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Previewing the Lehigh Valley Phantoms opening night roster

Discussing possible line combinations and defensive pairings.

Casey Liberatore - SB Nation ©

With the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ regular season beginning in just a few days. Maddie and I (Brad) are here to go over the roster and possible line combinations for game one. When it comes to making the lines, the most important thing to note is the AHL’s developmental rule.

Of the eighteen skaters you dress in a given game, thirteen must qualify as “developmental” players. To be classified as such, you must have played in fewer than 260 professional games at the start of the regular season, however, each team is allowed to dress one player who has surpassed the 260 game threshold as long as they’ve played in 320 games or fewer. In short, twelve skaters must have played in fewer than 260 professional games, one must have played in fewer than 320 professional games, and the other six can be a player with any amount of experience.

While this was a factor in the Phantoms’ roster last season, it’s not a problem that they’ll be entering the year with, as only five players on their roster do not qualify as developmental players. So while it won’t be a factor now, it’s a good reminder in case they see an addition or two later down the road. Without further ado, let’s get into it!

Brad: It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these! The World Junior Summer Showcase feels like forever ago.

Maddie: October’s hit and I’ve completely erased summer from my mind. WJSS who?

B: I’ll always maintain that as the tournament went on, I did a complete 180 on my opinion of Adam Ginning!

M: “Jinning”

B: So first things first, Taylor Leier is a Phantom and Dale Weise may join him eventually. Maybe.

M: I’m gonna be honest, I’m a little bit surprised. I thought Jori Lehtera was for sure going to be the one waived. But whatever. Taylor Leier is a Phantom again. Dale Weise might be a Phantom at some point. Probably will be. Those are things.

B: It looked like both were going to be after Calvin Pickard was claimed but, well, they got around that with some shenanigans. Maybe Weise ends up there, maybe he doesn’t. Who really knows.

M: Possible Phantoms! *gesturing vaguely in all directions*

B: Possible Phantoms.

So let’s just go with who we know will be starting the season here; Leier. The former AHL All-Star, and he of 55 NHL games, is back with Lehigh Valley and now they, and we in this exercise, have to figure out where he fits in the lineup.

M: That’s tough. You kind of wonder if he won’t be just thrown on the fourth line, because, even in the three preseason games, Scott Gordon’s kind of tipped his hand as to what pairings/groupings he’s liking. And that might just be where he’s able to slot in?

B: For sure, and it’s not like the fourth line is a traditional fourth line for the Phantoms anyway, last year Corban Knight found himself there from time to time and now he’s possibly made the NHL? I think it’s all about chemistry and play style, and Leier can play that “role” of a good forechecker. That’s kind of what he’s been doing in Philadelphia.

M: Yeah, Gordon definitely seems to be a subscriber to the “number your lines, don’t rank them” ideology. But I could see Leier fitting in there. He isn’t a prototypical heavy forechecker, but he can jive with them.

So besides Leier possibly being on the fourth line, who else are we penciling there? Who else can bring the grit (sorry, sorry, trying to delete)

B: I think that’s probably the perfect spot for Colin McDonald to play. It’s where he spent most of the season last year, anyway. The center, though, hm.

M: I WONDER. Hm. Hm. Hmmm.

Okay, I’ll stop. If it’s a gritty center you need, it’s gotta be Cole Bardreau, right?

B: Yeah that makes sense. Only thing is he played wing for the majority of last season.

M: A legitimate concern. Though he’s officially listed as a center, so I wouldn’t be super surprised if they moved him back. Who’s their other option?

B: I’m not sure. Maybe Radel Fazleev? Then again, he was also mostly a winger and did worse on faceoffs than him. German Rubtsov is another possibility but I don’t think that’s the role you put a first round pick in. Yeah, okay, Bardreau’s the best option.

M: Cool cool. One line down.

B: Started from the bottom now we’re... going somewhere else.

M: .......

I’ll let that one go. Anyway, we had another line taking shape in preseason with some of our newbies. How does a Connor Bunnaman-Mike Vecchione-Carsen Twarynski line sound to you? Think that could hold?

B: That’s been a line that people have said looks pretty good in the preseason, right? I know neither of us have gotten to see them in a game setting yet, so this is all based on secondhand account but hey, if they look good, they look good.

I think another lock is the duo of Phil Varone and Greg Carey, but the third member of that line is anybody’s best guess.

M: My guess is Nic Aube-Kubel.

B: Yeah I could see that. Those two aren’t exactly play drivers and that’s something that NAK seemingly does well.

M: Definitely, definitely. And, I mean, not that they need it, but the idea of having even more firepower on that line (46 points last season, hello) sounds pretty nice. Plus Gordon seems to be all about rewarding guys for good and well rounded play, so considering how good he was last season, it would make sense that he would be the one to get the promotion to the top line.

B: On one hand I agree, you’re putting the team’s best three 5-on-5 scorers together, but at the same time Carey and Varone were able to have success with just about anybody they played with last season - at least from a production standpoint. It’s a line that I would absolutely want to see given a real chance though.

M: Yeah, for sure. The way I see it, it’s kind of like how the Flyers started last season with Jakub Voracek on the top line with Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier so they could combine for All The Points. I see this line as doing sort of the same thing. And then if they need some more depth scoring, they bump NAK down to try and get another line going.

B: Agreed.

M: So. That’s three lines down. One to go. Who you got.

B: RUBY! And, uh, two of David Kase, Chris Conner, Tyrell Goulbourne, Radel Fazleev, and Alex Krushelnyski. I think I know which two we’re already leaning towards before we even get into this.

M: Hm, I wonder.

But, in all seriousness, if we’re leaning Kase and Conner (spoiler: we are), it makes sense. German Rubtsov played both Thursday and Saturday’s games with Kase, and the two of them were with Conner on Thursday. So Gordon seems to see something there.

B: I like it, I like it a lot.

M: And we could get sort of cerebral about it, talk about giving the kids playing time but making sure there’s a vet on the line to keep it anchored or whatever. And maybe there’s something there. But I think, if Gordon sees something there, I trust him, and feel like we might see it on opening night. So I’ll give it a chance.

B: You know what, what if we take this in another direction. What about Leier with Rubtsov and Kase? Now that’s a line that’s super intriguing to me.

M: I wouldn’t hate that. Just an all-skill line. Who fits into Leier’s spot on the fourth line, then?

B: Goulbourne?

M: I mean, if they want a gritty, checking fourth line, he fits the mold. But that leaves Conner as the odd man out. Which feels... off.

B: I do think it’s kinda weird to have Conner as a healthy scratch, but if you look at the roster from a “roles” perspective, it makes some sense. I think he’ll be rotating in and out of the lineup with the rookies anyway, so it’s not like we’re saying he’s going to be sitting in the press box for 76 games.

M: That’s fair. I could get behind that.

B: And look at that, that’s four lines!

M: *counting fingers* So it is. Would you look at that! I guess that means we should talk defense now, eh?

B: Sadly, Phil Myers is on this team. Well, that’s not sad for Phantoms’ fans, in fact that’s probably the best news they got out of the Flyers’ preseason cuts.

M: They did lose some guys, yeah. But one guy is back! And I have a feeling he’s going to be very good for them. We can just pencil him in to play All Of The Minutes, right? That’s how this works?

B: Absolutely. The only question is who he’s going to be playing All Of The Minutes alongside. Last season he mostly played with James de Haas, T.J. Brennan, and of course, the other half of best defensive pair the entire AHL saw all season long, Travis Sanhiem. One of these is no longer an option.

M: My feeling:

Okay, actually I just wanted to use that joke there. (thanks Craig). My first inclination would be to put Brennan on the top pair with Myers?

B: I could totally see that, have Myers play the role of the defensively reliable defender that allows Brennan to score All Of The Points. However, I think it’s possible that they may want to see Mark Friedman play that role of “steady defender” next to Brennan again like he did towards the end of last season.

M: Makes sense. If the two were working, why not keep them together? Continuity, baby!

In which case, I would like to change my answer. Myers and de Yaaaaas. Let’s go.

B: I think that’s where I’m at as well. I think he’s been paired with Zach Palmquist in some of the practices here and there, and maybe a game? I’m not sure, I honestly haven’t been paying attention to the AHL preseason. With de Haas you have that familiarity and chemistry to build off of from last season.

M: Yeah, I’d be a little hesitant about throwing Palmquist into a top pair role immediately. No matter how good Myers is, how much he could probably bail him out, if necessary. De Haas just feels like a safer choice for me.

B: Then again, he’s 27 and has that veteran presence!

M: Don’t do this. I’m begging you.

B: This isn’t Dave, he’s not in charge here, let’s just move on.

M: Okay, so who’s left. Palmquist. Reece Wilcox. David Drake. Who gets in on opening night?

B: My best guess is that Drake will be the odd man out and the other two are the final pair. That’d give you 3 lefties, 3 righties, and since Wilcox has been around for a while now, he gets the edge over Drake on opening night. Nick Luukko is still around, too, but I don’t think he’ll get into game one over any of those three mentioned.

M: Seniority and whatnot. But yeah, I agree. You keep your balance and give the guys who have been around longer the nod for opening night. Makes sense.

Okay. so it sounds like we have that square. All that’s left is... oh god... the goalies. What is even going on with the goalies.

B: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

M: Yep, that checks out.

B: Starter Hart, thank you.

M: Okay, yeah. There is a lot of uncertainty, as the Flyers just decided they needed to have all of the goalies. But Carter Hart getting the start on opening night seems like the only certainty. At least there’s that.

B: Yeah that’s pretty much it. The goalie situation in Philadelphia is, as always, pure chaos. But at least Hart can be our little bit of stability.

After having finished quite a few of these “talking” articles it feels like we might as well just make a podcast at this point.

M: The people will never know the sounds of our voices. We live in a state of mystery. Thx.

B: Ah yes, Love That. And with that, I think we’re done here! Our final prediction for the Phantoms’ opening night roster is as follows: