Mark French

Photo credit: Ian iPad

Over the offseason the Hershey Bears saw several key veterans sign elsewhere, such as future AHL Hall of Famer Keith Aucoin, 2011-12 AHL leading scorer Chris Bourque, and fan-favorite enforcer Joel Rechlicz. The team also had to deal with a peculiar problem due to the lockout: two head coaches, Mark French and new Caps bench boss Adam Oates. Capitals general manager George McPhee mandated that Hershey learn Oates’ new system, so that the organization’s minor league players could be used to it by the time NHL games started being played. All this change has seen the team scuffle to a .500 record through 34 games this season (16-16-1-1).

But now things are starting to look up. Before it was announced that the lockout had been lifted, Hershey had been getting its best goaltending of the year from Braden Holtby, who was recently named AHL player of the month for December. Stan Galiev, who had been struggling with his transition from junior hockey, is starting to look more comfortable on the ice and more worthy of his #29 prospect ranking from Hockey Prospectus. The organization also has a surplus of quality goaltenders in the ECHL knocking at the door of the AHL: Philipp Grubauer and 2012 seventh-round pick Sergey Kostenko.

On Saturday, after the Bears’ 3-1 loss to the Binghamton Senators, I asked French if this is the best he’s seen Braden Holtby play, if the sky is the limit for Riley Barber, and if Caps fans should be worried about Galiev’s early season struggles.

My full Q&A with French is below the jump.

With the lockout ending, do you think there’ll be a lot of turnover on Hershey’s roster. Are you looking forward to getting a guy like Philipp Grubauer back on the team? 

It’ll be interesting. It’ll obviously create some roster instability. I think Phillip has displayed that he can play at the American League level. At the same time we’ll be losing a darn good goalie as well.

Is this the best you’ve seen Braden Holtby play?

Probably consistently. I can think of back-to-back games in Norfolk last year where he was unbelievable. But it’s probably the most consistent I’ve seen him play over a long period of time.

Stan Galiev has been shuttled up and down this year between Reading and Hershey. Even at the beginning of the year, he told RMNB he was still getting used to playing in a new system. Have you seen a big improvement from him lately? Tonight he had a pretty strong game.

I think his game, right before we went to break, was the best game we’ve seen him play. And tonight, I really liked the intensity he played with. He’s a skilled player, but when we sent him down our message to him was “you need to play more consistently with a higher compete level.” And we wanted him to go down and try to generate a little offensive confidence. I think his two most recent games we’re seeing some results.

Should Caps fans read into the fact that the 29th rated prospect in the NHL started off so slow? Is it going to take him a few years to develop? Did playing in the QMJHL hurt him?

I think it’s a pretty big jump [from the QMJHL]. It’s a change of the system. Certainly a big change in the game. The Q is a good league, but it’s very offensive, so now we’re asking him to pay a lot of attention to different details of the game. I think the problem you have with young guys is they start thinking too much, instead of reacting instinctively. Stan, you like that he’s trying to do these things, but it probably takes away from his game. I think his game is beginning to be a little bit more defined of what he’s going to be as a pro.

How has implementing Adam Oates’ system been going? And if the NHL season starts in a few weeks, what should Caps fans expect?

Some of our success as of late… I think it takes time to implement a new system. Like I talked about with Stan, guys are trying to understand this new system, but they’re not reacting to it. We’re getting to the point where guys know it now, they know what they need to do. So I think it takes some time. I think the NHL player can maybe make the jump a little bit quicker. You know, it’s a proven system. New Jersey used it last year and went a long ways. I think there’s some really good parts. I think it’ll play really well into some of the Capitals more skilled players for sure.

What kind of upside do you see with Cameron Schilling and Mattias Sjogren? Over the next year or two, are they going to be knocking on the door at the NHL level?

Let’s start with Sjogren. We’ve seen an improvement in his game. I think he’s a checking forward. He’s a big body guy. With our team he’s been put in a checking role, and that’s where I think he transitions to at the NHL level. I think he’s more comfortable playing the North American game. With Schilling, he can skate at the NHL level right now. He’s got a real good work ethic and compete level about him. I think he’s just got to mature a little bit. He’s benefiting from his time down here and I can certainly see him as a guy that transitions to the NHL at some point.

Team USA won the World Junior Championships on Saturday. I’m not sure if you can get a guy like Riley Barber on the team this year. But what type of player do you think he is?

I’m like everybody. He kinda jumped out at me during the World Juniors. I think he’s probably going to stay in college a few more years to develop but he’s certainly a guy who can play with pace and got some real good skill to him.

Do you think Barber could grow up to be a Top 6 guy?

I’d have to see him play a little bit more but I was certainly encouraged by what I saw at the World Juniors.

Last question. When I went to Development Camp I got a lot of good reports about goaltending prospect Sergey Kostenko… about how well he played even with a bum shoulder. He told RMNB that he could barely hold his goalie stick before he got surgery. I don’t know how much tape you’ve seen of him– he recently got his first win, but are you guys excited about him as a player?

I think it was good to get him over to North America. I think with Reading especially, if there’s an NHL season, with Philipp getting moved up to the AHL, he jumps into a situation where he’s playing more. Like you, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw at Development Camp and I certainly — from what Dave Prior and Olie believe — I think he might be a good diamond in the rough.

  • rockthered

    Ian, thanks for this info!