Friday, January 23, 2015

Phantoms and Royals: Minor League breakdown

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

As of this evening, with the Phantoms finishing up their pre-All-Star road schedule with a 4-2 loss to the Syracuse Crunch, the Flyers' highest minor-league affiliate is scraping against respectability with a (19-16-5) record.

That's good enough for third place in the East Division, three points behind Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and five ahead of Binghamton.

In the conference playoff race, Lehigh Valley sits tied for 11th place with Bridgeport and four points back of the eighth and final playoff spot. Problem is, the team which occupied that slot before tonight, the Albany Devils, have beaten the Phantoms handily three straight times in a four-game season series and have the primary tiebreaker wrapped up if it comes down to that. Worcester dropped to eighth, and the Phantoms have split two games already with only two more on tap.

Thanks to a beneficial early-season schedule with plenty of Wednesday matchups that preclude the dreaded three-in-three weekend sojourns common to the league, the Phantoms have two games in hand on the Devils and three each on the P-Bruins and Baby Pens whom they're chasing for playoff positioning. It's something Andrew Gordon cautioned against, the cushion and luxury of games in hand, which are only valuable with wins and points.

Next weekend, following the All-Star festivities in Utica, the club has a 3-in-3 with two at home and one on the road, but escapes for one week only before a two-road, one-home weekend set from Feb. 13-15. They've finished 4-3-2 over nine games in three previous 3-in-3s this season after dropping two of three last weekend (Albany, Binghamton, at Hershey).

Terry Murray has spent the bulk of his direction since taking over as head coach in 2012 concentrating on defense and puck pursuit inside all three zones to aid a transition game. Before last season's collapse, a mid-season run of stinginess had the club in the top 10 of fewest goals allowed and lowest average goals-per-game, before the bottom completely dropped out.

This season, it's been a similar story with veterans Brandon Manning, Oliver Lauridsen along with defensive prospects Mark Alt, Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere, Jesper Pettersson and including Steven Delisle with injury replacements Adam Comrie and Max Lamarche.

Gostisbehere suffered a torn ACL, Alt is working through a shoulder injury and a broken hand while Hagg is enduring some issues of game-to-game consistency, and the backline has yielded 116 goals -- third fewest among the East's non-playoff teams at present and ninth in the conference -- which is good, considering. In 17 of 40 games, the defense has yielded two goals or fewer, but just gave up a season-high seven scores to Hershey on Wednesday night.

Which leads us to the million-dollar question: who can help the Flyers soonest? It's a loaded one at that. Gostisbehere has the most tools in his arsenal but after ACL surgery, there are questions if he can fully regain form. Lauridsen has the size but little range. Manning holds the most experience in the Show and will also have a second All-Star appearance in his pocket, while Hagg sports the most raw potential. Of course, the only true measure is keeping all involved at the AHL level and letting them work the kinks out themselves in the course of this season and into the next.

The goaltending tandem of Rob Zepp and Anthony Stolarz, recently accompanied by ECHL call-up Martin Ouellette, have had to deal with an average north of 30 shots per game.

That was the case before Gostisbehere and Alt were felled by injuries and that's the case now. It has driven Murray so far up a wall that, last Friday after a 3-2 loss to Albany -- one in which the Phantoms led 1-0 after two but allowed the Devils a third-period comeback -- he declined to offer postgame comments, leaving it entirely up to the players to explain themselves. That never happened in the dark days of Glens Falls.

Zepp (11-5-4, 2.57 GAA), Stolarz (6-9-2, 2.91) and Ouellette (2-2-0, 2.41) all have save percentages well over .900, and that's a good sign. As long as it remains in the .920 range, they collectively have a shot to steal crucial games down the stretch. It will be needed to maintain a steady continuation of a 10-3-5 record in one-goal games.

That's why the question of offense hangs in the balance. Despite picking up two-time Calder Trophy winner and long-time AHL forward Gordon for scoring prowess, adding Brett Hextall from North Dakota and Kevin Goumas (2G in 33 games) from New Hampshire, and retaining both Petr Straka and last season's leading scorer Jason Akeson for a majority of the year, the club is still looking for a spark.

They are 10th in the East with 107 goals, and yes, the loss of Scott Laughton on what seems like a permanent basis to the Flyers will hurt, but Murray's club has passed through slightly more than half a season with Gordon, Cousins and Straka in double digits.

If any speculation about Cousins getting a look with the Flyers -- be it one game or an extended look -- becomes true, it will likely be a dagger in the heart of a playoff berth. The Phantoms may be able to survive defensive injuries and call-ups, but are still painfully thin up front. Taking the leading goal scorer on the club out of the mix and expecting the rest to pick up the slack appears to be a non-starter.

This club absolutely needs offense and to learn how to properly nurse leads, having racked up a 2-11-1 record when trailing after two periods.

LV has totaled two goals of fewer in 21 of their 40 contests so far and topped out at six at St. John's two weeks ago. To even get over the 100-goal mark, the club had to use a recent run of success during which they tallied 21 times -- though they've only been shut out twice this year, at Portland and at Hershey within the first 11 games. 

Discipline has been an overall obstacle to success. Owing to the additions of Jay Rosehill (119), Manning (95) and Zack Stortini (78), the Phantoms became the first AHL team to trip over the 1,000 PIM mark last night (1,013). And that's without the return of fan favorite enforcer Zack FitzGerald, who signed in Scotland. The next closest team to four digits is Syracuse (876), while the Worcester Sharks are tops in the league with a paltry 396 PIM.

Special teams outlook: Not very promising. The power play stands 20th at 15.2 percent efficiency (29-of-191), while the penalty kill is slightly worse at 22nd in the league after giving up 36 goals in 194 chances (81.4 percent).

The brand-new building in Allentown and attendance which often scrapes records when not setting them, has been a clear advantage. Despite just 18 home dates, the Phantoms rank second in the league at an average of 8,036 fans and have repaid that with a 12-7-2 record where seven games have lasted beyond regulation which is more bang for the buck.

But unlike Glens Falls, Allentown is not a fan base versed in minor-league hockey, nor will PPL Center be filled near capacity simply by the Phantoms being there. Murray and Ron Hextall have their work cut out to develop talent but keep them winning in this brand-new environment. Can't see interest remaining constant if the playoffs aren't reached by this season or next.

In the ECHL, any team which tries to keep an even keel throughout the regular season has to be mentally
tough to deal with near constant roster upheaval. Injuries, in-season trades between clubs, emergency signings and call-ups to the AHL are a constant threat -- not to mention the brutal travel for a league whose imprint stretches from New York's Southern Tier to the Deep South and out along the West Coast.

Somehow, Reading Royals head coach Larry Courville has been immune to these pitfalls, through three different sets of NHL affiliations during his six-plus seasons guiding the club.

Through Boston, Washington and now the Philadelphia Flyers ownership, the soon-to-be 40-year-old bench boss has guided the Purple Lions to at least 30 wins in each of his five full seasons and to at least 40 wins in three of those years -- including a 46-win campaign two years ago which ultimately led to the franchise's one and only Kelly Cup championship.

Heading into Saturday's road contest with South Carolina, the Royals sport a 23-13-2 record, which places them in third place out of seven in the East Division and firmly in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. That's three points behind Greenville and a comfortable five ahead of Elmira and seven from their next opponent, and thanks to a 6-3-0 record in January with five games remaining.

Reading has reached the postseason a franchise-record five straight times and is in line for a sixth, yet the residents of Berks County has ignored the team for quite a while. And in a league where teams are essentially born to die by contraction or relocation, winning seems to be what keeps them afloat. Due to the last-minute absorption of the struggling Central Hockey League, all the Royals have to do is remain in the division's top four to keep their playoff streak alive.

This year, they're attracting 3,797 on average (20th in league of 28 teams) which is down from 4,087 last season and 4,023 from their championship season under the Capitals' banner. While it's true the Royals' home arena is a single-level anachronism and can't compete with newer, larger venues as in Toledo, Salt Lake City and Ontario, CA, the bloom is long off the rose. Once the losing sets in, not even healthy corporate sponsorship wouldn't likely save the team.

In contrast to their brothers up the chain, Reading has had little trouble putting the puck into the net, operating fourth in the conference with 131 goals in 38 games (3.44 per game) so far. Undrafted winger Olivier Labelle leads the way with 14 scores -- one of six players in double digits -- while two-time NCAA champion with Boston College, Pat Mullane, tops the list with 24 assists and 37 points. Mullane, a cast-off from Toledo, sits just outside the top 15 in scoring.

In addition, Courville has the entire team playing level-headed hockey thanks to a league-low 414 total penalty minutes. It's a far cry from the Royals teams I observed as a league stats official in the first three years of the club's existence, when Ryan Flinn, Remy Royer, Dave Stewart and Dean Arsene plied their trade and made the club interesting to watch despite their struggles in the standings.

Reading beat Jason Guarente will have a column tomorrow outlining just how mild the ECHL game has become in recent years.

Free-agent defensive prospect Lamarche leads all players with a plus-12 rating and is fourth among defensemen with 10 points. Mike Marcou leads the attack with 20 assists and 24 points, with Zach Davies adding 19 points and Comrie at 14 points in 21 appearances. As a unit, the offensive thrust has cost them on the back end, with 118 goals against (3.11 per game) ranking 11th out of 14 in the conference.

It's taken some toll on the goaltending. Though Ouellette (11-6-2) and Connor Knapp (11-7-0) and Joe Howe (4-3-2) all possess decent records, Ouellette's goals-against average is the only one below 3.00 while each man's save percentage is below optimal (.907, .896 and .889, respectively).

The Royals' power play sits dead in the middle of the league standings, ranking 15th at 17 percent (29-of-171 with seven SHG against) while the penalty kill has slipped to 19th place at 81.7 percent efficiency (24-of-131 with six SHG for), although they're currently in a second-place tie with Kalamazoo for the fewest times playing a man down. Toledo (121) tops the list. 

Reading finishes the month of January at Gwinnett Sunday, at Evansville on Wednesday, at Indianapolis on the 30th then Cincinnati on the 31st before finally coming back to Penn Street Feb. 4 against Wheeling. It's the first of four straight home dates, including three in a row against Florida, and then the Royals go back out on the road until Feb. 27.

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