Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Phantoms first season in Lehigh Valley a qualified failure

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms completed their first year in Allentown and the Flyers' primary affiliate notched its 19th overall campaign ranking fourth in the American Hockey League with an average attendance of 8,163 and saw more than 310,000 fans pass through the turnstiles of the PPL Center.

That's almost double what the hockey-bred citizens of Glens Falls could amass, though the Civic Center was nearly filled to capacity on most nights over five seasons in a smaller venue.

A reduction in distance from 280 miles down to 60 miles made for an easier evaluation and recall process between the parent club and their farm team. But so what? The organization failed to produce a collection of prospect who demonstrated the most obvious marker of success -- a postseason berth -- for the sixth consecutive season.

There's an inexact science present in the AHL of the 21st Century, a clear emphasis on development and curation rather than focusing on its reckless, entertaining product as a way-station for marginal talents to do anything it takes to make it up the chain. Nonetheless 30 NHL teams provide singular matches with their affiliates, and there is a degree of uncertainty on how each affiliate's performance is a reflection or rejection of how its parent conducts business.

That's how head coach Terry Murray can, with a straight face and facts to back it up, call this season a success. Eleven different players who spent a majority of the season at the AHL level earned recalls to the Philadelphia Flyers at some point, and for various lengths of time. Though only one -- Scott Laughton -- managed to stick in the long term, there were enough transactions with the NHL to justify the development side of the equation.

 “Absolutely,” Murray said on Sunday. “The process is to play games at the pro level. You get 76 games under your belt for these young players coming out of junior, coming out of college. This is a very successful year. This is exactly what you have to do.”

“We’ve got young guys that are seeing more minutes, more critical situations. We have players that were called up this year and I thought handled themselves pretty well at the next level. It’s a process, and this is year one of it.”

Offense: In spite of additions like Andrew Gordon and Kevin Goumas, and seeing eight players finish in double digits, the Phantoms ended the year with 194 goals in 76 games (2.55 per contest). That's only good enough for 12th in the Eastern Conference and 25th overall in the league. Included in that total are six shutouts against, and back-to-back blankings against the Baby Pens on April 4-8.

Out of 76 games, even factoring in the two-month absence of Scott Laughton, the late-season call-up of Nick Cousins and the struggles of Goumas, Petr Straka and Taylor Leier to break through, scoring two or fewer goals on 41 occasions doesn't pass muster.  Cousins missed 16 games and still finished atop the goal list at 23, while Jason Akeson had 23 in 57 games. Gordon contributed 18 while Straka (14) finished with one more than Zack Stortini in eight fewer appearances.

Their season-best output was just six goals, done twice, and both on the road. It was a marginal step up from the previous season, when five was the limit, and matched the ceiling from two years back in Murray's first year as coach.  No Phantoms team in three years has broken the 200-goal mark overall.

Tertiary scoring was hampered by Chris VandeVelde's permanent spot in Philly, as well as Blair Jones' health issues and Ryan White's off-season training injuries which took months to heal. Those names absent from the lineup are also reasons why play in the defensive zone was lacking to some extent.

Defense: A fresh infusion of defensive talent, minus their biggest prospect in Shayne Gostisbehere for most of the season, couldn't prevent a bottom-third finish in preventing offense. LV surrendered 237 goals in 76 games (3.12 per contest), 13th in the East and 24th in the league, yielding three or more scores on 49 occasions.

Take it for what you will, but Oliver Lauridsen was the only steady defenseman on the club who finished with a positive plus-minus (+6) in significant minutes as second-pair anchor. Brandon Manning showed enough offensive upside and overall growth to gain praise from Murray, and ended up with the most points of any player on the blueline but also finished minus-13.  Adam Comrie, who split the year in Reading, compiled a team-worst minus-21 in 40 games despite 18 points.

There are a ton of mulligans, however, for a team stacked with defensemen solely for the purpose of separating the quick and the dead: Gostisbehere was out since early November; Mark Alt was constantly beset by injury and skated in only 44 contests; Manning, the club's lone all-star sat out 16 times for recalls and various maladies, with Steven Delisle, Robert Hagg, Jesper Pettersson all firmly in the "project" stage.

"If I'm a young defenseman like Robert Hagg and I know Kjell Samuelsson, our development guy is there, I'm picking his brain," Hextall said. "It's a big thing for a club to express interest, but also to invest resources like this shows how important it is to us."

After two years of not focusing on development and one year of a renewed focus on development, the Phantoms' goal differential moved from minus-36 to minus-43 and minus-43 again. 

Goaltending: Medals of Honor should be awarded to both starter Rob Zepp, backup Anthony Stolarz and special mention to ECHL call-up Martin Ouellette.

Zepp faced at least 30 shots on goal an astounding 34 times just in the minors and still wound up with respectable numbers (21-20-1, 2.68 GAA, .917 save percentage) given the workload. Flyers' 2012 draftee Anthony Stolarz is getting a snoot-full of the vagaries of the pros, having picked up the club's only two shutouts but going 9-13-2 with a 3.28 GAA and .905 save pct. after such success in London of the OHL.

Based on a limited sample size in thr NHL plus cost effectiveness, Zepp is a favorite to be elevated to the backup job in the Delaware Valley next season, but leaving Stolarz to be a starter or rolling the dice again and trying to find a Zepp-like free agent is too much of a gamble. 

Special Teams: A power play which featured Stortini and Brett Hextall causing trouble atop the opposing crease operated at a 15.6 percent efficiency (53-for-339, 20th overall) and allowed nine short-handed goals -- a sharp contrast with the Orange and Black.

Their penalty killers worked two slots lower, preventing goals just 81.6 percent of the time (65-of-364), perhaps an eerie foreshadowing of what awaits a Flyers' penalty kill that was scraping the bottom of the franchise worsts.

Intangibles: For an organization desperately trying to break with the past, the kind and number of penalties taken by the Phantoms is totally unacceptable. An AHL-high 1,834 PIMs was 108 more than their closest competitor (Bridgeport, NYI) and well more than double the least-penalized club (Worcester, SJS, 809) in each conference (Grand Rapids, DET, 869).

Cutting out Stortini and Jay Rosehill in favor of more serviceable talents excises almost 400 minutes from that total, but the rest is up to coaching and each player's internal sense of discipline. If Murray and Cote possess something else in the arsenal to impress that upon the team, they'd better use it. It's an intriguing fact the Phantoms were only shorthanded 25 more times than placed on the advantage, which might suggest at a small level the renegade spirit still buried within the AHL rather than any failure of Murray or Cote to rein in their charges.

The Phantoms went beyond regulation 22 times overall and finished 7-1 in shootouts. While it's a built-in part of professional hockey games, participating in the equivalent of an extra two-plus games is a double-edged sword which tests stamina but indicates a lack of finish.

An enthusiastic crowd in a new destination greeted the Phantoms 38 times, with 26 sell-outs and the home team responded with a 17-15-6 record and a ton of extra hockey for the dollar. The operation was miles ahead of the no-frills approach the Brookses embraced in Glens Falls, and there's no off-ice reason fans shouldn't show up in droves again next year.

Futures: Murray expressed that the Flyers/Phantoms would put each and every player on an
off-season workout plan, and will use every bit of new technology and the facilities available within the PPL Center to help whomever will be retained for next year get a good start once training camp begins.


He mentioned in Sunday's post-game that the Players' Association is the biggest hindrance to development overall, and for good reason. With the punishing six-month schedule, playoffs notwithstanding, and the multiple 3-in-3's at the AHL level, a player needs down time right at the start to rest and recover. To expect a prospect to continue his development through constant competition stands an excellent chance of wearing out that prospect by the time September rolls around.

However, Murray did lament the fact that, like baseball's Arizona instructional or Caribbean leagues, there's no "summer hockey" leagues for late-comers to hone their skills -- with the possible exception of the Worlds which take place in May and are generally only open to North American players whose clubs are not participating in any postseason.

That structure and rules in place with the current CBA means players like Danick Martel, Nick Luukko and Cole Bardreau are stuck with months of off-ice training after a too-brief taste of the professional ranks.

One promising sign lay in the off-ice rehabilitation of Gostisbehere, who was briefly the center of a communication controversy between Murray and Flyers GM Ron Hextall. Recovery from that knee injury has forced the 22-year-old Union College product to alter his fitness program, but for the better, since he was a noticeably slight presence in close quarters.

"In the big picture, when you look back 10 years from now, you might say Gostisbehere's injury was a real positive in the sense he became a player who really paid attention to the off-ice part of it and became a bigger, stronger player," Murray said Tuesday to the Inquirer. "I think he's put on almost 20 pounds of good, solid weight and that's going to help him be ready at training camp."

Both Cousins and Laughton drew praise for their time spent in the Flying P, so it's not unreasonable to expect they'd be the first to either snag a roster spot in camp or the first to head down the Northeast Extension when needed. If and when that day comes, Hextall will be hard pressed to find replacements, but that's an unsung part of his job as GM -- stocking the minors with durable, productive players who might need to play there for several seasons through the draft or free agency.

Drafting/signing in the short terms should look to bolster the forward ranks as it previously needed to fill up the backlines.

Outlook: Terry Murray has been the head coach of this affiliate for three seasons. In that time, he's had three separate and distinct rosters in New York and Pennsylvania, but each year the ebb and flow has been obvious: whenever the club fastens down defensively, they go on a run, usually in mid-season, which pushes them towards hope of a playoff berth.

It comes with a dearth of offense, however. Some time after that run, the luck turns sour and an extended winless streak/losing jag occurs which knocks the team out of contention. Offense ebbs and flows, but more pucks are present in their own net than the opposition.

Murray made no secret on Sunday of his desire to return to the NHL. He hasn't been there since 2011 with Los Angeles and has put on a brave face moving with the Phantoms. But he's going to be 65 in July, and while the passion to return is evident, he also made no mistake in relating that the head coaching job, at least, at both levels, is labor intensive and pressure packed, with an unbalanced schedule causing additional pressures in the AHL.

That Inquirer piece from yesterday revealed Murray wants a crack at an assistant position with the Flyers under the new regime. That might be more his speed, and he's done his part in interviews to tout the players the Flyers wanted to bring up, but it would create an opening Hextall would have to do some extra work in order to fill.

The Phantoms' single assistant coach, Riley Cote, might suffer from the same issues that Craig Berube did in Philadelphia. Although he's played the good soldier, Berube may not take kindly to another demotion, and since the improvement of so many potential future Flyers will be at stake, better choices beyond the organization must be considered.

"Obviously making the playoffs is something we set out to do and would have liked to do," Hextall mentioned over the weekend. "I'm happy with the way things have gone for the most part. At that [AHL] level, you get hit by two teams' injuries, which is tough. Overall, we've had some young players, some prospects, playing in some pretty critical roles. … A lot of the kids are on the power play, the penalty kill. You want the kids to evolve by playing in big roles."

Regardless of who's pulling the strings, health and discipline along with the skill and ability of those who spend an entire year in Allentown are the major factors to the Phantoms' on-ice success going forward. That's why its crucial for Michael Parks to be signed, and for Bardreau, Martel and Luukko to prove themselves worthy right up front. They will be counted on to fill the gaps the call-ups leave. Hextall also needs to fill the gaps of others like Darroll Powe and Ryan White, who may also be moving on, with steady AHLers not under the microscope.

In the back half of the season, even as the team's broadcaster crowed about the home attendance figures, once it became apparent the Phantoms were out of the playoff picture, there were incrementally more gray-backed seats visible around the arena.

On one hand, it's promising for the Flyers that so many Phantoms gained recognition and feedback and as a result, there are a handful of players who could join the NHL club over the next several seasons.

On the other, the Lehigh Valley is not as dedicated to or intertwined with hockey at any level compared to Philadelphia or upstate New York, and it's unlikely that unless there are playoff berths coming with prospect development, fans will continue to support the team in the same fervent manner.
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