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Capitals agree to four-year extension of affiliation with Hershey Bears

Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Capitals and the Hershey Bears have extended their affiliation for four more years, through the 2019-20 season, the organizations announced on Thursday.

The four-year deal bucks a trend of the Capitals agreeing to shorter-term extensions with their American Hockey League affiliate, a sign of both sides being pleased with the relationship’s direction. For Washington, the top priority is prospect development while Hershey’s is winning. The last two seasons have proved that both objectives can be satisfied.

“I think just we’ve evolved to more of a developmental philosophy than just-trying-to-win philosophy with a few older players,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think having the success we had last year with our young guys, I think confirmed to them that we could do it with younger players and developing players. We’ve got a good comfort level with them going forward that they’re going to allow us to do that.”

Said Hershey Vice President of Hockey Operations Bryan Helmer: “Both organizations are on the same page, where they want to develop their prospects down here in a winning atmosphere to have them in Washington in the future.”

With a youthful roster, the Bears advanced to the Calder Cup finals last season before being swept by the Lake Erie Monsters. The team’s success served as validation to both Hershey and Washington. The Capitals saw improvement as their prospects played regularly and in significant roles, and their deep playoff run gave those players even more experience. When Washington’s lineup was injured, call-ups transitioned seamlessly to NHL duty.

For the Bears, the postseason showed that a roster filled with AHL rookies logging heavy minutes could win, but Hershey also appreciated how Washington had invested in the Bears’ success by signing some veterans to two-way deals. Offseason additions Zach Sill and Aaron Ness brought experience to Hershey, but Helmer also said they were high-character players, good influences for the Capitals’ young prospects.

“I think we’ve taken the last two years to establish what both parties want to get out of the relationship and build the relationship, philosophically from both sides,” MacLellan said. “And I think there’s a comfort level now with their side and our side that we anticipate will be good for both parties going forward.”

The Bears return the bulk of last season’s roster. This will be Helmer’s first season in the front office; he was an assistant coach last season and had played for Hershey from 2008-10. He said when Coach Troy Mann came in before the 2014-15 season, he installed a greater emphasis on individual skill development, with the coaching staff often working with prospects on the ice 45 minutes before the start of practice.

Mapping out individual plans for players’ growth has become more of a collaborative effort, starting with Washington’s front-office team of Steve Richmond, Chris Patrick and Olie Kolzig and down to the teams’ coaches, who are matched up. Capitals Coach Barry Trotz often talks with Mann, Washington goaltending coach Mitch Korn works with Hershey’s Scott Murray and Todd Reirden was in regular communication about Hershey’s defensemen with Helmer when he worked with that Bears unit last season. Washington also invested in Hershey getting a strength and conditioning coach as well as a video coach.

“I think it makes a big difference,” Helmer said. “Washington wants us to develop their young guys. Now we’ve got coaches where they can take them out early and focus more on the skills development part of it. Obviously, having a full-time video coach helps out where guys can, if they want their individual shifts, it’s there and he’s a great resource. Now, we have a strength and conditioning coach, where he can work with our young guys every single day and after games.”

Development is crucial to the Capitals maintaining success, as the salary cap will occasionally prevent Washington from re-signing some of its unrestricted free agents or attracting them on the open market. Prospects will be expected to step into roles as inexpensive options, and the Capitals feel their current crop is on the cusp of being NHL-ready, pledging to carry a maximum of 23 players this season so some young players can get their first taste of NHL experience.

A four-year extension offers stability to a system both the Capitals and the Bears feel is working.

“We’re very comfortable with our relationship with Washington,” Helmer said. “Now, we don’t have to worry about it for four years. Both organizations can just worry about winning, and that’s what we want to do.”