Adirondack Phantoms 2011-12 season preview

By Chris Shafer
Photo: After an impressive training camp, Sean Couturier has started the 2011-12 season in the NHL. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Just like the Philadelphia Flyers‘ roster which opened the season with nine different starters that were not in the lineup at the end of a disappointing 2011 Stanley Cup run, the Phantoms’ roster saw its own overhaul in the offseason. There were seven brand new faces on an opening night roster who were witness to the return of defensemen Oskars Bartulis from a season in the Flyers’ pressbox and Oliver Lauridsen from injury.

Also thrown into the mix were a number of young players both from the college ranks and Canadian juniors ready to make their first impact on professional hockey. At the front of that pack was forward Brayden Schenn, who many considered to be the top prospect in the world, along with defensemen Blake Kessel, James vanRiemsdyk‘s former teammate who managed to convince the Flyers’ organization he was worthy of an entry-level contract during training camp.

No one returning carries as much in terms of expectations as coach Joe Paterson who turned the Phantoms around mid-season last year from league pushover to a respectable AHL competitor. Despite a remarkable second half push, the Phantoms still finished in seventh in the East Division, second to last in scoring, and 27th in the league’s final standings. Paterson’s goal is to keep the team playing at a highly competitive level all season if not righting the ship completely. Even with the possibility that Schenn will be placed in the NHL sooner rather than later, the rest of the new talent brought onto the roster has the potential bring the team to the level of postseason contender.

Forwards

The reinvented core of Phantoms’ forwards is now being captained by the former captain of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Ben Holmstrom. After many had limited expectations for Holmstrom, he came out in 2010-11 with a far better than expected offensive showing along with the physicality and leadership that many knew he was going to bring. While he is serving a suspension through the first two games of the AHL regular season, many are looking forward to him becoming an NHL player in the not too distant future.

New gifted offensive players will also be joining the fold highlighted by Brayden Schenn, the prospect centerpiece to the Mike Richards trade earlier this year. It is not guaranteed that Schenn will finish the season with the Phantoms since many Flyers’ fans are currently chewing away fingernails in anticipation of his call-up, but there are hopes that the highly skilled Jason Akeson may bring a little something of his own to the team. Akeson established himself as one of the most dynamic passers in Canadian juniors last season with an 84 assist performance for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. The pair of CHL standouts will be joined by Plymouth Whaler alumnus Tyler Brown, former Gatineau Olympique powerforward Tye McGinn, and Brown University’s Harry Zolnierczyk.

Two-way power forward Mike Testwuide and speed demon Eric Wellwood will both be returning to improve on their numbers from last season along with Luke Pither, who after a disappointing 2010-11 season will be trying to prove that he still has the skill that earned him a 94 point season in the OHL.

As with last year, the veteran forward presence on the team will be in the form of 34-year-old Denis Hamel who finished the 2010-11 season as the Phantoms’ scoring leader. Meanwhile Tom Sestito, also serving suspension in the opening game, along with Jon Kalinski will look to factor into this Phantoms’ roster as well. With more talented forwards than will fit on the team, there will be some sacrifices such as Stefan Legein, who was recently traded along with the a sixth round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for future considerations.

Defense

Defensively, the Phantoms will not only be lucky enough to see Erik Gustafsson return to their blue line, but the return of Oskars Bartulis will bring quite a bit to the lineup. The pair can not only support the organization offensively but will also bring quite a bit of defensive control to the back end.

While 6’6 monster Oliver Lauridsen will only be making his third appearance in the AHL with the start of the 2011-12 season thanks to an injury last year, the real fresh face on the blue line will be the crafty Blake Kessel, brother of Toronto Maple Leaf Phil Kessel. Blake Kessel became one of the most dynamic puck-moving defensemen in the NCAA with a skill-set that would make many forwards jealous. Now he brings his talents to the Flyers’ prospect pool.

Now a veteran, Kevin Marshall is looking to become a bigger part of the team and a key to the Phantoms’ defensive success. With Marc-Andre Bourdon currently out of the lineup and new-comer Brandon Manning out with an undisclosed injury, it will be up to Marshall along with Lauridsen to bring a physical if not dominating presence to the blue line.

Goaltending

Veteran goaltender Michael Leighton will be the main force between the pipes for the Phantoms. The back-up battle will be between Swedish goalie Johan Backlund and former first round pick Jason Bacashihua. While none of these three goalies fit into the organization’s long-term plans, 6’7 goaltending giant Niko Hovinen is a SM-liiga season away from becoming the goaltender for the Phantoms.

For now the crease is one place where the Phantoms know exactly what to look forward to. Leighton has become a very strong AHL goaltender despite not being able to stick with an NHL organization.

Coaching

Despite the worst start in franchise history, Joe Paterson brought the struggling Phantoms to a 25-16-8 finish after replacing Greg Gilbert. This year, with former Flyer heavyweight Riley Cote riding shotgun behind the bench, he looks to extend his success. The team paced for a 95 point season after he took over which would have not only qualified them for the playoffs but also put them fourth in the division.

Now Paterson has even more talent to work with, and the guys who played well for him last season are all a year older. With the team on the verge of a return to the Philadelphia area in the upcoming years, it could be now or never for the Adirondack Phantoms.


Prospects

Sean Couturier was a standout in training camp and made the NHL opening day roster. He has been impressive so far, even seeing considerably time on the penalty-kill, and should stay in the NHL the length of the season.

Zac Rinaldo also made the NHL opening day roster. Having registered 331 penalty minutes last season, Rinaldo’s role is obviously that of a pot-stirrer and fighter.

Matt Read also made the NHL out of training camp and has been impressive in a defensive role.