Last night, the Hershey Bears made AHL history yet again by setting the record for franchise Calder Cup Championships (which they also set last year at 10) at 11 when they beat the upstart Texas Stars 4-0. They took the series in sic games, lifting their 2nd consecutive Cup on home ice. The Bears are the oldest and most storied franchise in the AHL, and being founded in 1938, they are older than all but the Original Six NHL teams. The Capitals are lucky to have such a winning team as their minor-league affiliate. The Bears are the only other team in sports that dominated their regular season as much as the Capitals did this past year, setting an AHL record 60 wins and a 24-game home winning streak.
Affiliation between NHL and AHL teams changes constantly, especially as AHL teams come and go. The Capitals have only been affiliated with the Bears since 2005 (their previous affiliation was Portland, where they sent many players to play during the lockout). However, this affiliation has taken on a whole new meaning for this franchise and it’s fans. I don’t know another organization in which the fans of the NHL team regularly attend games of their AHL affiliate. Caps fans follow Hershey almost as vigorously as they follow the Caps. It’s far from unusual to see Bears merchandise at Verizon Center. The fan base celebrates Bears championships more than most hockey fans celebrate their team’s Stanley Cup championships.
What makes this affiliation more significant from a hockey standpoint is that the two teams play the exact same system. They both play with a high-powered, quick-strike offense and encourage D-men to jump into the play. The Caps’ core players have been drafted by the organization and brought up through it. When they have a need, they first look within the organization to fill it. Mid-season call-ups don’t feel out of place because it is the same system they are used to playing. When the team needed a new coach in 2007, they called up Bruce Boudreau, then head coach of the Bears. He knew the system and knew most of the players—because he had coached them to a Calder Cup championship in 2006.
When they needed to fill an Assistant Coach position, they promoted then Bears head coach Bob Woods, and promoted his assistant Mark French to the head coaching job in Hershey. It is important for them to keep things within the Washington Capitals “family”. It has helped the development for prospects as well. When they come up to fill in the Caps line-up, they know the system, so it is one less thing to worry about.
There are several players on this year’s squad who appear just about ripe to join the big club next year out of camp. With the Caps possibly having to pay for a 2nd line center, veteran stay at home defenseman, or maybe even a goaltender on the free agent market, they will be looking to fill in other holes as cheaply as possible. This spells a great opportunity for call-ups from the last couple of seasons to prove their worth at the NHL level. John Carlson and Karl Alzner have essentially been promised spots next year by both Boudreau and George McPhee. Mathieu Perreault and Chris Bourque will get serious looks next season, especially for Perreault with the vacancies at center. Michal Nuevirth also has a strong chance to make the team since it seems the team does not wish to sign a veteran goaltender to back up Semyon Varlamov.
While others will get a look at camp, those are the five with a significant chance of making the big club this year. After free agency opens, it will be clearer which roles the Caps are looking to fill within the organization, and that could help or hinder any of these players’ chances.