The Hershey Bears are one of the deepest teams at forward in the AHL. The club features three high-end prospects in Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, and Aliaksei Protas. They also have veterans like Michael Sgarbossa and Mike Vecchione pacing the team in points and Sam Anas, who was the AHL’s leading point-getter during the 2019-20 season, skating on their third line.
But none of those players led the Bears in goals this season. That distinction went to undrafted free agent Ethen Frank, who signed an AHL deal with the Bears over the summer and seemingly became a star out of nowhere. Frank scored 30 times for the Bears during the 2022-23 campaign, including his first career hat trick in the team’s final game of the season.
Frank was rewarded for his hard work by signing a one-year, two-way deal with the parent Washington Capitals. That contract shows that the Caps believe he could have NHL potential. Frank’s two line-mates in Hershey, Mike Vecchione and Michael Sgabrossa, agree with that assessment.
Both players have prior NHL experience and believe Frank has all of the tools needed to be successful at the top level. They outlined to RMNB’s Ian Oland why they think that way in their pre-playoff media availabilities earlier this week.
“The thing that really separates him is his knowledge of the game,” Vecchione said. “Just talking to me and (Sgarbossa), Scarb’s been in the league for 11 years, I’m on my sixth year. He’s always asking questions and staying after to figure out, as a line, what we want to do better, what we’re trying to accomplish, what spots are open, and all that stuff.
“Aside from his amazing shot and his unbelievable speed, he’s got a really good head on his shoulders,” he continued. “He’s humble, he’s confident in his game, and he’s always willing to learn more. He just has that drive which is very rare. You know he’s just a great kid.”
The 25-year-old Frank was named to the AHL’s 2022-23 All-Rookie Team before the regular season concluded. The nod followed Frank being named an AHL All-Star earlier in the year and receiving AHL Rookie of the Month honors in January.
According to the Bears, Frank is just the fifth Hershey player to earn AHL All-Rookie honors, joining Mike Gaul (1997-98), Mike Green (2005-06), John Carlson (2009-10), and Connor McMichael (2020-21).
While Sgarbossa agrees with Vecchione about Frank’s record-setting speed and hard shot, he also pointed to more off the ice behavior as to why he thinks Frank has what it takes to jump into the NHL.
“The underlying thing is just how hard he works away from the rink and the mindset that he puts into perfecting himself,” Sgarbossa said. “His body, his skating, his shot, his play. I think that’s something above all else that is creating a lot of offense and a lot of good play from him.
“He’s been a great linemate, positive guy,” he added. “Quieter but sticks to his game and doesn’t get rattled which I think is something that is important in the playoffs.”
Frank’s off-ice worth ethic is important to note but it was really his play on the ice this past season that opened most eyes. His 30 goals led all AHL rookies. The total was also good enough for sixth-best in the league overall.
Among all rookies that played at least 20 games in the AHL during the 2022-23 campaign, Frank also ranked first in points per game (0.86). Despite missing some time due to injury, he led the Bears in shots on goal by 33, a mark that was also third-best among all AHL first-timers.
“His shot, it’s an NHL-level shot,” Vecchione remarked. “He beats goalies clean down here. You saw how fast he skated at the All-Star Game. It was I think the fastest in the American League and right behind Larkin for second all-time. Those numbers right there show everything.”
Sgarbossa mirrored some of Vecchione’s comments when he was asked the same questions about their young linemate.
“Speed is speed,” Sgarbossa said. “Doesn’t matter where you play. He’s got an NHL shot, he’s got NHL speed. It’s just about getting reps now, getting comfortable, and I think this year was a great step for him. He’s good on the forecheck, he’s good on the backcheck, he’s good on a lot of different areas of the game that are super important. I think in the NHL you need to be able to do it all.”
As things currently stand, the Caps have just 10 NHL forwards on their current roster under contract for next season. Frank will likely have his first chance of proving Vecchione and Sgarbossa correct at September’s training camp.
There he will compete with names like Joe Snively, Aliaksei Protas, Connor McMichael, Beck Malenstyn, and Hendrix Lapierre to fill one of the few open spots in the organization’s NHL forward group.
Right now though, Hershey needs Frank to be more concerned with scoring his first career Calder Cup playoff goals and leading the Bears to their 12th Calder Cup championship. He says he isn’t taking this postseason opportunity lightly.
“Really excited,” Frank told assembled media a week ago. “They have a standard for winning here, obviously with the history and all the championships that they’ve won. You want to be a part of something like that. You’re just gonna do what you can to help the team win, and take in as much as you can to try and make yourself and your teammates a better player – it will be a fun run.”
Headline photo: Tori Hartman/Hershey Bears
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