Philadelphia Phantoms 2007-08 season preview

By Al Alven

After winning the Calder Cup with a roster stacked with high-end prospects two seasons ago, the Philadelphia Phantoms came back to earth in 2006-07. The team struggled in what was expected to be a year of transition, but also endured the organizational ripple effect of the parent Flyers’ dismal campaign.

Despite a seemingly-endless parade of injuries and general roster instability, the Phantoms managed to post a respectable 31-41-2-6 record. The sixth-place finish in the AHL’s East Division, however, left the team on the outside looking in with regard to the postseason.

The Phantoms began last season with former NHL tough guy Craig Berube making his debut as head coach. Berube was quickly promoted to the Flyers as an assistant to John Stevens after Ken Hitchcock was fired early in the campaign. This left Phantoms assistant and defensive specialist Kjell Samuelsson to take over the duties as the team’s new bench boss. Hall of Famer Joey Mullen was eventually hired to serve as Samuelsson’s assistant.

The roles have been switched once again entering the new season. Mullen joined the Flyers as an assistant over the summer, allowing Berube to return to serve as head coach of the Phantoms. Samuelsson, who never seemed comfortable in the lead role, now settles back into the assistant position. Also joining the team this year as an assistant is former goaltender and all-time Phantoms favorite Neil Little.

With the new/old coaching staff in place, the main focus of the Phantoms this season looks to be development. The squad will ice a very young, inexperienced roster this season with a shortage of veteran experience.

 

Forwards

As the Phantoms prepare to begin their 12th season of existence, much of the attention is focused on a player who won’t even be able to suit up for the team until early November.

Steve Downie became the focus of the hockey world two weeks ago, thanks to his vicious hit on Dean McAmmond in an exhibition contest with the Flyers against the Ottawa Senators. The Flyers initially assigned Downie to the Phantoms after the NHL levied a 20-game suspension on the former OHL standout, but the AHL responded by also banning Downie for the first month of the season.

Downie will be eligible to begin play with the Phantoms on Nov. 4, and is expected to become an integral part of the team immediately. Until then, the forward leaders will have to step up and make a statement. The pressure, in this regard, will be on third-year players Ryan Potulny and Stefan Ruzicka.

For Potulny, simply staying healthy will be key. The former University of Minnesota star has been plagued by injuries during his brief pro career, having appeared in only 67 combined games with the Flyers and Phantoms thus far.

The Grand Forks, ND native had a solid training camp and will be viewed as one of the NHL team‘s top call-up candidates. Potulny’s strong performance over the second half of last year with the Flyers (12 points in 35 games) will work in his favor, and his offensive ability and improved all-around play make him a darkhorse player in the Flyers system.

It would appear to be do-or-die time for Ruzicka, as the Slovakian native and former Owen Sound Attack (OHL) star has a lot to prove. After a pair of up-and-down seasons with the Phantoms and a stint in Flyers head coach John Stevens’ dog house last year, he will need a strong camp and a solid season to stick with the organization.

Ruzicka possesses skill and his offensive ability is evident. But, his work ethic remains in serious question. He looked impressive at times during a 41-game run with the Flyers last year, during which he tallied 13 points (three goals, 10 assists). But he must find a way to produce consistently with the Phantoms if he hopes to make it back to the NHL.

Also expected to step up and produce offensively for the team are Jonathan Matsumoto and Kyle Greentree, forwards who joined the team after the conclusion of their respective collegiate careers near the end of last season.

Matsumoto put up terrific numbers during his three collegiate seasons, totaling 113 points (49 goals, 64 assists) in 110 total games. He was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dismal Falcons squad last year, registering a team-leading 38 points (11 goals, 22 assists) in 33 contests. In 16 games with the Phantoms at the end of the 2006-07 campaign, Matsumoto tallied two goals and two assists.

Greentree also played three seasons at the NCAA level, posting 101 points (41 goals, 60 assists) in 79 total games for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He appeared in eight games down the stretch for the Phantoms last year, recording the first two goals of his pro career in the process.

Look for second-year center Frederik Cabana to take on much more responsibility this season. Cabana impressed as a 20-year-old rookie with the Phantoms last season, notching 19 points (four goals, five assists) and 78 PIMs in 61 games. He will be asked to serve as the team’s second or third line center and should see much more time in special teams situations.

Rookie Josh Beaulieu, meanwhile, will be expected to serve in a checking line role. Beaulieu excelled in a shutdown role with the OHL’s London Knights over the past few seasons, and wracked up plenty of playoff experience with the team. Between Cabana and Beaulieu, the Phantoms should have a nice one-two punch in the agitation department.

Perhaps the most intriguing individual story on the team belongs to that of right winger David Laliberte. Originally a 2004 draftee of the Flyers (124th overall), Laliberte has returned to the organization after overcoming a career-threatening back injury.

The Saint-Liboire, PQ native’s rights were lost after the team decided not to sign him following the 2005-06 campaign. He was signed after enjoying a renaissance with the P.E.I. Rocket last year, proving he was healthy again en route to posting 98 points (50 goals, 48 assists) in 68 games as an overager.

Of course, no true Philadelphia team would be complete without a few players who exemplify the "toughness" factor. Returning to provide the muscle, and ideally a measure of protection for the more highly-skilled forwards on the team, will be second-year pros Triston Grant and Gino Pisellini.

Grant led the team with 199 PIMs last season, while Pisellini notched 118 total PIMs in only 55 games split between the Phantoms and the Trenton Titans of the ECHL.

 

Defensemen

The bulk of the responsibility is expected to fall on rookie Ryan Parent and third-year stalwart Alexandre Picard, both of whom turned in very strong training camp performances and will likely see time with the big club at some point this season.

Acquired in the blockbuster deal that sent Peter Forsberg to the Nashville Predators prior to the trade deadline, Parent has widely been viewed as one of the top stay-at-home defensemen in the OHL over the past two seasons.

The 20-year-old Prince Albert, SK native wrapped up his fourth full season with the Guelph Storm last spring, then joined the Phantoms for the remainder of the season. He also saw action in one game for the injury-riddled Flyers, making his NHL debut at home against the rival New Jersey Devils on April 5.

Parent, who, along with Downie, was a pivotal component in helping Team Canada win its third straight WJC gold medal last year, appeared in 10 playoff games with the AHL‘s Milwaukee Admirals in 2005-06, after signing an ATO. He notched 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 43 games with Guelph last year, totaling 59 points (10 goals, 49 assists) and 262 PIMs in 227 games with the Storm since 2003-04.

After enjoying a very strong rookie season with the Phantoms in 2005-06, Picard was expected to return in a more pivotal role, with increased ice time, responsibility and acceptance as a team leader. Indeed, this all happened, but not with team or in the league he originally bargained for.

Just six games into the regular season, Picard was recalled to the struggling and injury-depleted Flyers. Most, including the former QMJHL standout himself, assumed the move would be temporary. But, he would remain in the NHL for good, distinguishing himself with his steady, all-around play.

Surprisingly, Picard turned out to be one of the team’s most steady, reliable rearguards last year. He appeared in 59 games, averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game, while playing in all situations. The Gatineau, PQ native finished second on the team among rearguards in scoring to the since-departed Joni Pitkanen, with an impressive 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in 59 games.

Yet another promising defensive prospect who will be turning pro this season, Oskars Bartulis signed with the Flyers last offseason, following a strong campaign with the Memorial Cup runners-up, the Moncton Wildcats.

The Latvian import is fresh off of a strong three-year stint in the QMJHL with the Moncton Wildcats and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. A strong two-way performer who has drawn comparisons to former Flyer Petr Svoboda, Bartulis has seen his stock rise considerably over the past few years. Still, at least one full year of seasoning in the AHL appears to be in the cards for the 20-year-old.

Meanwhile, a pair of second-year Phantoms who came in with high expectations last season still have a lot to prove. Jussi Timonen and Lars Jonsson appeared in only 46 and 40 games, respectively, last season, due to injuries.

Timonen, the younger brother of the Flyers’ prized free-agent defensive signee Kimo Timonen, notched 17 points (two goals, 15 assists) and 18 PIMs, while Jonsson, a former first round pick of the Boston Bruins (seventh overall in 2000), tallied 15 points (four goals, 11 assists). Both will be counted upon to produce this season, but must find a way to stay healthy first.

The Phantoms’ blueline became crowded, but improved on paper, with the assignment of NHL veteran Denis Gauthier to the team on Monday. A victim of the salary cap, Gauthier cleared waivers and was begrudgingly sent to the minors. The Flyers, no doubt, will continue to make every effort to deal Gauthier to another NHL team as the season progresses.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see just how his presence impacts the team’s younger rearguards. On one hand, he could settle into the veteran role vacated by Slaney. On the other, he could become a distraction and will have to readjust to the rigors of the minor league hockey way of life.

The situation will be an interesting one to watch as it develops.

 

Goaltenders

The signing of former Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher over the summer simplified the Phantoms’ quagmire in net, essentially by making the situation more complicated.

The organization ended last season with three minor league netminders, with Scott Munroe and Martin Houle at the AHL level and Rejean Beauchemin toiling in the ECHL. Rather than lose his rights, the Flyers also opted to sign 2005 draftee Jeremy Duchesne (fourth round, 119th overall) out of the QMJHL, creating an overloaded situation in net.

With Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki penciled in as the goaltenders on the Flyers roster, Boucher’s presence meant that only one of the aforementioned four could earn the role as the backup for the Phantoms. In training camp, Scott Munroe, who started the bulk of the Phantoms’ games last season, emerged as the winner.

Houle and Duchesne were assigned to the Flyers’ new ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, on Thursday. The status of Beauchemin remains unknown. He could remain with the Phantoms as a third-string goalie for now, but may eventually be loaned to another AHL or ECHL team.

As for Munroe, the Regina, SK native emerged from relative obscurity to take over the reins as the Flyers’ top goaltending prospect last season. He signed an ATO and appeared in two games with the Phantoms at the end of the 2005-06 campaign, after wrapping up a stellar collegiate career at Alabama-Huntsville.

Munroe was officially signed as a free agent by the Flyers two weeks just before the start of last season, to compete with then-22-year-old incumbents Houle and Beauchemin for playing time with the Phantoms. To the surprise of many, the undrafted netminder outplayed his competition, essentially taking over the starting role for the AHL team.

Though Munroe’s 15-19-2 record was not impressive on the surface, as it was more a reflection of the team’s shortcomings. His rock-solid 3.05 GAA and .908 save percentage are better indications of his effectiveness last season, numbers that earned him a brief recall to the Flyers (in an emergency backup appearance).

Munroe is a strong positional goaltender with good reflexes who aggressively challenges shooters and takes away the bottom portion of the net when play is in close. He still has work to do when it comes to puckhandling, but made strides in that regard last year.

It will be interesting to see how Munroe responds to added pressure and more competition for playing time between the pipes for the Phantoms, especially with his new role in backing up Boucher, while having the other goaltenders in the organization vying to return to the AHL to challenge for his job.

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