette in trying to take over a team with a shortened training camp, no preseason, fewer meetings and less practice time. That’s a challenge, but there is also a certain level of trust you can put in NHL players to figure out what a coach wants over time. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom don’t need frequent meetings and hand-holding in order to play well.

In the AHL, however, those meetings and the amount of coaching the players need are absolutely key.

“Because the American Hockey League is a lot of younger players and you need to be able to teach and show video and have meetings, well now with a lot of it going to Zoom and you’re not allowed to have large meetings, that provides a huge challenge where at the NHL level, they’re not as necessary,” Carbery said. “The players are sort of past that development stage to where they know what they need to do. Well, that’s not the case here. We need to work with our young players and show them certain things through video and teaching. So it’s been challenging, but in a way that keeps us on our toes and we’ve had to adapt as coaches and we have to keep trying to figure out, ok, how can we be more effective in doing all these things and trying to win hockey games, but also teach at the same time?”

In addition to teaching and developing the players, motivation is going to be an issue as the season continues.

When the AHL drew up its return to play plan, it did not include a plan for the playoffs. As of now, there still remains no plan for the playoffs and, according to Carbery, prospects of the Calder Cup being awarded this year are slim.

“[The AHL is] hoping that there’s going to be some form of playoffs, but there’s just been no announcement or no confirmation on what that will look like at this point,” Carbery said. “So that’s up in the air, but I think from everything that we’re hearing, it’s going to be almost impossible and very unlikely that a Calder Cup is handed out this year.”

Hearing that, it is a natural reaction to wonder what’s the point? Chances are, the players have asked themselves that question too and that’s a major challenge facing Carbery as the season continues.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “We’ve talked about it quite a bit as a group. It’s a challenging, challenging thing because you feel like what are we doing? If we’re not playing for a Cup, what are we playing for? And you start to bring all these individual things, ‘well then I’m just playing to get to the Washington Capitals or to sign another NHL contract.’ So we’ve had a lot of conversations about the approach and the mindset and what we need to do as a group and why it’s going to benefit you individually if our team is playing well and we’re playing the right way and we’re winning hockey games.”

So far Carbery’s message has reached the players as Hershey sits second in the North Division. But as the season drags on and the players begin to deal with the normal wear and tear of a season that makes it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning, will that extra motivation be there if there is no Cup to play for?

Prospect Notes: Forwards

Daniel Carr

Washington Capitals: 3 GP, 0 goals, 1 assist

HC Lugano (NL): 8 GP, 4 goals, 4 assists

Currently on the Capitals taxi squad.

Kody Clark

Hershey (AHL): 8 GP, 3 goals, 1 assist

Shane Gersich

Hershey (AHL): 8 GP, 0 goals, 1 assist

Bear Hughes

Fargo Force (USHL): 17 GP, 5 goals, 6 assists

Hughes is on loan with the Fargo Force in the USHL. According to The Spokesman-Review, under the terms of the loan he will remain there through the end of the USHL season and can only play a maximum of six games when he returns to his WHL team, Spokane.

“I just felt like coming to Fargo, I’m guaranteed 35 regular-season games and then there’s a good chance to go into the playoffs, maybe make a run,” Hughes said.

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby

Hershey (AHL): 8 GP, 1 goal, 1 assist

Vasterviks IK (HockeyAllsvenskan): 26 GP, 4 goals, 11 assists

Hendrix Lapierre

Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL): 11 GP, 4 goals, 14 assists

Brett Leason

Hershey (AHL): 8 GP, 3 goals, 0 assists

As an older draft pick, Leason had what was considered a disappointing season last year in Hershey. In just eight games this season, he has already matched his goal total (3) from the 50 games he played for the Bears last year.

Oskar Magnusson

Malmo Redhawks (SHL): 7 GP, 0 goals, 9 assists

Malmo Redhawks J20 (J20 Nationell): 12 GP, 3 goals, 6 assists

Tyringe SoSS (HockeyEttan): 23 GP, 6 goals, 7 assists

Beck Malenstyn

Hershey (AHL)

Out indefinitely with an Achilles injury.

Philippe Maillet

Washington Capitals (NHL): 1 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists

Currently on the Capitals taxi squad.

Maillet made his NHL debut on Feb. 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers. He played 8:02. Perhaps no one was more excited for him than his former coach at the University of New Brunswick, Gardiner MacDougall.

“Phil has great vision and skill, but the intangibles, like his compete level and work ethic, plus his leadership, grew over his time with us,” said MacDougall.

He added, “It’s not certainly not easy for a player to get to the NHL, and full compliments to Phil for making this journey. Knowing his competitive nature, he will certainly endeavor to be more than just a one game NHL player.”

Connor McMichael

Washington Capitals: 1 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists

Hershey Bears (AHL): 8 GP, 4 goals, 2 assists

McMichael is certainly making the most of his opportunity in Hershey.

McMichael is tied for the team lead in goals with four and is tied for second in points with six. He scored his first professional goal on Feb. 11, a game-winner against Wilkes-Barre Scranton.

London Knights assistant general manager Rob Simpson said of the goal it was a reflection of how McMichael can score in a variety of ways.

“He can beat a goalie with his shot, but what I always found exceptional about him was he finds different ways to score,” Simpson said. “He’s not really one-dimensional. He can come down the wing and pick a corner but can also tip pucks in front and has a nose for the net. The guys at the next level who do it all the time seem to find different ways to score.”

On Feb. 24, in just his fifth professional game, McMichael scored a hat trick. He scored six hat tricks with London.

“He’s been really, really good since he’s come down,” Carbery said. “He’s had a great attitude, he’s worked really hard. Probably the best compliment I could pay him thus far is he’s gotten better each game. He’s adapted really, really quickly and some of the things that are a lot different at the pro level than they are at the major junior level, he’s absorbing information and adapting and continuing to grow and get better each game. It’s been a good stretch for him and he continues to get a little bit better each game.”

And all of this in a season in which McMichael normally would not even have the option of playing in the AHL.

Just as a reminder, in a normal season McMichael would be back in juniors due to an agreement between the NHL and CHL. Because McMichael did not turn 20 until this year, he would fall below the age cutoff and would have had to play in the OHL. The OHL season, however, has not begun and remains in doubt. As a result, exceptions have been made for those players who now have no teams to play for.

What does the opportunity to play in the AHL a year early mean for a player like McMichael?

“I can speak from experience because I’ve coached in the OHL a few years back,” Carbery said. “It is such a valuable time for him to be able to experience this, to play games, to practice, to use hopefully the next few months to just get a leg up on what pro hockey’s all about so, in a normal year when next year would be his first year in the NHL or AHL, he’s so much more prepared. And it’s just such a valuable [experience] for all these junior-age kids. There’s nothing really left for them to prove at the junior level. Once they’ve gotten to the age they’re at, they’ve been drafted, they’ve dominated major junior, the OHL specifically in his case, for a couple years now; to be honest with you, he’s past that now. Now he needs to be challenged and now he needs to start to integrate pro habits into his game. So this is a really, really valuable time for his career.”

McMichael may be in Hershey for a while because it certainly does not sound as if a return to play is imminent for the OHL.

Garrett Pilon

Hershey (AHL): 8 GP, 1 goal, 7 assists

Pilon leads Hershey with seven assists and eight points.

Brian Pinho

Washington Capitals: 2 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists

Currently on the Capitals taxi squad.

Aliaksei Protas

Dinamo Minsk (KHL): 58 GP, 10 goals, 8 assists

He may be playing in the KHL, but Protas is very much focused on making the NHL.

Though the KHL regular season is winding down, it is unlikely that Protas will be able to return to North America to play this season with his WHL team, Prince Albert. According to Prince Albert GM Curtis Hunt, that would require a national interest exemption from the Canadian government. That along with timing issues of Protas likely going to the KHL playoffs will likely mean no North American season for him.

Damien Riat

Hershey Bears (AHL): 8 GP, 1 goal, 2 assists

Geneve-Servette HC (NL): 20 GP, 7 goals, 11 assists

Riat scored his first North American goal on Feb. 18.

Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen

HC Dalen (HockeyEttan): 37 GP, 14 goals, 7 assists

Mike Sgarbossa

Washington Capitals: 5 GP, 0 goals, 2 assists

Hershey (AHL): 7 GP, 4 goals, 2 assists

Sgarbossa is tied for the team lead in Hershey with four goals.

Joe Snively

Hershey (AHL): 8 GP, 2 goals, 3 assists

Riley Sutter

Hershey (AHL): 5 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists

Bogdan Trineyev

Dynamo Moskva (KHL): 3 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists

Dynamo Krasnogorsk (VHL): 22 GP, 1 goal, 1 assist

MHK Dynamo Moskva (MHL): 29 GP, 12 goals, 9 assists

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Prospect Notes: Defensemen

Alex Alexeyev

Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL): 55 GP, 8 goals, 8 assists

The NHL will return to the Olympics in 2022 and The Athletic projected out what they thought the rosters would look like for the major teams. Max Bultman had Alexeyev on his Team Russia roster as an extra. Corey Pronman did not include Alexeyev, but did note he was a reasonable player to consider due to his strong season in the KHL.

In an interview for the KHL website, Alexeyev had some interesting thoughts on the progression of his game, saying he typically sees a breakthrough just after the new year.

You can read the interview here.

Martin Fehervary

Hershey (AHL): 5 GP, 0 goals, 2 assists

Tobias Geisser

EV Zug (NL): 38 GP, 3 goals, 10 assists

One report out of Europe indicates Geisser will be leaving EV Zug at the end of the season to return to North America. Geisser played seven games for Hershey last season before returning to his native Switzerland because of the logjam of left defense on the Bears.

Martin Has

HC Benatky nad jizerou (Czech2): 4 GP, 0 goals, 1 assist

Lucas Johansen

Hershey (AHL): 5 GP, 0 goals, 2 assists

Paul LaDue

Hershey (AHL): 4 GP, 0 goals, 3 assists

Benton Maass

New Hampshire (NCAA): 18 GP, 2 goals, 2 assists

Bobby Nardella

Djurgarden IF (SHL): 42 GP, 6 goals, 21 assists

Nardella leads Djurgarden in points and assists.

Nardella suffered an injury that required a trip to the hospital to get his knee looked at on Feb. 17. It is a bit hard to grasp all the details because it is a Swedish article and I’m using Google Translate, but it sounds like no issues were discovered and he has continued playing.

Cameron Schilling

Hershey (AHL): 6 GP, 1 goal, 3 assists

Sebastian Walfridsson

Visby/Roma (HockeyEttan): 38 GP, 5 goals, 7 assists

Prospect Notes: Goalies

Garin Bjorklund

Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL): 2 GP, 2-0-0 record, .889 save percentage, 2.97 GAA

Grand Prairie Storm (AJHL): 4 GP, 2-1-1 record, .936 save percentage, 2.73 GAA

Bjorklund left the AJHL to return to his junior team, Medicine Hat, in the WHL. He entered the season as the starter. The pandemic prevented an in-person prospect camp over the summer, but Bjorklund is still in contact with the Caps via Zoom.

“We went over a lot of video from last year,” Bjorklund said. “Just to be able to talk to them and hear their voices and what their tips are for me, and to be able to have a little bit of a relationship with them is definitely nice.”

Pheonix Copley

Hershey (AHL): 2 GP, 1-0-1 record, .920 save percentage, 1.97 GAA

Zach Fucale

Hershey (AHL): 2 GP, 2-0-0 record, .982 save percentage, 0.50 GAA

South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL): 1 GP, 1-0-0 record, .972 save percentage, 1.00 GAA

Prior to this season, Fucale’s last AHL win came on Jan. 24, 2019. As of writing, he already has two wins in 2021, one of which was a shutout on Feb. 27 as he stopped all 22 shots he faced from Binghamton.

Mitchell Gibson

Harvard was among the programs that shut down for the hockey season. It appears this may just be a lost season for Gibson.

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