In the 5 years since Philadelphia moved its affiliate program from Adirondack to Lehigh Valley we’ve seen a complete transformation for the Phantoms. The Adirondack team was neglected, terrible, and a laughing stock due to the Flyers’ penchant for trading high picks. As a fan of the franchise it was a disgrace to watch.
Jump ahead to the Summer of 2018 and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms look like legitimate Calder Cup contenders. An Atlantic Division title, and a tough Eastern semi-final exit to the perennially great Toronto Marlies squad were big steps forward last year. Hextall’s draft and develop strategy combined with bringing in some AHL talent has paid major dividends at the minor league level.
Perhaps the best news is that we should be able to look forward to the same level of success this season. The line-up is chock-full of veteran returnees, and will also feature slew of young players who may push some of them to the pressbox. Expect this top-9 to be very fluid in its make-up, but here’s how it could play out.
Forwards on the way out: Lindblom, Read
The expectation is that Oskar Lindblom will make the Flyers out of camp this time around. Anything less would be very disappointing. He should be written out of the plans here.
Veteran Matt Read had a rough season as the odd man out in Philadelphia. Being demoted in favour of Lehtera and Weise had to hurt. It was a very poor way of handling that situation in my opinion. Read still has better legs than either of those guys, and he should have been owed a bit more respect. Godspeed Matt, I hope you find a checking line role somewhere nice!
Line 1: Varone – Martel – Connor
Phil Varone was 2nd in the AHL scoring race with 70 points, and 1st in Even Strength scoring; 47 points at 5v5. He’s an AHL stud. No slouch as a shooter with 15 even strength, and 7 powerplay goals, but he’s more of a distributor. It makes sense to partner him up with at least 1 other player who’s a volume shooter.
Phil Varone via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
Despite the fact that he may not be the best option 34 year old Chris Connor will probably be somewhere in the top-6. Varone – Connor – Lindblom is what Lehigh Valley were rolling with towards the end of the playoffs. Connor is starting to tail off in terms of production, his even strength production was sandwiched between Alex Krushelnyski and Tyrell Goulbourne. It’s just 1 down season, but 37 points and poor advanced metrics relative to the rest of the team may indicate his decline.
Greg Carey wouldn’t surprise me here, as he’s a known AHL trigger-man, but he’s more frequently been used in the middle of the line-up. Enter Danick Martel who took shots at a higher per game rate than Carey last season. He had 20 even strength goals that ranked him 6th in the league in that statistic. Hextall liked him enough that he got a 4 game audition with the big club and at the NHL level he looked small, but quick and dangerous. After seasons of 22 goals, 20 goals, and 25 goals (in just 59 games) the team will be hoping he explodes for a big year.
Line 2: Vorobyev – Aube-Kubel – Rubtsov
Vorobyev and Aube-Kubel could get long looks at training camp. Here’s the run down though.. the Flyers are pretty jammed up with depth forwards like Lehtera, Laughton, Weise, Weal and Leier. Either guy would have to knock out someone like that in order to get inside the top-14 forwards.
For Vorobyev I can’t see that happening yet. He played well last season, but he was pretty deep on the charts for the Phantoms. Just under 11 minutes per game at even strength last season means he was 11th in terms of forwards in that regard. I’d like to see him take a larger bite of the minutes since Hextall has repeatedly said he had to adjust to the long AHL schedule last year. He wasn’t dominant, he didn’t play all that much, he needs more time.
Nic Aube-Kubel via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
The opposite situation, Aube-Kubel is entering his 3rd professional season, and played on average the most even strength minutes of any Phantoms forward. This kid might be ready to bump off a veteran. When you look at his stat line, you think, “46 points in 72 games? Not really impressive..” What you don’t know is that 43 of those were at Even Strength. That’s just 4 fewer than Varone.. Nic was 8th in the AHL in 5v5 scoring.. didn’t get a sniff of PP time.. that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Penciling German Rubtsov into the top-6 forwards is a slight reach, but I think Rubtsov should be in the top-9 at least. He didn’t dominate the QMJHL in his final season the way we wanted him too, but he still put up a point per game for Chicoutimi (11 in 11) and 32 points in 38 regular season games after being traded to a stacked Acadie-Bathurst team. Bathurst were eventual Memorial Cup Champions, and Rubtsov was playing big minutes in the top-6 down the stretch.
Line 3: Carey – Knight – Vecchione
Greg Carey basically does one thing. Rips shots. His 9 PP goals led the team, and he also scored 22 5v5 goals, good enough for 3rd in the AHL! The fact that I have this guy all the way down on the 3rd line speaks to how deep this team is. As I said earlier, there’s some fluidity here, basically they can roll this top-9. I see the wingers as being interchangeable throughout the line-up. Inserting a guy like Carey on Line 1, 2 or 3 seems fine.
Corban Knight had his season cut a bit short as he missed 18 games, but his 5v5 scoring rate was 3rd among Lehigh Valley forwards. The interesting bit about Knight’s stats is that he barely had any secondary assists at even strength. Varone for example had 14 secondary assists to boost his numbers while Knight had just 2. In terms of primary points (goals and primary assists) the two were basically even. 33 points for Varone and 30 points for Knight. Probably some bad luck at work here for Knight, combined with worse linemates.
Mike Vecchione via JustSports Photography (phantoms.com)
When Mike Vecchione burst onto the scene as a college free agent a lot of people seemed to think he might leapfrog Scott Laughton on the Flyers’ depth chart. That hasn’t happened. To be honest he never got a chance because the Flyers have been so full of forwards. The season in Lehigh Valley for Mike was fine; 40 points, 27 at evens, an even goal differential, etc. He looks like a checking line player, and he’s 25 now.
Line 4: McDonald – Bardreau – Twarynski
Just like Chris Connor, Lehigh Valley Captain Colin McDonald signed an AHL deal for guaranteed money instead of betting on a 2-way. Also just like Connor it looks like McDonald may have lost a step last season with just 25 points in 56 games. He scored 25 goals just a year before so he’s not far removed from being a difference maker. At 33 years old though you wonder what’s in the tank. He’ll be cast in a checking role anyway so offensive production will be a bonus.
Cole Bardreau and Marlies forward Ben Smith via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
I’m not usually high on Bardreau, but when a defensive forward posts the 2nd best even strength scoring rate on a great AHL team you take note. After Varone, Cole Bardreau was the Phantom with the highest even strength scoring rate per minute. That’s wild! He only played 45 games, but he had 27 even strength points in that limited sample. It’s not farfetched to think the Flyers should look to get some quality bottom-6 minutes out of him now.
Very tough to find minutes for forwards here, but I think Carsen Twarynski should warrant some. He had a great overage season potting 45 goals (22 at 5v5) and ended the season with a handful of AHL games getting his first professional goal and assist. He’s not afraid to throw his weight around at 6’2″ and 198 pounds and he has some scoring touch. This is the player the organization thought Tyrell Goulbourne might be.
Wildcards: Goulbourne, Fazleev, Bunnaman, Laberge, Kase
In Tyrell Goulbourne you’re getting an energy guy without much offensive talent. Only Radel Fazleev was worse offensively than Goulbourne among Phantoms regulars. It is a good sign that he wasn’t a huge drain on his linemates as his goal differential (and differential relative to the team) was on the positive side.
Tyrell Goulbourne via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
The same positives can’t be drawn from Radel Fazeleev’s advanced metrics. He was truly the worst regular in Lehigh Valley last season in every stat. He’s just 22, but we’re kind of approaching make-or-break in terms of AHL quality play at this stage in his development. We’re going to see him buried behind this new crop of depth forwards and sending him to the ECHL may be for the best.
Connor Bunnaman is one of the forwards who will have an opportunity to shuffle Fazleev to the ECHL roster. Bunnaman’s 27 goal, 50 point season in the OHL looks great, but he was a bit sheltered behind some better players like Adam Mascherin. One thing Bunnaman has going for him is like Twarynski he’s heavy at 200+ pounds, the physicality of the pro game won’t be an issue.
Hopefully this is a fresh start for Pascal Laberge who’s battled emotional and physical obstacles in junior that no kid should have to. Another weird season for him as first he was buried behind a talented offensive group in Victoriaville where he had just 20 points in 31 games. Halfway through the year he was dealt to the Quebec Remparts for picks and had a bit more time to shine. He notched 27 points in 33 games for what was a less talented team. Underlying statistics support the theory that he outplayed his teammates. These are good signs.
David Kase via Daniel Eriksson (avestatidning.com)
The one really big wildcard in this group is going to be David Kase. For all I know come training camp he could be a top-6 AHL forward. The Czech winger left his home country last year for the opportunity to play in the top flight Swedish league. It was a big step, but it wasn’t without chance. He suited up for Mora a recently promoted and not very good team. Mora played as advertized to a 13-32-5-2 record and a 2nd to last finish. BUT they managed to avoid relegation and stay in the top-tier league. Kase meanwhile led the team with 23 points in 44 games and got an ELC from the Flyers. A true win-win for both sides!
Defensemen on the way out: Sanheim, Lamarche
Travis Sanheim appears to have fully graduated the system. He was a truly dominant presence in 18 games for Lehigh Valley accumulating 16 points from the back-end during that time. If somehow he’s back in Allentown the Flyers have made a mistake.
Long time farmhand and Reading Royals Captain Maxime Lamarche is finally moving on from the organization. It’s been 5 seasons in Adirondack, Elmira, Reading and Lehigh Valley for the veteran minor leaguer. He signed with the Laval Rocket this month after finally getting a full-time AHL gig last year. He’s been able to elevate his play at the ECHL level, but has never been anything more than depth with the Phantoms.
D-Pair 1: Brennan – Friedman
A 5-time AHL all-star, and veteran of 645 career AHL games (playoffs included) T.J. Brennan is much like Varone, an AHL stud. Since this AHL group is actually thinning out in terms of defensemen T.J. will once again feature prominently in the top 2 pairings. 45 points last season was a bit of a slide and that will have to be monitored, but he still tied for the most 5v5 points by a defenseman in the league with 27 points.
TJ Brennan via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
With Sanheim graduating, and Morin injured a top pairing spot is open for the taking. That’ll be either Philippe Myers or Mark Friedman’s spot on opening night. Friedman will probably skate alongside Brennan as the organization will hope Philippe Myers and T.J. Brennan can each carry a pairing. Friedman’s advanced metrics hint that he may have been slightly outmatched last year, but better linemates and opportunities could lead to bigger numbers.
D-Pair 2: Myers – De Haas
Philippe Myers’ fate in terms of making the Flyers out of camp was probably sealed when Philly signed ex-Minnesota/Los Angeles defender Christian Folin. Myers will have to beat out Folin or Robert Hagg if he wants the 6th/7th defender slot in the NHL, and I’m not sure the Flyers will even give him a chance. Anyway, for what it’s worth Myers did a decent job of carrying the play according to his stats, and he’ll have an opportunity to play big AHL minutes this year.
James de Haas via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
A 23-year-old college grad on a minor league deal, James de Haas had an immediate impact for the Reading Royals with 18 points in 23 games. He followed that with 11 points in 36 AHL games, dressed for 2 playoff games, and got an invite to Flyers development camp early in July. He’s 6’4″, 24 years old and looks like he can contribute. His stock is definitely on the rise within the organization, and an ELC deal if he impresses at main camp in September wouldn’t surprise me.
D-Pair 3: Willcox – Drake
Reece Willcox was the worst Phantoms defensemen in terms of goal differential – relative to the team’s performance or just base numbers. He wasn’t good. He was a 3rd pairing guy last year, and he’ll be a 3rd pairing guy this year. After 29 points in 120 NCAA games for Cornell his 25 points in 111 AHL regular season games so far has been a slight surprise. Didn’t think he’d even manage that.
Reece Willcox (front) with Philippe Myers and Dustin Tokarski via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
Speaking of guys I don’t expect to manage much offensively, David Drake looks like Willcox 2.0. 25 points in 124 NCAA games.. these guys are essentially the same player. Drake though is about 3 or 4 inches taller at 6’6″ or 6’7″ depending on which website you visit. Either way he will be a depth guy who hopefully doesn’t get buried by the competition.
Wildcards: Morin, Hora
The long term injury to Morin (torn ACL + surgery; out until the New Year) is probably another reason the Flyers went out and got Christian Folin on a cheap $800k / 1 year deal. After 2 so-so professional seasons in the AHL, Morin missed almost the entire year in 2017-18 with knee ailments. That was unfortunate because in his limited playing time he had the 2nd best 5v5 scoring rate for Lehigh Valley defenders behind only Sanheim’s sample. 7 even strength points in 15 games was good enough that the organization still hasn’t given up on him.
A rookie last year, Frank Hora is another possibility if the Flyers/Phantoms just want a cheap depth solution. Hora captained the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL as a steady defensive type before graduating to the ECHL Royals last year. He had 1 goal and 14 points in 62 ECHL games along with a +23 differential. That was good enough to earn him spot-duty as a Phantom where he played 8 games last year without recording a point.
Goaltenders on the way out: Muse, Tokarski
The surprisingly effective John Muse was snapped up in AHL free agency by the WBS Penguins. That’s a shame as John was very good when pushed into service by the organization. In his 15 games of AHL action he looked like the best minor league goalie in the system with a solid 2.46 gaa and a .919 sv%. He wasn’t otherworldly, but he was solid.
Jeeze Louise Dustin Tokarski’s career didn’t pan out. The Phantoms picked up the former Canada U20 star in exchange for fellow goaltending disappointment (and Canadian U17 star) Leland Irving just before the season got underway. Irving was relegated to the practice squad for San Diego he only appeared 6 times all year! Tokarski played a bunch, but probably shouldn’t have. He also got blown up in 3 playoff appearances. Good riddance.
Sharing the Pipes: Lyon, Stolarz, Hart
Alex Lyon via JustSports Photography (Phantoms.com)
Former Yale star Alex Lyon has been okay as a professional. His regular season statistics have been pretty.. well.. meh. He was pushed into NHL games last year where he posted .905 save percentage in 11 appearances. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but Elliott and Neuvirth weren’t much better than that all year so I guess Lyon was as good as could be expected. He played his best hockey in the AHL playoffs last year posting a sparkling .944 save percentage through 11 games.
39 appearances (only 4 last season) across the ECHL, AHL and NHL over the last 2 seasons means Anthony Stolarz is teetering on the edge of relevancy. Injuries have truly derailed his career. It’s kind of impossible to say where he’s at right now because he just hasn’t played. Here’s hoping he stays healthy for a season.
Carter Hart via NHL.com
Carter Hart’s only enemy here is himself. After threepeating as WHL goaltender of the year, and representing Canada twice at the World Juniors he’s done everything he can to inspire confidence. The organization doesn’t want to rush him, but they’re starving for a legitimate starting goalie. I expect he’ll be in Lehigh Valley for the entire 2018-19 season, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can immediately push out Lyon/Stolarz and take on the 1A or 1B role.
ECHL Depth: Krushelnyski, Swavely, Dekanich, Dove-McFalls, Salinitri
Beyond the established veterans and prospects there are also AHL/ECHL guys Alex Krushelnyski, Steven Swavely, and Mark Dekanich. Krushelnyski of course scored the unforgettable 5OT game winning goal, and playoff moments like that tend to be rewarded. Dekanich didn’t get the AHL shot he wanted out of his minor league deal and ended up in Reading being eclipsed by John Muse. Don’t expect he’ll return.
Sam Dove-McFalls via Erick Labbe (lesoleil.com)
An interesting name to throw around at the AHL/ECHL level could be Sam Dove-McFalls. The Flyers’ have passed on his rights at this point, but the organization did reach out to David Drake, a defenseman in a similar position. I would assume Dove-McFalls was offered a similar AHL/ECHL deal, but is still looking for a better opportunity. His 73 points as an overage player wasn’t monstrous, but 51 of those points were even strength. He was 8th in the QMJHL in 5v5 scoring, and that’s the kind of production that could translate well to the AHL.
It appears Anthony Salinitri (whose rights were also passed on) is finished with the organization. He attended Vancouver Canucks development camp as an invitee. He wasn’t a bad player in the OHL by any means, but he didn’t do enough to garner an ELC.