by Scott Stuccio | AHL On The Beat Archive
From the players all the way down to the front office, expectations are high when it comes to the Hershey Bears Hockey Club. Troy Mann knew that when he arrived as an assistant coach in 2009. And now that he is halfway through his first American Hockey League head coaching role in the league’s most-known community, he is embracing a never-ending challenge of keeping the Hershey Bears where everyone expects them: on top.
Mann, alongside former head coach Mark French, guided the Bears to the postseason in all four years of his first tenure. He also won a Calder Cup in his first season, which was the club’s 11th as a franchise. So it came as no surprise that Hershey unanimously welcomed him when he was tabbed to serve as the 25th head coach in team history, after a summer following the club’s first missed postseason since 2004-05.
Sure, the Bears have had their share of ups and downs this season. But going into the All-Star break, Mann says that fan expectations should be high – because he feels his team’s best is yet to come.
“It’s all about progression for me,” Mann said. “I think we’ve done a great job here of taking things one week at a time. We’ve really stressed that with the players, and for me I always have to look at the big picture but at the same time narrow it down to a week-to-week basis. Things started out as we expected but have gotten better along the way.”
Mann, about as honest as can be when it comes to anything from player evaluations to post-game press conferences, didn’t know specifically what to expect when his first training camp arrived in September. But in general, he knew he had a good variety of players that had potential.
“I knew before we even got together that we were going to be very sound in the goaltending department,” Mann said. “Pheonix Copley has even exceeded our expectations, considering what happened with a capable goaltender like Eddie Pasquale not even being available.”
Goaltending has indeed exceeded expectations. Copley, in his first 12 career appearances in the AHL, is 7-3-1 with two shutouts. Philipp Grubauer is on pace for career numbers, with a 14-9-4 mark and three shutouts. Brandon Anderson even joined in the mix, posting a 30-save victory in his first-ever AHL game on January 10th.
Defense has been stellar as well, even though the Bears faced a lot of adversity.
“You look back on defense and you realize that, in August, you were looking at guys like Nate Schmidt to be here,” Mann continued. “He cracks the Capitals lineup and plays the first few months in the NHL. You see a guy like Mike Moore to play just about every game, and he’s battling through injury for the past few months. Then you have Patrick Wey, who played three games for us and then he gets injured. We called on a lot of our players to step up in their absences and they have. I think we’ve really exceeded the expectations of the D corps that’s been available to us, and it’s because the guys have all bought into what we’ve given them.”
And how, specifically, has the defense exceeded expectations? With the three names to whom Mann alluded missing more than half of the season in Hershey, the Bears still rank third in goals against per game average – and actually held the top spot for a few weeks. The team has also allowed only 91 goals in 41 games, fewest in the league.
But the portion of the game for which the Bears of the late 2000s and early 2010s became known is offense. Mann knows that fans expect even more than what Hershey has done in its recent games: scoring 20 goals in its last four.
“Certainly we can’t single out any one player because everyone has chipped in and got us over a bit of a rut there in December,” Mann said. “But if you go back to training camp, you look at a guy like Andre Burakovsky who, let’s face it, was penciled in as our number one center and then down the depth chart we would be strong in the middle. But look at what Tim Kennedy has done. Look at what Kris Newbury has done. Look at what adding Jim O’Brien has done. Every player is bringing us out of that goal-scoring rut. And as coaches, when we run all the statistics, we are out-chancing teams so much more often than not. For me, that is what will eventually give you success.”
Mann believes that teams – especially his – cannot succeed without executing the system taught to them. From a fan standpoint, this is equivalent to a child listening to his or her parent.
“This has been an excellent group,” Mann said. “This is my tenth year in coaching in some capacity and this is one of the best groups I’ve worked with because their practice habits are very good and they come prepared. I really believe if you can execute in practice, it’s going to translate into the game. I’ve always believed that. And I think this is a team that practices hard and it really has worked itself into our game performance most nights. Hopefully it will continue here in the second half.”
Hershey has 35 games remaining in its regular season. And little did he know taking the job back in July that he would be behind the bench for a major franchise milestone. If the Bears can execute on offense and light the lamp just three more times, the 77-year franchise will have 20,000 goals to its credit.
With a team that is spreading its goal-scoring around, Mann said it is difficult to predict who will net the milestone goal.
“It just goes to show you how much of a staple this franchise is,” he related. “It’s a privilege to know that there is a milestone of that magnitude coming up. It’s going to be quite an honor for the player who scores it. I’m going out on a limb and say it’s going to be Stanislav Galiev. He has been one of our game-breaking scorers and it would be nice for a guy like him, like a lot of our players who have really battled and didn’t have anything handed to them.”
Don’t let the prediction fool you. Mann is high on every single one of his players. And expectations are certainly high for the Hershey Bears. Expect that milestone goal to come very soon, and expect the team to continue to thrive under Mann’s guidance.