(Photo by Amy Irvin/38 Photography)
Over the last two weeks we’ve taken a look at the Flyers prospect pool in an attempt to predict which young players will play at the NHL level next season. This exercise brought us to the realization that almost all of the franchise’s top prospects will be waiting at least one more season to join the big club in Philadelphia. The Flyers roster appears to be fairly solidified and there simply isn’t much room for younger players to wedge their way in at this point.
This obviously means that some very good young players will be playing elsewhere come October. Prospects who will not be AHL eligible all have a good chance of being returned to their respective junior hockey clubs. Many of those who are eligible for AHL play will be sent to Lehigh Valley for their first or second year of professional hockey. As these talented young players join some newly acquired AHL veterans, there is reason to believe that the 2015-16 season will see the Phantoms return to contention for the first time since leaving Philadelphia in 2009.
Important Returners: Last season, the Phantoms’ first in Lehigh Valley, saw the emergence of several promising forwards. Playing in his second full season at the AHL level, center Nick Cousins broke through with 56 points in 64 games. Scott Laughton departed for a 31 game NHL stint in the middle of the season, yet still managed 27 points in 37 AHL games. Both Taylor Leier and Petr Straka made significant strides as the season went on. I’d expect all of these guys to spend the majority of the season in Lehigh Valley, where they will hopefully take another step forward in their development.
Newcomers: A few key players acquired from various places should help the Phantoms take a step forward offensively next season. Both Danick Martel and Cole Bardreau, who played a few games as Phantoms on try-out contracts last season, will be playing their first full year of professional hockey. I’d expect Martel to contribute some meaningful offense and hopefully help out on the penalty kill as well. Undrafted free agent Pavel Padakin, who was Travis Sanheim’s teammate in Calgary, will be a wild card who could add to the bottom 6.
Meanwhile, a few veteran UFA acquisitions should provide significant help. Aaron Palushaj, a 26 year old journeyman forward, has 192 points in 258 career AHL games. The Phantoms will also get a boost from a trio of 30+ year old signees. Winger Colin McDonald, who will likely spend most of the season in the AHL, scored 35 points in 40 games last season for the Islanders’ AHL affiliate. Center Tim Brent has spent the past two years in the KHL, but has played well at the AHL level in the past. Right winger Chris Conner scored 52 points in 61 games last season for the rival Hershey Bears. All three bring significant AHL and NHL experience to the table and will almost definitely spend the full season in Lehigh Valley.
Key Departures: The biggest loss for the Phantoms will undoubtedly be Jason Akeson. The Phantoms leading scorer from 3 of the past 4 seasons signed a one year deal with the Buffalo Sabres organization this summer. Aside from Akeson, winger Andrew Gordon departed for the KHL this summer after realizing that his chances at NHL success were growing dim. Between those two, the Phantoms will lose 95 points from last year’s lineup. Blair Jones, who looked promising last fall before missing a lot of time with injuries, also departed this summer for Vancouver’s AHL affiliate. However, the continued development of Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins along with help from several newcomers should be enough to replace these losses with relative ease.
Important Returners: In the aftermath of Shayne Gostisbehere’s unfortunate ACL tear last winter, the biggest story on the Phantoms’ blueline was the emergence of Brandon Manning. After scoring 43 points in 60 games and securing a spot at the All Star Game, Manning deservedly finished the season in Philadelphia. While Manning is still with the organization, his future in Lehigh Valley is somewhat uncertain after he signed a one year, one way contract with the Flyers this summer. The one way contract doesn’t guarantee Manning a spot on the Flyers, but it’s difficult to predict exactly where he will land for the 2015-16 season. Although he is still considered an NHL prospect, 2nd year professional Robert Hagg will undoubtedly return to Lehigh Valley for this season as well. He will be joined once again by 23 year old Mark Alt, who is entering his 3rd season as a Phantom.
Newcomers: Additions to the blue line are arguably what will push this team into true contention this year. When the dust from Flyers training camp settles early this fall, the Phantoms could be left with one of the best defensive units in the AHL. 2013 1st round draft pick Sam Morin is now eligible for AHL play and will almost definitely spend the whole year in Lehigh Valley. While Shayne Gostisbehere did play 5 games as a Phantom last year, the 22 year old is basically a newcomer; Gostisbehere missed nearly the entire season after an unfortunate ACL tear. Gostisbehere could definitely see some time in Philadelphia, but it’s likely that he will at least begin the season in Lehigh Valley. 30 year old Davis Drewiske, who was acquired as a free agent this summer, scored 22 points in 62 AHL games last season and could contribute in a second or third pairing role.
Key Departures: Aside from possibly Brandon Manning, the Phantoms should not suffer any significant losses on the defensive side of the ice this season. 26 year old Dane Oliver Lauridsen did sign a contract to play in Sweden next season. Steven Delisle is a free agent who has not yet signed, and 24 year old Adam Comrie has signed with the ECHL affiliate Reading Royals. If those players do return, it’s still unlikely that they’d play more than a minor role on a revamped Phantoms defensive unit this season. Even if Brandon Manning spends most of the year in Philadelphia, expect the Phantoms to ice one of the better defensive units in the league this fall.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST QUESTIONS FACING THE TEAM?
Goaltending is the biggest question facing the Phantoms as they embark on the 2015-16 season. Their top goaltender from last year, Rob Zepp, will most likely not be back with the organization after Ron Hextall opted to add veteran Jason LaBarbera in free agency this summer. With Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth basically in place as the Flyers’ tandem already, the Phantoms will be left with LaBarbera and 21 year old New Jersey native Anthony Stolarz. While the organization still has high hopes for Stolarz, he failed to impress in a backup role last year, posting a .905 Sv% in parts of 31 games.
The starting goaltender position will be up in the air during training camp. At some point, the organization is going to want to find out if Stolarz is capable of performing well in a starting role. Given that their other option is a 35 year old who might not be able to handle a heavy workload, it’s possible that this will be Stolarz’ opportunity to prove himself. At the same time, Stolarz is still just 21 years old, and nobody wants to put him in a position that he isn’t ready for. Either way, I’d expect the two goaltenders to each get plenty of action.
How Will A Coaching Change Affect Things?
For a while, it sounded like Terry Murray would join the Flyers as one of Dave Hakstol’s assistants this fall. Those rumors were put to rest when Murray left the organization for an assistant coaching position with Buffalo in June. On July 13th, Ron Hextall announced that Murray would be replaced by Scott Gordon, a 52 year old with both AHL and NHL head coaching experience. Gordon is a strong hire who has compiled an impressive AHL coaching record over the years. Regardless, a coaching change will certainly require returning players to adjust to a new style and philosophy. How returning players will adjust to new coaching remains to be seen.
Success in the AHL can be a very strange animal. The top AHL teams don’t always belong to the organizations with the strongest prospect pools. Rather, AHL success typically comes to the teams that have the most complete mixture of strong AHL veterans and high level prospects stopping by on their way to prosperous NHL careers. It is often ephemeral by nature; The arrivals and subsequent departures of talented young players can cause significant year to year changes. Sometimes, a ‘window’ for AHL success is only open for one season.
The way things are aligning throughout the organization, that window might be open for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in 2015-16. A well established coach will have some solid veterans and many of the organization’s top prospects at his disposal. The team is deep enough to withstand some injuries or call-ups. Of course, there are always uncertainties. It’s possible this success won’t last long at all. After another year of development and preparation for the NHL level prospects, the Phantoms could return to mediocrity just as quickly as they rose from it. For the immediate future, however, one thing is starting to seem fairly certain: The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are going to be a force this season.