Thursday, June 15, 2006

HERSHEY, Pa. — Supposedly, when a top minor league team wins a championship, its parent club immediately benefits from the infusion of spirited young talent. But that might not be the case with the Hershey Bears and the Washington Capitals.

The Bears are on the verge of winning their ninth Calder Cup championship in the American Hockey League. They lead the Milwaukee Admirals 3-2 and can take the Cup with a win tonight in Milwaukee.

The Bears have advanced largely with Caps prospects, which should mean better things for Washington. But a few things have to be considered first.

• The Bears are basically the same team that last season, as the Portland Pirates, failed to make the playoffs.

The club has improved because first-year coach Bruce Boudreau converted a mob into a team, allowed creative players to be creative and benched ones who didn’t produce.

• The Caps don’t have a lot of holes up front, meaning good but not great AHL players will have trouble cracking the lineup. Improvement is needed, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean the right players are in Hershey right now. Defense, where wholesale improvement is needed, is another story.

• Some young players who had good seasons in Hershey should stay there for more experience. Here’s an assessment of how things stack up and who might wind up where:

Moving to Washington — Perhaps defenseman Mike Green (29th overall, 2004) never should have been sent to Hershey. But his game and maturity have improved with a season in the minors. Green is an almost can’t-miss prospect.

On the verge of moving — Tomas Fleischmann had a 30-goal regular season and has 11 goals and 31 points in postseason. But there are concerns whether he can transfer that success to the NHL. And ahead of him at left wing are Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Matt Pettinger, all fixtures.

Earning a look — Center Kris Beech was reacquired by the Caps for defenseman Brendan Witt.

Beech, picked seventh overall in 1999, is doing everything Boudreau has asked, but can a very good AHL player become an NHL regular?

He hasn’t been able to make that case so far with three teams, but he has played well enough to earn another shot.

Center Dave Steckel (6-foot-5, 215) is not going to put up huge offensive figures, but he has a solid reputation as a penalty-killer.

The Caps are desperate for anybody who can perform well while a man down.

Center Brooks Laich played 73 games with Washington before being sent to Hershey for the playoffs. He held a spot with the Caps for a season. Now he must prove it’s his to keep.

Center-right wing Boyd Gordon played 25 games with the Caps last season and is an excellent defender. But Washington needs offense, which isn’t Gordon’s strength. Steckel, Laich and Gordon may compete for one spot — if there is a spot to compete for.

It’s too bad defenseman Lawrence Nycholat doesn’t have a police sheet for roughing up crossing guards or something.

If he had a mean streak, Nycholat might be in the NHL. Highly intelligent but small, he deserves a good honest look.

It may be too late — Defenseman Jakub Cutta’s problem is mysterious ailments that can’t be located.

He has never played a full season at any level and missed 29 games this season.

He will be a free agent and probably won’t be re-signed.

As for the others, another season in Hershey for experience seems to be in the cards.

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