The Phantoms have undergone quite the transition over the last few months, and as they've moved away from the Delaware Valley to the unknown world of upstate New York, it's been a Philadelphia native who has brought us the news we need to know.
Tim McManus, the Phantoms beat writer for the Glens Falls Post-Star, was born and raised just a stones throw away from the South Philly Sports Complex. A graduate of La Salle University in the Olney section of the city, he lived in Philadelphia for his entire life before leaving for grad school. He worked at The Trentonian in (you guessed it) Trenton, NJ before landing his current gig in Glens Falls two and a half years ago.
McManus has been a diehard Philadelphia fan his entire life. The 27-year-old's fondest Flyers memory came in 2000 when Keith Primeau scored in the fifth overtime to beat Pittsburgh. After a long evening high school event, McManus tells us that he "never thought he'd get home in time to see five periods of hockey" and that when his friend called the house phone right after the goal (in the middle of the night), it didn't matter because everybody was awake anyway.
McManus is clearly a media guy that knows how to utilize new media tools. His blog on the Post-Star website is truly awesome work; it's a fantastic way to keep up with the day-to-day activities of the Flyers' farm club. He's also on Twitter (@PSPhantoms), and of course his articles in the paper are chock full of quality coverage.
We had the pleasure of asking McManus a few questions this week. Among other things, we chatted about the future of the Phantoms in Glens Falls and their potential future move to Allentown, how Randy Jones is handling his AHL demotion, and who is lining up to be the first injury callup to the Flyers.
See our complete interview with exiled Philly fan and Adirondack Phantoms beat writer Tim McManus after the jump.
Broad Street Hockey: Since you grew up a Flyers fan, what was your reaction when you found out you'd have the chance to cover their farm team? It's pretty ironic considering you work in, of all places, Glens Falls, NY.
Tim McManus: I think the best part is that I finally have a good answer for all my friends and family who wonder what the heck I’m doing living closer to Montreal than Philly.
But seriously, knowing the team’s history and being familiar with the Flyers organization has made the job easier. I hadn’t been keeping up with the Phantoms like I once did, but the roster wasn’t a complete mystery. I knew who some of these guys were. I know to pay extra attention to the goalies because the Flyers have been looking for one as long as I’ve been alive. I know the Flyers are in the midst of trying to change their identity (for better or worse) from the Bullies to a skating/scoring kind of team. I think understanding that context helps me to do the job better than if, say, it was the Edmonton Oilers affiliate here.
I also hope it makes me a better source of information for fans in the Philly area. I’m always conscious to write something for that audience as much as the one here in Glens Falls. I try to think about what kind of news I want to hear about the Phillies farm team. I’m not surprised at all by how many Philly fans made the ride up here for opening night or how detailed some of the questions they send me are. There’s no limit to how hungry Philly fans are for any information and I hope they’re getting it on our blog.
BSH: It's still early, of course, but what are your expectations for the Phantoms this season? How do they compare with the rest of their division and how far do you think they can go this year?
TM: Barring a major rash of injuries/callups, I expect the Phantoms to be a playoff team and probably one that should win a round or two. They play in the league’s toughest division, but they can’t use the excuse that they’re young anymore. In fact, they have to sit a veteran each night just to get under the league limit (six).
There is plenty of depth at forward. They have five players who scored more than 20 goals in the AHL last season: Jon Matsumoto, Pat Maroon, David Laliberte, Jared Ross and Krys Kolanos, who had 30 in just 47 games with Houston. Another new addition, Lukas Kaspar, had 17 splitting time with Worcester/San Jose. So this is a team that should be able to score, especially when you add NHL vet Jason Ward.
The challenge is defensively. They’re breaking in three AHL rookies on the blueline – Kevin Marshall, Marc-Andre Bourdon and Joonas Lehtivuori– and two rookie goalies. Not surprisingly, defense has been a weakness through three games. Although, I can’t really pick on the defensemen. The forwards have made some bad turnovers, took some bad penalties, and haven’t been real crisp in their defensive zone coverages.
Both Ross and Matsumoto have said their goal is a division title. I don’t know if anyone is catching Hershey– the Bears brought back most of their Calder Cup winning team from last year – but I’d consider it a disappointment if the Phantoms didn’t improve on last year’s record and make a run at being one of the final four teams in the conference standing.
For whatever it’s worth – probably nothing – EA Sports did a simulation of the AHL season on NHL 10 and had the Phantoms losing in the finals to Abbotsford.
BSH: What is Randy Jones' role going to be with the Phantoms. How is he handling the demotion?
TM: Given the youth on the Phantoms defense, Jones is going to have a real big role here both in terms of ice time and leadership. Right now they have him paired with Kevin Marshall, a rookie the Flyers are high on. I think fans are going to really like the way Marshall plays – physical, not afraid to fight, etc. – but right now he’s a little excitable. Jones has been a calming influence. I liked the way he’s gone over a couple of times after the whistle and untangled Marshall from scrums before he could take a penalty.
I think he’s handling it OK. He appears to be giving it a good effort in practice and his teammates like him. I asked someone who knows a lot more about hockey than I do what they thought of his first game (a 3-2 loss to Worcester) and they said he was the best defenseman out there. I guess he should be.
I have a feeling he’s going to put up good offensive numbers, or at least lead the Phantoms defenseman in points. He’s gotten a lot of power play time and has looked real confident with the puck on the point. The power play has looked best with him out there.
BSH: Which players are lining up to be the first call-ups to the Flyers, both on defense and up front?
TM: I think the answer to the forward question is going to be the guy who shows the most playing two ways. All of the guys I mentioned above have shown they can score at the AHL level. But if the Flyers need a guy, they’re not going to be looking for a big-time scorer. They’re going to want someone who won’t be a liability defensively. Unless they want to take a look at a prospect, maybe Pat Maroon, I guess they’d stick with someone who saw NHL time last year, like Jared Ross, Jon Kalinski, or Andreas Nodl (who’s leading the team in scoring through three games).
Defensively, I’m not so sure because they’re so young there. I assumed Danny Syvret would be that first call up, but he’s already there. Personally, I like Joey Mormina. He has NHL size – he’s 6-foot-6, 220 pounds – and has been very professional. Last year he was one of the AHL leaders as a plus-37 and is plus-3 in the two games he’s played here. At 27, he’s not a prospect anymore, but he’s a guy I could see playing solidly in a limited role if need be. But I have no idea if the Flyers agree with me on that. Aside from Jones, and we know he isn’t going, there isn’t anyone with NHL experience they can call on.
BSH: Is Johan Backlund going to be the every day goaltender down there? The Nic Riopel pick really impressed me at the Draft and my initial thought was that he could be a late round gem. Any glimpses of that?
TM: Coach Greg Gilbert won’t come out and say it officially, but by all appearances, Backlund is the No.1 guy. They want to see what they have in him and whether he’s a guy that could be a backup in the NHL next year. They won’t find that out by sitting him.
It’s funny, I wrote a ton in preseason about how the goalie position was going to be the team’s biggest concern, because both had shaky moments in camp. But so far (and it’s a real small sample) they haven’t been the problem. In two home starts (one preseason, one regular season), Backlund was strong. Now, he gave up six in Syracuse on Saturday in a game I wasn’t at, but from what I hear, he was in a shooting gallery due to numerous defensive breakdowns.
I like Backlund’s size. He really fills up the net and has shown surprising quickness for a 6-3 guy. He’ll need to work on finding the puck in traffic and being more aggressive in clearing guys from the crease. He’s also given up back-to-back goals in under a minute in each of his last two starts. It’s worth keeping an eye on that to see if it’s just a fluke or if a trend is starting.
Riopel may be a steal because of his size. He’s about 6-foot and looks like a high school kid. But in his one game action on opening night, he was terrific in the 3-2 loss. He gave up a goal on a tough deflection on the third shot he saw, and looked like he was jumping at the puck on the next few long drives. But he settled and allowed just two more goals, both on power plays. The defensive effort was poor in front of him. His lateral movement was very quick and so was his glove hand, which was important because everyone tried to beat him high.
People who I’ve talked to said the key for Riopel is developing patience. Early in camp he was trying to outguess people, and you can’t do that at this level. In talking to him, he projects a real confidence. I guess I would be too if I set the record for goals-against-average (2.01) in the Quebec Major Junior League. I think they want him to stay here even if he plays less than he would at a lower level to get the top-flight instruction and practice time.
BSH: The home opener in Glens Falls was, by all accounts, a smashing success. Do you think the fan base can keep it up for the entire season? And of course, we all know the rumors surrounding a potential move to Allentown. Whether or not that happens, do you think a team will be in Glens Falls once the Phantoms three-year lease is up?
TM: The Phantoms owners have been pretty straightforward: their long term goal is Allentown, but they want to create a successful enough financial model where another team will follow this one in Glens Falls. To do that, the front office thinks they need to average more than 4,000 people a night. On Saturday nights, that won’t be a problem. On Fridays and other weekdays, I think it will be. The question is whether the Saturday night crowds and the six visits by Albany, when they’ll likely do more than 5,000, can keep the average above 4,000?
I think so, though it will help if the team is good. The town is used to winning hockey: the won four Calder Cups in 20 years and missed the playoffs just once. When Detroit started losing interest in putting a competitive team here, the attendance went off a cliff. No coincidence. And Glens Falls showed no interest in lower levels of hockey that played here – the city wouldn’t support it.
If they do get that 4,000 average, I think another team will follow. There are several AHL teams that would be looking up at that attendance number. While the Glens Falls Civic Center lacks the luxury boxes that draw in a lot of revenue, the overhead is also low as well. The contract is favorable to the team.
I think some fans are turned off by the impermanence of the team. The contract is for three years, but there is a team out after each year. But I try to calm people’s fears on that. For one, look how long it took to build the stadiums in Philly. Do we really think they’re going to get that arena built in Allentown using some public money in a down economy in three years? And yes, the Phantoms can exit their contract at any time, but as long as Allentown remains the long-term option, are they really going to want to start over someplace new for the second time in as many years with another move on the way? You have to think the relocation costs would be higher than the cost to stay in Glens Falls.
And lastly, there’s so much change in minor league sports anyway. Is it really a big deal if there’s a different name on the jerseys in three years? Sure beats having no hockey at all.
BSH: What would you say to disgruntled Philadelphia Phantoms fans about the teams' move? Should they still support the Adirondack version?
TM: I understand if anyone’s upset about the Phantoms leaving Philadelphia. If I hadn’t left to get into this line of work, I would be too. But I hate the occasional e-mail I get or blog comment that takes it out on the fans of Glens Falls or mocks the people up here. Glens Falls is a hard-working, blue collar city that reminds me a lot of Northeast Philly or South Philly. They love their sports here and it’s a great hockey town. When the Red Wings left 10 years ago, it was as if Philly lost the Flyers, Eagles, Phillies and Sixers all at once. People here deserve a second chance. This was once as good an AHL city as there was. The Civic Center is a real intimidating setting for a hockey game, one fans of the old Spectrum would appreciate.
BSH: Finally, what do you miss most about the Philadelphia area? Favorite cheesesteak joint?
TM: Every time I go back, I head for a cheesesteak from John’s Roast Pork. That’s the real deal right there, down to the long lines and the owner’s mom behind the register yelling for you to speed up. Just a little shack on Snyder and Weccacoe but twice as good as the big names. Have to love that the owner is an old St. John Neumann graduate like me. Go early though – they close around 2 or 3, really whenever they feel like it. I think that adds to the charm.
I miss the people most. There really is no place as quirky and passionate and crazy. I can say that because I am one. Everywhere I go I identify myself first as a Philadelphian. I’m proud of that and I hope my career takes me home soon.
Great thanks to Tim for answering our questions, and we hope it answered a lot of the questions you might have about the Phantoms current situation. We'll be checking in with Tim throughout the season for more Adirondack goodness, but in the meantime, be sure to check out the Post-Star's main hockey page, the blog, and Tim's Twitter feed.