Philadelphia Phantoms season preview

By Al Alven





Strange but true, the undivided attention of those still paying<br />attention to the hockey scene in Philadelphia will be squarely

Strange but
true, the undivided attention of those still paying attention to the hockey
scene in Philadelphia will be squarely focused on that "other" team
that plays in that "other" league for the foreseeable future.

 

Thanks to the
NHL lockout and the resulting absence of the beloved Flyers, the American
Hockey League’s affiliate Phantoms are the only team in town. And, if there
were ever a perfect time for the “Purple and Black” to be thrust into the
spotlight, it would appear to be now.

 

After spending
the preceding few seasons mired in a swill of mediocrity, the Phantoms returned
to prominence and the realm of the AHL elite in 2003-04.

 

Bolstered by a
much-needed cast of fresh, new faces, an inexperienced defensive unit that far
exceeded expectations and, most of all, the emergence of second-year goaltender
Antero Niittymaki, the team finished
with 101 points (third best in the league) and captured its first division
title in four seasons.

 

Now, on the
eve of the new campaign, the Phantoms are among a handful of teams being
labeled as early Calder Cup favorites. With a strong returning cast and a
roster highlighted by the addition of four would-be Flyers – Niittymaki, center
Patrick Sharp, and defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg – it is not difficult to see why.

 

With this in
mind, the following is a position-by-position look at the 2004-05 Phantoms.

 

 

FORWARDS

 

Returning players:
B.J. Abel, Ben Eager, Boyd Kane, Mark Murphy, Patrick Sharp, Jeff Smith,
Ben Stafford, Peter White

New arrivals: Josh Gratton, Eric Meloche, Ryan Ready, Tony Voce, R.J. Umberger

Key departures: Brett Engelhardt, Steve Gainey, Kirby Law, Ian MacNeil, Mike
Peluso, P.J. Stock, Peter Vandermeer

 

Jeff Carter (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL) and Stefan Ruzicka (Owen Sound Attack, OHL)
are currently back playing for their respective junior teams. Both suited up
for the Phantoms in last season’s playoffs after signing amateur tryout
contracts.

 

Craig Berube,
a player/coach last season, retired as a player and is now a full-time
assistant.

 

The
Phantoms took something of a hit at the forward positions during the offseason,
but it had more to do with design than bad fortune. In order to make way for a
host of young prospects, the team allowed leading scorer Kirby Law, reliable
foot soldiers Steve Gainey and Ian MacNeil, and veteran enforcer/team
conscience Peter Vandermeer to seek employment elsewhere via free agency.

 

In their
place, a core committee led by youngsters Patrick
Sharp
, R.J. Umberger, Ben Eager and
Tony Voce and veterans Eric Meloche,
Peter White and Boyd Kane are left to pick up the slack.

 

Two seasons
ago, Sharp was the new guy in town. As an impressionable rookie out of the
University of Vermont, he joined a veteran-laden Phantoms squad and began to
assimilate himself into the rough and tumble lifestyle of the AHL. Now, 132
professional games later (88 with the Phantoms, 44 with the Flyers), the
22-year-old center/left wing carries himself like a mature, hardened veteran.

 

Sharp, one of
many NHL-caliber players affected in a big way by the lockout, has already
proven that he can put up big numbers while playing a strong two-way game in
the minors. Thus, expect the Phantoms to rely heavily upon the contributions of
the Thunder Bay, Ontario native this

season.

 

Umberger, on
the other hand, is something of an unknown entity at this point. While his
credentials are undeniable, the fact that the Pittsburgh native sat on the
sidelines all of last season (while in contract dispute with the Vancouver
Canucks) brings many questions to the forefront.

 

Can
the former first round pick re-establish himself as a top prospect? Will he
regain the form that made him one of the top collegiate players in the nation
during his time at Ohio State? How long will it take him to readjust to the
game and get his timing back? When the questions are answered, Umberger is
expected to make an impact with the Phantoms this season.

 

Eager
is expected to make a smooth transition to the pro game, as he is much suited
to the AHL’s rugged style of play. The 20-year-old left wing was acquired from
Phoenix in the big Sean Burke/Mike Comrie trade last spring. He is coming off
of a solid, albeit unspectacular, four-year junior career with the Oshawa
Generals of the OHL.

 

Ideally,
the Flyers are holding out hope that the Ottawa native turns out to be a
late-blooming power forward in the John LeClair mold. More realistically,
however, he looks to be on track to develop into a decent NHL checking line
winger one day.

 

The Phantoms
also have high hopes for Tony Voce, who became the first ever Philadelphia
native to sign with the organization when he inked a free agent deal in
mid-July. The 23-year-old center is coming off of a stellar NCAA career at
Boston College, where he totaled 167 points (90 goals, 77 assists) and 209 PIMs
in 159 games over four seasons.

 

Voce
was one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award (presented annually to the
top collegiate in the nation) last season. He brings with him an impressive
resume, but questions about his size (listed at only 5’8, 188 lbs.) will
continue to haunt him until he can prove his worth at the professional level.

 

One
of the more intriguing new faces on the team this season is Josh Gratton. The aggressive left
winger earned a contract after an impressive tryout performance at the Flyers
prospect mini-camp in July. Gratton,
who will essentially take over for Vandermeer as the Phantoms’ primary
enforcer, recorded 239 PIMs in just 30 games with the San Diego Gulls of the
ECHL last season. He is the cousin of
former Flyer Chris Gratton.

 

As
for the veterans, the Phantoms remain well-stocked with quality players who are
well-versed in the rigors of a professional season and bring plenty of
leadership to the table.

 

New
addition Eric Meloche tops the list. The Montreal native has split the past
three seasons between the Pittsburgh Penguins and their AHL affiliate, the
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. A feisty, energetic competitor, Meloche plays a
strong all-around game and is capable of putting up solid numbers at the minor
league level.

 

Peter White
and Boyd Kane comprised two thirds of the Phantoms top line last season, along
with the since departed Kirby Law. White, one of the most prolific scorers in
AHL history, has clearly lost a step and is no longer the elite minor league
forward he used to be. Still, he remains a player capable of putting points on
the board and a dangerous weapon in power play situations.

 

Kane,
the team’s captain, is one of the more physically intense players in the AHL.
While he does not bring an abundance of natural talent and skill to the table,
he more than makes up for it with determination, solid two-way play, leadership
and timely scoring. The same can be said for 28-year-old right winger Mark
Murphy, who, like Kane, is returning for his second season with the team.

 

Ryan Ready,
another new addition is expected to supply the team with depth,
defensive-minded play and penalty killing, as are checking line holdovers (and
former Yale University teammates) Ben Stafford and Nick Deschenes.

 

The odd men
out at this point appear to be left wingers Mathieu Brunelle, Brent
Robinson
and Jeff Smith, all of
whom are slated to start the season with the Trenton Titans in the ECHL.

 

 

DEFENSEMEN

 

Returning players: Joe Hope, Randy Jones, Freddy Meyer, Dennis Seidenberg, Wade
Skolney, John Slaney, Stephen Wood

New arrivals: Joni Pitkanen, David Printz, Rosario Ruggeri

Key departures: Les Borsheim, Kirk Furey, James Laux

 

The Phantoms’
blueline received a tremendous boost in early September, when it was officially
announced that Joni Pitkanen would
be joining the team for the upcoming season. Many observers believed that the
21-year-old rearguard would return to Finland to play during the NHL lockout,
but he decided that his current arrangement in Philadelphia suited him best.
Pitkanen has long been heralded as a future franchise defenseman. He was
selected fourth overall by the Flyers in 2002 and made his NHL debut last
season, tallying 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists) in 71 games and earning a spot
on the league’s All-Rookie Team.

 

Though
Pitkanen had some ups and downs in his rookie season with the Flyers, he had an
instant and consistent impact as a power play specialist. Look for him to team
with the returning Dennis Seidenberg and
veteran team captain John Slaney to form a lethal man advantage trifecta for
the

Phantoms this
season.

 

Seidenberg,
23, a Flyers regular two seasons ago, spent the 2003-04 season in the AHL after
an inconsistent training camp. A broken leg in January forced him to miss the
final 42 games of the regular season, though he did rehab hard and managed to
return for the playoffs. Seidenberg, who also stared for Germany in the recent
World Cup, would likely have made the Flyers this season had the lockout been
averted.

 

Slaney, a
veteran of well over 700 pro games in the NHL, AHL and IHL, is the Phantoms’
blueline leader and an invaluable team presence on the blueline and in the
lockerroom. With 392

career AHL
points, he has an outside shot at catching Steve Kraftcheck (453) for the
all-time league record for defensemen. Slaney already holds the AHL’s
goal-scoring record for blueliners with 135.

 

The addition
of Pitkanen and return of Seidenberg should allow 23-year-old sophomores Randy Jones and Freddy Meyer to ease into comfortable roles on the Phantoms’
blueline. Both had exceptionally strong rookie campaigns last season, despite
being forced into roles where their offensive contributions were imperative to
the team’s success. Not surprisingly, both fizzled in the latter stages of the
team’s playoff run.

 

Jones tallied
32 points (8 goals, 24 assists) in 55 games and did not look at all out of
place in any of the five contests he appeared in as an injury fill-in with the
Flyers. Meyer, who saw one game of NHL action, posted a surprising 14 goals for
the Phantoms, to go along with 14 assists, 28 total points and an impressive
+13 rating.

 

After the top
five of Pitkanen, Seidenberg, Slaney, Jones and Meyer, things get a little more
unpredictable. Five other players – Joey
Hope
, David Printz, Rosario Ruggeri, Wade Skolney and Stephen
Wood
– are vying for essentially three remaining spots (the Phantoms tend
to carry eight defensemen). At this point, Hope, Printz and Skolney appear
likely to make the team, while Ruggeri and Wood are expected to start the
season in the ECHL with the Trenton Titans.

 

Hope is a
second-year pro who split time with the Phantoms and Titans last season. He is
a stay-at-home rearguard who plays a simple, safe game. The towering Printz
(6’5, 220 lbs.) spent the past few seasons mired in Sweden’s second-tier league
(Allsvenskan). Considered an organizational afterthought, he was a surprise
inclusion – and a top performer – at the Flyers’ prospect mini-camp in July.
Skolney lacks skill and polish, but is a steady performer and the team’s most
physical player on the blueline.

 

Ruggeri was a
2002 fourth round pick of the Flyers (105th overall). He starred on the
blueline for the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Sagueneens over the past three seasons, and
will likely get a chance to show what he can do at the AHL level at some point
this season. Wood, a former Providence College standout, signed on with the
organization after his collegiate career ended last season. He was also a top
performer at the July mini-camp, and is still considered a dark horse prospect
in the organization.

 

On paper, the
Phantoms’ blueline corps looks as good as ever. It is a testament to the depth
of the unit that talented players like Ruggeri and Wood will be playing in the
ECHL at all.

 

 

GOALTENDERS

 

Returning players:
Chris Houle, Neil Little, Antero Niittymaki

New arrivals: None

Key departures: None

 

The Phantoms
appear to be in very strong shape between the pipes, with up-and-coming Antero Niittymaki and veteran fan
favorite Neil Little returning to anchor the team.

 

Niittymaki was
one of the top stories in the AHL last season. After a sub par first North
American campaign in 2002-03, the Turku, Finland native took over for Little as
the Phantoms’ undisputed starter and emerged as one of the top goaltenders in
the circuit. He finished fifth in the league in wins (24), tied for fifth with
a club-record seven shutouts and ninth in GAA (2.02). The former TPS Turku star
(SM-liiga) also posted a sparkling .924 save percentage.

 

The highlight
of Niittymaki’s season came in February, when he received his first taste of
NHL action. Subbing for the injured Robert Esche, prior to the team’s
acquisition of Sean Burke from Phoenix, Niittymaki ran up an impressive three
wins in three starts. This included a stellar 4-1 victory over the Devils on
Feb. 10, which endeared him to the Philadelphia fans. "Frank"
(nicknamed after the 1930s gangster Frank Nitty by Flyers head coach Ken
Hitchcock) then returned to the Phantoms for a stellar stretch drive and playoff
run.

 

Hitchcock
indicated on numerous occasions during the offseason that Niittymaki was
penciled in to replace Burke as Esche’s backup with the Flyers this season.
Obviously, the lockout changed those plans. Still, such a vote of confidence
speaks volumes about Niittymaki’s standing within the organization.

 

Little is a
solid, steady pro who is probably better known for his willingness and ability
to drop the gloves than he is for backstopping the Phantoms to the Calder Cup
title back in 1997. A 12-year pro, Little, like defenseman John Slaney, is an
indispensable veteran presence on the team. He serves as a mentor to Niittymaki
just as he has with Brian Boucher, Jean-Marc Pelletier and Maxime Ouellet in the past, and is likely to be offered some sort of
coaching job with the organization once his playing days are over.

 

The
third-stringer this season will once again be former London Knights (OHL) star Chris Houle (not to be confused with
recent Flyer draftee Martin Houle, who plays for Cape Breton of the QMJHL).
Houle will start the season with the Trenton Titans in the ECHL, where he was
an All-Star last season. The 22-year-old Caslan, Alberta native appeared in
four games with the Phantoms last season, posting an 0-2 record in spot duty,
despite recording an excellent 1.63 GAA.

 

 

COACHES

 

Head coach:
John Stevens

Assistant coaches:
Craig Berube, Kjell Samuelsson

 

Stevens, a
former defenseman who captained the Phantoms to the Calder Cup championship in
1996-97, returns for his fifth season behind the bench. A detail-oriented
specialist who is known for his preparation skills and ability to coach young
players, he currently boasts a 148-119-33-(20) career record. Stevens has
worked closely with Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock over the past two seasons in
an effort to streamline the latter’s defensive-oriented system throughout the
organization.

 

Berube joined
the Phantoms around the midpoint last season as a player/coach. He retired
after the conclusion of the postseason, and is now a full-time assistant with
the team. The former Flyers enforcer will work primarily with the forwards.

 

Kjell
Samuelsson, another former Flyers defenseman, is heading into his fifth season
as an assistant with the Phantoms. The well-respected native of Sweden earned
rave reviews for his work with the team’s young rearguards last season.

 

 

OUTLOOK

 

Even before
Joni Pitkanen was added to the roster a few weeks back, the Phantoms were
considered to be strong preseason contenders for the Calder Cup. With him, it
is difficult to argue against the notion that the team boasts one of the most
talented lineups in the AHL.

 

John Stevens’
squad can claim quality depth at every position, a strong combination of
promising prospects and proven veterans, and a stud minor league goaltender in
Antero Niittymaki.

 

The road to
and through the playoffs is anything but guaranteed, however.

 

With
“would-be” NHLers like Patrice Bergeron (Providence
Bruins), Marc-Andre Fleury (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
Penguins), Zach Parise (Albany River
Rats) and Jason Spezza (Binghamton
Senators) dotting the AHL map, the league as a whole has never been better.

 

The Phantoms’
ultimate chances for success rest upon the establishment of player chemistry,
general health, and the continued development of the younger prospects on the
team. If those three elements pan out, the “Purple and Black” have as good a
shot at the Calder Cup as any team in the circuit.

 

Copyright 2004
Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate
without permission of the editorial staff.