Philadelphia Phantoms season preview

By Al Alven

When the Philadelphia Phantoms take to the Wachovia Center ice to begin defense of their Calder Cup championship this evening, they will do so with a team that only vaguely resembles the collection of players that claimed North America’s second most-prestigious hockey trophy back in June.

This, of course, comes as no surprise, as turnover is standard in the minor league world, particularly for teams that win championships. Players move on, some via promotion to the next level, some seeking out “greener” pastures (in both senses) and different opportunities with other organizations.

Still others simply outlive their tenures with a given franchise and are forced to seek employment elsewhere. There is also the odd retirement, or cases where lingering injuries from previous seasons lead to uncertainty about a player’s future.

The Phantoms have incurred all of the above, and have moved to replenish their roster stock accordingly. General manager Bob Clarke has reconstructed the Flyers’ top affiliate with the typical combination of returning veterans, free agent signees and first-year professionals.

It is the same formula, essentially, upon which last season’s AHL championship team was built, except for the fact that that team benefited from the inclusion of several would-be NHLers due to the lockout situation.

Moving on

The Flyers opened their NHL season on Wednesday night with a roster that included seven players who were Phantoms regulars by the end of last year — forwards Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Patrick Sharp and Jon Sim, defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg and goaltender Antero Niittymaki.


That number went up to eight when defenseman Randy Jones was recalled on Thursday, after it had been determined that Seidenberg had suffered a concussion in the opener.

Of the aforementioned players, Carter, Richards, Pitkanen and Niittymaki are virtual locks to play the entire season with the Flyers. Sharp, Sim, Seidenberg all appear to be on solid ground for now. And Jones, by virtue of his solid season debut against New Jersey last night, might be sticking around for a while.

Losing such a chunk of valuable contributors is the heavy price the Phantoms now pay for their successful 2004-05 season, both in terms of the team’s on-ice accomplishments and its ability to develop players for the Flyers. However, the hits do not stop there.

Also gone from the team is captain Boyd Kane, forward Ben Stafford and goaltender Neil Little.

Boyd, an ultra-aggressive forward who played two seasons in Philadelphia, will now join the Phantoms’ top rival, the Hershey Bears, after signing as a free agent with the Washington Capitals.

Little, the team’s all-time leader in virtually every goaltending category, has decided to continue his career in Europe. He recently debuted for the Espoo Blues in Finland.

Stafford, an unsung hero during his three-year stint with the Phantoms, has retired at the age of 25 to pursue a career in the medical field. He went out on a high note by scoring the Calder Cup-winning goal against the Chicago Wolves’ Kari Lehtonen in June.

Forwards

Losing Carter and Richards is a major hit, but the Phantoms had already established themselves as one of the elite teams in the AHL by the time the former junior stars were added to the roster for the postseason run. This is not to downplay the impact they had. Carter and Richards were, arguably, the team’s best two players in the playoffs, and there is much debate as to whether the Phantoms would have even made the finals, let alone win the league title, without them.

Still, it must be noted that the team did enjoy a very successful 2004-05 season before they arrived, having run off a 48-25-3-4 record, which included an AHL-record 17-game winning streak. Thus, in terms of overall contributions, the Phantoms are likely to miss Patrick Sharp even more than their youngest stars.

Sharp’s role as a veteran team leader and go-to guy in all situations will now officially be assumed by second-year center R.J. Umberger. The Pittsburgh native, who barely missed earning a Flyers roster spot in training camp (and still must be considered a top call-up candidate), excelled in his rookie season, after sitting out the entire 2003-04 campaign.

The former Ohio State standout led the Phantoms in points (65) and assists (44), played a solid two-way game and was a key special teams contributor throughout the campaign. He will be one of the top players to watch in the AHL this season.

The player most likely to join Umberger on the top line, and one of the more intriguing Flyers prospects in recent memory, is rookie right wing Stefan Ruzicka. The Slovakian native, a third round pick in 2003 (81st overall), was an instant hit when he arrived in the OHL two seasons ago. An offensive dynamo, he recorded a very well balanced 142 points (71 goals, 71 assists) and 124 PIMs in 124 total games with the Owen Sound Attack.

Ruzicka’s potential has long been plagued by questions about his desire, work ethic, willingness to play a two-way game and overall consistency. The 5’11, 205 lb. winger certainly has the tools to succeed, however, and will get every chance to do so in the AHL. He is expected to make an instant impact with the Phantoms.

Another player the team will rely heavily upon this season will be Ben Eager, a second-year left wing out of the Oshawa Generals (OHL) program. Eager enjoyed an up-and-down freshman season in 2004-05, but managed to establish himself as a valuable checking line commodity on a team with plenty of veteran depth. He will be looked upon to add considerably to his offensive totals (17 points in 66 games) from last season.

Another sophomore forward, Philadelphia native Tony Voce, should be a staple on the second line, along with free-agent signee Pat Kavanagh, a former Flyer second round draft pick (50th overall in 1997) who has played for various teams over the course of his six-year pro career.

Veteran grinders Mark Murphy and Ryan Ready will return and, along with free-agent centers Marc Cavosie and Brent Kelly, are expected to add steady, all-around play, penalty killing and elements of toughness, while providing the team with additional forward depth.

The Phantoms will have toughness to spare this season, with the return of enforcers Josh Gratton and Riley Cote (the duo combined for 526 PIMs last year) and rookie left wing Triston Grant, who was among the fighters in the WHL over the past three seasons.

Defensemen

Comparative to the forward and goaltending situations, defense is the area where the Phantoms remain most stable.

Technically, all but two players — albeit quintessential performers in Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg — remain from last year’s Calder Cup-winning blue line.

Veteran John Slaney, who was just named the seventh captain in Phantoms history, will return to anchor the unit for a sixth season. He will be joined by third-year stalwarts Randy Jones and Freddy Meyer — or will he?

Jones, as previously mentioned, was recalled by the Flyers after Seidenberg was diagnoses with a concussion. It is unknown at this point how long Seidenberg will be out, and just how long Jones will remain with the big club.

Meyer will also be away from the Phantoms for an indefinite amount of time, but for much more unfortunate reasons. The feisty rearguard suffered a broken leg during the preseason, and there are presently a number of conflicting reports as to how long he will be out.

So, assuming Jones is not returned to the Phantoms for tonight’s season-opener against the Binghamton Senators, what will the team’s blue line look like behind Slaney?

Promising rookie Alexandre Picard, the only defenseman selected by the Flyers in the 2003 draft (3rd round, 85th overall) heads the list. Picard established himself as one of the top blueliners in the QMJHL over the past three seasons with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and Halifax Mooseheads.

His standing in the organization was confirmed when he was summoned to Philadelphia to play for the Phantoms as an injury fill-in during the Calder Cup Finals in June. The 6’0, 222 lb. rookie played more than adequately in two high-pressure games after signing an ATO. He is widely considered to be the top defensive prospect in the Flyers system.

The current state of the Phantoms blueline should provide an excellent opportunity for players to step up. David Printz, a veteran of the Swedish elite ranks who debuted with the Phantoms last season, could benefit from increased playing time and responsibilities, but he will have to earn it.

The towering 6’5, 220 lb. rearguard had a decent rookie season, but was plagued overall by bouts of inconsistency and injury. His chance to make an impact and give the Flyers reason to believe that he will eventually be worth a look at the NHL level is now.

The remainder of the defensive unit is likely to be comprised of Wade Skolney, a tough, underappreciated veteran of 159 games with the Phantoms, Joey Hope, a third-year rearguard still looking to find his place on the team, and rookie Charlie Cook, a former Cornell University star who appeared briefly with the Phantoms at the end of last season.

Second-year pros Rosario Ruggeri and Stephen Wood, both of whom failed to make the team due to a numbers crunch brought on by the NHL lockout last season, were once again returned to the ECHL’s Trenton Titans earlier this week. Either, or both, could be recalled in time for tonight’s season opener.

Goaltenders

After establishing himself as one of the top netminders in the Canadian junior ranks over the past two seasons with the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL), Rejean Beauchemin is set to make his pro debut with the Phantoms. He will share the team’s goaltending duties with veteran Jamie Storr, who signed with the Flyers as a free agent in August.

It goes without saying that Beauchemin and Storr have big shoes to fill, as they will replace the popular, Calder Cup-winning duo of Antero Niittymaki and Neil Little.

The plan now is for Beauchemin to be eased into the starting role over time, just as Niittymaki was when he arrived with the Phantoms in 2002-03. Storr will likely start in roughly 60 percent of the games this season, though a variety of circumstances could change things.

Injuries to either Niittymaki or Flyers starter Robert Esche would almost certainly necessitate Storr’s recall to the NHL team, for instance, allowing Beauchemin to get a modified early test run as the Phantoms’ starter.

The Flyers are very high on Beauchemin’s character, and ability to deal with adversity, especially after watching him carry mediocre Prince Albert team to WHL playoff performances in each of the past two seasons.

Outlook

The natural temptation at this point is to compare the team as it is presently constituted to its championship-winning predecessor, but considering the added bonuses the Phantoms and AHL were allotted during the NHL lockout, that might not be fair.

Still, there is no question that the Phantoms will enter the 2005-06 season with big expectations. Many question marks surround the team, not just in terms of overall potential, but regarding such things as who will remain with the team and how the defensive unit will ultimately shape up.

In the end, the Phantoms’ chances for success will boil down to the essentials — the establishment of team chemistry, general health and, of course, goaltending.

The team has a proven veteran in Storr and a promising, potential stud in Beauchemin. Their play between the pipes will go a long way in determining just how far the Phantoms can go, and whether or not the team can repeat as Calder Cup champions, in 2005-06.




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