For the Philadelphia Phantoms, a prevailing sense of optimism and renewal seems to have taken hold during these final days of dress rehearsals and scrimmages. It is more than apparent that this opportunity to start fresh is a very welcome one.
After steamrolling to a Calder Cup championship two seasons ago with a lockout-enabled roster loaded with top prospects, the Phantoms endured a tumultuous 2005-06 campaign. The end result saw the team fail to qualify for the postseason for just the second time in its 10-year existence.
Player promotions and the trickle-down effect of an injury-riddled Flyers season certainly played major roles in the Phantoms’ most recent fate. But now, with the disappointment of last season behind them, the team is looking to reclaim its spot among the AHL elite.
In accordance with the standard nature of the minor league trade, the Phantoms underwent a number of changes during the offseason. The most notable saw longtime NHL tough guy Craig Berube promoted to head coach, replacing John Stevens (who now assumes an assistant role with the Flyers).
Berube brings with him two full years of experience as an assistant with the Phantoms, during which he specialized in coaching the forwards. He will be assisted by former teammate Kjell Samuelsson, who returns for his seventh season as the team’s chief defensive tactician.
All issues of injury and roster instability aside, if the Phantoms had one glaring weakness last season it was the inability to find the back of the net with any kind of consistency. The team ranked second-to-last in the AHL in goals with only 197, and no player was among the league’s top 50 scorers.
Gone are veterans Jim Campbell, Pat Kavanagh, Brent Kelly, Marc Cavosie and Ryan Ready (who combined for 63 goals and 157 points last year). These players have been replaced, in essence, with a youthful infusion, similar in ways to – though not quite on the talent level of – the wave of promising prospects the Phantoms iced two seasons ago.
Heading the list are second-year winger Stefan Ruzicka and rookie Ryan Potulny, members of the prestigious 2003 draft class that also netted the Flyers emerging stars Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. If the Phantoms are to achieve any level of success this season, these two players will almost certainly have to step to the forefront.
This is not expected to be a particularly difficult task for Potulny, who, despite just entering the pro ranks, appears to have the tools to contribute immediately. Potulny established himself as one of the top offensive players in the NCAA over the past three seasons, racking up a total of 118 points in 99 games with the University of Minnesota.
Ruzicka also looks poised for a big year. The Slovakian import struggled mightily at times during his freshman season with the Phantoms in 2005-06, but still managed to produce a very respectable 48 points in 78 games. He displayed his potential during his junior career at Owen Sound (OHL), where he averaged exactly one point-per-game over two full seasons prior to arriving in the AHL.
Like Potulny, Ruzicka has made steady, positive strides in terms of physical maturation over the past few years. Both players enjoyed very strong camps with the Flyers, and will be counted upon to shoulder the offensive burden and produce on the power play for the Phantoms.
Potulny and Ruzicka could ultimately find themselves on a line with rough-and-tumble left winger Ben Eager. The third-year pro stood a strong chance of making the Flyers’ roster this season, but suffered a knee injury during the early stages of training camp. He will likely get at least some time in with the Phantoms, and other factors will have to be evaluated, before he is considered for a role with the big club.
Additional offensive support is expected to come from returning forwards Tony Voce and Matt Ellison, and intriguing newcomer Denis Tolpeko.
Voce, a Philadelphia native and fan favorite, led the team in scoring last season with 55 points in 67 games. He did an admirable job stepping up for the Phantoms last season, but should be much more effective if allowed to slide back into more of a complimentary role. That, of course, will depend upon the emergence of several players already mentioned.
Ellison spent the second half of last season with the Phantoms after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in December for Patrick Sharp. He struggled to readjust to the AHL game at first, but went on to become a valuable two-way contributor for the team. The Duncan, BC native signed a one-year extension with the Flyers over the summer.
Tolpeko, signed as an undrafted free agent, is coming off of a three-year stint in the WHL with Seattle and Regina, in which he tallied 111 points in 179 total games. The sleek Russian center enjoyed a very strong camp and has been one of the Phantoms’ top performers thus far in exhibition action.
Once again providing a combination of muscle and protection for the team will be Riley Cote and Triston Grant. The duo combined for 449 PIMs last year, but expect that total to go way up with the absence of Josh Gratton (who finished first on the team with 265 PIMs despite being traded to Phoenix in early March).
In terms of a pure veteran presence, free agent signees Marty Murray, Brad Tapper and Daniel Corso, along with Eric Meloche (a returnee via trade) will be expected to provide the necessary ingredients of leadership, grit and offensive support.
However, each of these players have been brought in for the dual purpose of skating with the Phantoms and providing the Flyers with extended forward depth beyond the NHL level. All but Meloche are prime candidates to see time with the big club this season, as injury replacements or simply as their individual performances warrant.
The same can be said for former Phantoms captain Boyd Kane and another free agent addition, Mark Cullen. Both are slated to begin the campaign with the Flyers, but could find themselves a part of an NHL/AHL rotation should the need arise.
While a lack of offensive output was surely the main weakness of last year’s Phantoms squad, the strength was unquestionably overall team defense. From the goaltenders out, the team limited opposing offenses, giving themselves a chance to win many close games. The Phantoms finished ranked eighth in the league in goals against with 232.
This year, the team’s defensive unit will feature only three returning players, each of whom is likely to continue to play an integral role – Alexander Picard, John Slaney and David Printz.
Picard was very impressive during training camp for the Flyers, nearly making the team before ultimately being reassigned to the Phantoms earlier this week. The second-year pro may yet start the season with the big club, depending on the injury status of rookie Lars Jonsson (ankle sprain).
As it stands now, Picard will return to the Phantoms, where he is likely to be paired again with Slaney, the AHL’s all-time leader in points by a defenseman with 436 (149 goals, 287 assists). The duo served as the team’s top pairing last season, playing big minutes in all game situations.
Picard is the latest young rearguard whom Slaney has helped groom for the organization, with current Flyer Freddy Meyer being the most notable. Picard enjoyed a very strong rookie season in 2005-06, tallying 33 points in 79 games (7 goals, 26 assists).
Printz also enjoyed a breakthrough season of sorts last year, emerging as a very steady, reliable rearguard during his second campaign with the Phantoms, after spending years playing in obscurity in Europe. The 6’5, 200 lb. defenseman has been perhaps the team’s best defenseman in exhibition play thus far, and looks poised for a strong year.
Should Berube opt to pair up Printz and free agent addition Martin Grenier, the Phantoms would have what would be one of the largest (if not the largest) pairings in hockey history. Grenier, who also stands at a towering 6’5, but is more massive than Printz at 255 lbs., should provide plenty of physicality on the blue line.
One of the more intriguing players on the roster this year will be 23-year-old Jussi Timonen, the younger brother of Nashville Predators standout Kimmo Timonen. A fifth round selection (146th overall) of the Flyers in 2001, he signed with the Flyers this past offseason, after playing for TPS Turku and SaiPa Lappeenranta of Finland’s SM-liiga over the past four seasons.
The Flyers have high hopes for Timonen, who they feel is a good fit for the “new” NHL, with his smooth-skating, puck-moving, style of finesse play.
The Phantoms are also optimistic about the potential contributions of a trio of free agents signed out of the collegiate ranks. The organization has a long history of signing and developing undrafted or unsigned NCAA talent, and Nate Guenin, Don Morrison and Matt Davis represent the next wave of this trend.
Guenin is, at this point, the most polished of the group. A fourth round pick (127th overall) of the New York Rangers in 2002, the Aliquippa, PA native enjoyed a stellar, four-year stint at Ohio State. The rugged rearguard racked up 53 points in 151 total games for the Buckeyes, and should fit right in on the Phantoms’ blue line.
Morrison comes to the Phantoms after spending the past four seasons at Bowling Green, where he tallied 54 points in 143 games. Davis is a product of the University of Miami (Ohio), where he registered 62 points in 155 games over four years. Both will have to battle for playing time, and could see at least some time with the Trenton Titans in the ECHL over the course of the season.
There was still some uncertainty as to exactly how the Phantoms’ goaltending rotation would shape up, even after Martin Houle, Rejean Beauchemin and Scott Munroe were assigned to the team earlier this week. An injury suffered by Flyers sophomore Antero Niittymaki in practice on Tuesday, however, has only complicated the matter.
Niittymaki was originally expected to miss at least six weeks with a torn left labrum, but will attempt to play through the injury with cortisone shots. In the meantime, or while the Flyers decide whether or not the acquisition of a veteran to back up Robert Esche is needed, Houle will remain with the big club.
How long this arrangement might last is anyone’s guess.
Houle, last season’s Phantoms rookie of the year, enjoyed a very strong camp and was set to resume the starting role he captured when Beauchemin faltered and was demoted to the ECHL last season (veteran Jamie Storr was the Phantoms’ other goaltender at the time).
It was assumed prior to this week that either Beauchemin or Munroe would begin the campaign as Houle’s back-up, while the other would be sent to Trenton. Both will likely remain with the Phantoms in Houle’s absence, and will do battle for the starting role.
The wildcard in the whole equation is 23-year-old Finnish import Jere Myllyniemi. A free agent camp invitee by the Flyers, Myllyniemi has been very impressive in exhibition action with the Phantoms squad. He remains unsigned and unassigned, but could find a home in Trenton before the season begins.
While Craig Berube’s ability to make the transition from assistant to head coach will be a major focus, the Phantoms’ chances for success this season all come down to the “usual” factors.
Obviously, organizational health from the Flyers on down will be essential. With a relatively young team this year, the last thing the Phantoms need is the roster instability that prevented the establishment of any kind of consistent team chemistry last season.
All things being equal, the Phantoms have a fairly balanced roster on paper. There is a good mixture of young and veteran talent, but still many question marks remains. Team defense and goaltending look solid once again, so the Phantoms should be, at worse, a middle-of-the-pack team that keeps games close.
If the younger players, most notably Potulny and Ruzicka, produce, the Phantoms could become a dangerous team to contend with.
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