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Hershey’s young defenders learning on the job

by Zack Fisch | AHL On The Beat

For the Hershey Bears young defensive corps, the 2017-18 season has been trial by fire. With three first-year AHLers manning the blue line on a nightly basis for the Chocolate and White, there have been growing pains at times.

But as the year has progressed, so have the young members of Hershey’s backend.

“Coming into this year we knew it was going to be a young defensive corps,” said blueliner Colby Williams. “These young guys have been playing really well of late, and I think the coaches and the team have the utmost confidence in them. They’re playing in all situations, and each day they are improving, and I think they’re going to just keep getting better.”

At times, it’s been a big adjustment for the trio of first-year players in Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, and Jonas Siegenthaler.

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“I am definitely not doing as well on the stat sheet as I was last year at this time,” said Hobbs. “Compared to juniors, it’s tougher in a lot of ways. Guys are bigger and faster, and you just have to learn how to get pucks through a little bit more, and get them on net to create more offense. That’s something I really need to focus on going forward.”

Both Hobbs, who had 85 points from the blue line last year in a record-setting season with Regina, and fellow rookie Johansen are playing their first professional seasons coming out of the Western Hockey League. For Johansen, the Washington Capitals first round draft pick in 2016, a strong start of five goals and 14 points in his first 25 games was encouraging, drawing comparisons to former Bear and current Capitals defender Christian Djoos.

“Offensively, he’s got a little bit of Djoos in him,” said head coach Troy Mann. “He’ll get better at that as he gains some confidence.  Lucas has a lot of work to do defensively, but that’s normal with any young defenseman.”

For Siegenthaler, the adjustment has come with some differences than his fellow rookies. Despite stints with the Bears at the end of the past two seasons, this is the Switzerland native’s first full season in North America. While he has over 100 professional games overseas under his belt, the smaller ice size in the AHL was something the second round draft pick had to adjust to.

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“I struggled the first few games at the beginning of the season, but I’ve worked with assistant coach Reid Cashman to learn what’s important to play on a smaller rink in North America,” said Siegenthaler. “Here is a lot quicker than back home as the ice is smaller. You have to make quick plays and you don’t have time to think twice.”

With the young group of defenders learning on the job, it’s been the responsibility of Hershey’s veteran blueliners to step up to the plate and provide leadership.

“We’ve got lots of veteran players to look up to on this team,” said Hobbs. “It’s really important how the vets treat us. They show us things, and sometimes it’s a little tough love.  It’s all part of the learning process. Maybe one day I can pass those things on when I’m that age.”

Hobbs was close with former teammate Hubert Labrie, who was dealt to Hartford in February. Even with the departure of the steady Labrie, third-year defenseman Tyler Lewington has become a leader, and Hershey received a big boost in early December when veteran Aaron Ness returned to Chocolate Town from Washington.

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“Let’s not forget what Ness brings to the table,” said Mann. “That’s great news on the back end when you can have a guy like Ness leading the younger guys. He’s been huge for us.”

“Aaron is just a great guy in the locker room and on the ice,” said Williams. “His work ethic and his work habits are really big for the young guys. We get to watch him in practice and he doesn’t take a rep off. He works really hard and is a good role model for the young guys to pursue a true pro mentality. He’s an unbelievable player that only helps our blue line and helps our team.”

While the on-the-job training has had its ups and downs for the Bears this season, Hershey is optimistic this group of young defenders will finish the season strong while adding to the scoresheet.

“As a defensive group, we are learning every day,” said Siegenthaler. “Us, and the team as a whole- we’ve got to find a way to score. We need the little details to score more goals, and be more willing to put the puck in the net. We have a lot of games coming up and it’s not over yet. Everybody believes we can go on a run and make the playoffs.”