By Don Scott
As always, when the Hershey Bears start the 2011-12 season there will be some familiar faces missing and new ones moving in. There will also be changes within the AHL, including a shorter regular-season schedule, a playoff revision and franchise affiliation moves.
The regular-season schedule has been reduced to 76 games while the playing calendar is extended by one week to eliminate any four-games-in-five nights situations. In addition, the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs was reduced to a best-of-five series.
The franchise changes are: Winnipeg moving to St. John’s; Portland is now affiliated with Phoenix, Rochester with Buffalo, Chicago with Vancouver and San Antonio with Florida.
When the free-agent season started on July 1, the Washington Capitals and their affiliate in Hershey were more than ready to make deals to help both teams, knowing they would be losing some key personnel, while also retaining a few.
Fan favorites taking their talents elsewhere include last season’s captain Andrew Joudrey (Columbus), Steve Pinizzotto (Vancouver) and Andrew Gordon (Anaheim). Signed to return were defensemen Sean Collins who led the league in plus-minus (plus-29) and Patrick McNeill (51 GP-27 points); forward Boyd Kane (24-25-49), and goaltender Dany Sabourin (14-9-0).
Another key player already under contract is Keith Aucoin, who led the team in scoring with 73 points despite playing in just 53 games due to a couple long-term injuries. The 53 games were the least amount he has played since joining the AHL with Lowell in 2001-02.
Signed to play for the Bears were forwards Matthew Ford, Ryan Potulny, Chris Bourque and defensemen Paul Baier and Danny Richmond.
Ford was a 26-goal scorer for the Lake Erie Monsters and played for Hershey assistant coach Troy Mann in Charlotte four years ago. Potulny started last year with Rockford, then was traded to Ottawa, which sent him to Binghamton where he was the playoff scoring leader to help them win their first Calder Cup.
Bourque, of course, is not a newcomer to Hershey, having played on three Calder Cup-winning teams (2006-09-10) before leaving to play in Russia and Switzerland last year.
Baier (6-4, 225 pounds) has played for Portland and Binghamton before playing 65 games with Rochester last year. Richmond who had 23 points in 68 games with the Toronto Marlies last season signed a two-way deal. He has also played for Lowell, Norfolk, Rockford, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Peoria.
Moves made by the Capitals had a huge effect on who will join Sabourin as a goaltender in Hershey when they traded Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a first round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and a second round pick in the 2012 or 2013 NHL Entry Draft. That was followed by the signing of free agent Tomas Vokoun to team up with Michael Neuvirth in goal for the Caps.
Vokoun, 34, completed his 13th NHL season while posting a record of 22-28-5 with a 2.55 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 57 games with the Florida Panthers. It marked the eighth consecutive season in which he has recorded 20 or more wins and the third-straight season he has registered a save percentage of .920 or higher.
That meant Braden Holtby, 17-10-2 with Hershey and 10-2-2 with the Capitals last season, will be returning to the Bears until his services will be needed by the Caps.
Also returning behind the Bear bench will be the coaching tandem of head coach Mark French and assistant Troy Mann, who are gearing up for the development camp July 11-16 at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va.