The SHL’s trading deadline occurred this week, which meant that the league’s contenders were all looking for ways to shore up their squads for that playoff push down the stretch. By all accounts, no team was more active in seeking upgrades than the Hershey Bliss. Although the Bliss spent most of the first half out front in the East, the Washington Galaxy have caught fire the last couple of weeks, winning 9 of their last 10 and passing Hershey for first place.
Eager to avoid falling behind Washington, Hershey GM Scott Lawrence pursued numerous options for strengthening his roster. In the end, he made a single deal, acquiring LW Vonnie McLearen and D Gustaf Bergstrom from the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for F Kelvin Starkey, minor-league D Alex Angelos, and a 2nd-round draft pick.
In McLearen, the Bliss add a rising star who will give their already-solid offense a boost. The 23-year-old winger was one of Dakota’s top scorers, putting up 12 goals and 20 assists on the season. Over the last couple of seasons, McLearen has risen from a lightly-used reserve to become a key offensive contributor. He has a reputation as a hard worker and a strong two-way player.
“Honestly, I was a little surprised to discover that Vonnie McLearen was available,” said Lawrence. “Great young guys like that are usually tough to come by. He’s a tremendous pickup for us. We’re really excited about the energy and spark he’s going to bring to our team.”
The Bliss also added a veteran grinder in Bergstrom. The 30-year-old blueliner will be the seventh defenseman for Hershey, replacing rookie Kermit Kaufman. He was a longtime starter for the Jackalopes before being demoted to reserve duty this year. He appeared in only 6 games with Dakota in the 2017 season, recording an assist.
“When you’re playing those tough games down the stretch and in the Finals, you could always use a little extra grit,” said Lawrence. “Bergstrom’s an old-fashioned banger, the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to scrap and does the dirty work. He gives us that quality depth, a guy we can count on when we need him.”
While the acquisition was welcomed by Bliss fans, the deal got a chilly reception in Dakota. McLearen has long been a favorite among Jackalopes rooters, who have enjoyed watching him blossom into a top-notch starter. The fans were heartbroken to see McLearen dealt, and they bombarded the front office with angry tweets and emails.
“This was a tough deal to make,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard. “Everyone around here loves Vonnie. Heck, I love Vonnie, and I hated to give him up. But sometimes you have to make tough deals in this business.”
According to team sources, the trade was financially motivated. The small-market Jackalopes spent freely this season in hopes of building a contender. Instead, the team has languished around the .500 mark, well behind Anchorage and Michigan. McLearen will be a free agent this offseason and is likely to command a significant raise. The strapped-for-cash Jackalopes are unlikely to be able to re-sign the young winger, and they wanted to get a return for him rather than see him walk away for nothing.
In exchange for McLearen, the Jackalopes received a pair of young prospects. The 24-year-old Starkey was signed by Hershey before last season, and displayed considerable promise. He had worked his way into a starting role for the Bliss prior to the trade. In 11 games with Hershey, Starkey scored 8 points (1 goal and 7 assists).
“We’re hoping that we got ourselves the next Vonnie McLearen in this deal,” said Mindegaard. “Kelvin is a guy who has worked his way up the hard way, and we think he’s got considerable room to grow with some additional playing time.”
The 20-year-old Angelos is an offensive-minded defenseman who flashed considerable promise with Hershey’s minor-league affiliate in Albuquerque. With the Screaming Eagles, Angelos put up 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in 44 games.
“Alex Angelos is a guy who fits well with our team concept,” said Mindegaard. “He’s a fast skater, and he’s shown that he can contribute in a high-tempo environment. He’s also a strong shooter and he has a great passing touch. He’s a player who has the potential to have a long and successful career here.”
While the Jackalopes are gearing up to get younger, the Bliss are hoping that the acquisition of McLearen will put them over the top. Each of the last two seasons, Hershey has come up short against the Galaxy, and the team and their fans are growing impatient for a shot at the title. “Everyone in this organization is hungry for a championship,” said Lawrence. “We believe that this trade puts us in position to make that run to the title.”