Sarge hasn’t changed one bit! (Photo credit: Kyle Mace)
After nine glorious seasons with the Washington Capitals organization, Jeff Schultz was bought out of the final year of his four-year, $11 million contract over the summer. With that buyout ended a brilliant career. Remember the time Sarge led the NHL in plus-minus? Or the time he recited the Declaration of Independence? And the time he led the league in plus-minus? Oh, I said that already.
The Los Angeles Kings cut Schultz during training camp, so he spent the fall with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League.
Goaltender David Leggio spent all of last season with Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Leggio was dominant, winning 38 games and sporting a .924 save percentage. That performance merited MVP consideration at season’s end.
With Dany Sabourin having left during the offseason in favor of playing in Austria, the Hershey Bears were in desperate need of a veteran goaltender that could share the load and help mentor Capitals prospect Philipp Grubauer. Bears’ general manager Doug Yingst found his man in Leggio and signed the goaltender to a two-way contract for 2013-14.
“Obviously, the Bears are one of the best franchises in the AHL,” Leggio said to The Patriot-News’ Tim Leone during the summer. “They’ve won championships and the arena’s always packed. I’m very excited to come to a place where I feel we’ll have a chance to win a championship. They’ve won championships in the past and have a commitment to winning.”
On Tuesday, the Bears opened training camp and Leggio arrived in style. He just might have the coolest mask in the AHL.
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.
On December 6th, the Verizon Center hosted the AHL Showcase between the Hershey Bears and Norfolk Admirals. Due to the lockout, it was the first hockey game played in Washington since May 9th, when two current Bears were playing with the Capitals: Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov.
The Hershey Bears have long been considered one of the elite teams of the American Hockey League. The Bears have won eleven Calder Cups and had eleven of its coaches and players inducted into the NHL or AHL halls of fame. With its rich history and fantastic arena, the Bears have routinely churned out top prospects and cultivated a huge following, leading the AHL in attendance for the past six seasons. But how do they compare to the rest of the world?