ST PAUL MN - SEPTEMBER 25: Erik Gustafsson #27 and Ben Holmstrom #34 battle for the puck as Eric Wellwood looks on. Those three have been bright spots in the dark, dark world of the Phantoms. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
In an attempt to change the confusing and unpleasant storyline of the past few days, let's look at how the Phantoms rookies are doing compared to their preseason projections. What? They're confusing and unpleasant too? Well, shit. Sorry.
Anyway, if you recall (or if you clicked the link above), before the season I used Gabe Desjardins' AHL Equivalencies to try and get a feel for what the Phantoms would look like this year. Specifically, I looked at those making their AHL debut.
If you go back and read, I was pretty optimistic. The Phantoms should have been replacing older players with younger ones, and barely losing any production in the process. Unfortunately, we see how that all happened. I will say in my defense, my optimism was largely contingent on Pat Maroon, David Laliberte, Andreas Nodl, and Stefan Legein stepping up and improving upon last year, helping to carry the load for the youngsters.
Only one of those four still call Adirondack home (Legein), and even he's injured. The team has changed coaches, changed players, and dealt with injuries. They've only won three games all year and they can't score. Or stop the other team from scoring. All in all, things are good. But you knew this.
Anyway, jump to see how the Phantoms' rookies are living up to their expectations 25 games in.
All the way on the left you see how many games that player has played so far this year. The first set of G, A, Pts are the projections, and the second set are the player's current stats extrapolated to 82 games. Yes, there's no way Shane Harper plays 66 games this season, let alone 82, but that's never been what we aim for.
Instead, this shows you the point per game ratio and how that looks over the course of 82 games. Lastly, this isn't about singling them out (I don't care how well Jon Kalinski or Greg Moore are scoring, and honestly, neither do you) but to look at how these guys are producing in their first year as professionals.
Well, I called that one wrong, didn't I? At the beginning of the year, it looked like the Phantoms had found a point-for-point replacement of Jared Ross in Luke Pither. A gifted playmaker who can play the middle joins a team who just lost their two-top line centers? Natural fit to slot into the first line, of course.
Except that hasn't been the case. Pither is only on pace to score 16 points, less than a third of what his AHL Equivalency predicted. Now, the first thing you'll notice is that his goal scoring isn't that far off the pace. Going from 20 goals to 12 could easily be chalked up to a small 20-game sample, but going from 32 assists to 4 cannot.
The good news is that Pither has been given arguably the worst forwards imaginable to play with. Neither Garrett Klotz nor Matt Clackson can score and Logan Stephenson is a defenseman. The bad news is that Pither just can't find a way to leave that line. Coach Paddock said Pither has a steep learning curve and he has to earn a bigger role, so hopefully he rises to the challenge. For more, check out this post-game report with quotes from John Paddock on Pither.
As I said in the projections, points for defensemen aren't what I care about. While it's certainly nice that Gustafsson scores a ton of points, you have to also play some defense. Gustafsson is actually on pace to beat his point projections, but he's a team-worst minus-23. I hate using plus/minus, but when that's the only thing the AHL gives you, it's what you use.
I was impressed with Gustafsson at camp, and he might have a low plus/minus due to his ice time, role, teammates, competition, etc., but that isn't good. Either way, it's amazing that he's actually outpacing his already ridiculously high point projections. It's even more amazing that he currently has 5 more points than the Phantoms' next-highest scorer. Who only has 10 points. How many goals have the Phantoms scored without Gustafsson's help? Probably not many.
This one is confusing. A projected 40-point player in the AHL doesn't even start the year with the Phantoms. But the good news is that Harper earned a call-up from the ECHL after scoring 3 goals and 7 assists in 11 games. Through 8 games, it's quite difficult to put any faith in his current pace though.
I'm a little less embarrassed about putting Harper's picture on the preview post after seeing him tear up the ECHL than I was when he didn't even make the Phantoms out of camp. Look for Harper to improve though, as he was recently playing on a line with Denis Hamel and Jon Kalinski.
Seriously, I have no problem with Testwuide at all. In fact, Testwuide is not having a bad year. Well, relatively speaking. It's pretty tough when your power forward who is supposed to be good in the corners and in front of the net can't score a goal in 21 games. Really bad.
But at least he's getting a lot of assists. On top of that, he is a very impressive (again, context is important) minus-5 on the season. Among forwards who have played ten games, that's third best behindand , which is basically tops on the team. (Remember, those two aren't asked to play hockey.) When Testwuide scores his first goal of the year, they might come in bunches after that. On this team? That will be sorely needed.
By now, you've heard of Eric Wellwood. And good for him. He's a talented player who's scoring points at a rate we expected him to. But would you be surprised to learn that he is scoring 0.43 points per game, only 0.03 more than Jon Kalinski? He is playing well for the Phantoms, he played well for the Flyers in his call up, and he's tied for the team-lead in goals.
I guess what I'm saying is: it's really easy to get caught up in the Wellwood love. He's a good player who's having success, and he's probably the only reason to go see the Phantoms right now. But give him time. Don't rush him.
Another favorite of mine who is having a hard time scoring. The main reason he's below projections can be found in his goal totals, but even then, he's tied for third on the Phantoms with 5 goals. He's also someone who is playing on a decent line, as Tim McManus saw him skating alongside Eric Wellwood and Greg Moore recently. If that continues, Rowe should benefit from Wellwood's confidence.
Also of note with Rowe is his minus-6 rating, behind only Mike Testwuide in forwards with 10 games played. Take the good where you can find it, I guess.
Surprisingly, Holmstrom is also tied for third on the Phantoms with 5 goals. Not what I expected from a guy who wasn't projected to score many points, let alone goals. He will be playing with Zac Rinaldo and Rob Bordson, so I'm not really sure if he can continue chipping in points.
He got off to a fast start - scoring two goals in two games, on two shots - and hasn't scored since. Doesn't matter, since that's not why he's in the organization. He's averaging 4.65 PIMs per game, so I guess the Flyers are happy with him. Either way, he might be the only other reason for fans to go see the Phantoms.
So far, the Phantoms' rookies are off their projections. Only Gustafsson and Rinaldo are currently beating expectations, but Wellwood is pretty much right on pace. Testwuide, Rowe, and Holmstrom aren't too far behind theirs, but Harper and Pither are falling far short.
On a team that can't score - they're averaging fewer than 2 goals per game - things could certainly be worse. With the addition of Harper and Denis Hamel, the Phantoms have improved their offense. If Luke Pither could either be given an opportunity or earn an opportunity to get more ice time and better linemates, he might start closing the gap between his projection. That's a big if though, since it sounds as if he's just not transitioning to the AHL the way the coaching staff would like him to.
In the meantime, the Phantoms would love to get Testwuide, Greg Moore, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Shane Harper their first goals of the year. After that, having Stefan Legein start scoring once he returns from injury, and getting production out of recent acquisitions Rob Bordson and Michael Ryan could go a long way to helping the rookies, as well as the team.
A lot of work needs to be done, and the blame for the Phantoms putrid offense can be spread around liberally. Whether the rookies' performance is the egg or the chicken in the Phantoms offensive problems is up for you to decide, but at least there is some hope. Right?