The Lehigh Valley Phantoms entered the 2018-2019 season looking to clinch a playoff berth for the third straight season — a feat that had not been achieved by the franchise since 2002. However, as the injuries and call-ups piled up, they fell three standings points short of accomplishing just that. So, what derailed them?
The easiest thing to point to is the biggest “call-up,” if you will, of the season. That being the coaching change that occurred on December 17th when the Philadelphia Flyers parted ways with then-head coach Dave Hakstol, and Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon got the call to join the Flyers. While it’s true that the team’s record was better under Gordon, their 5-on-5 play has actually struggled out of the gate.
Splitting the numbers
At the time of Gordon’s promotion the Phantoms had a record of 15-9-2, good for a .615 points percentage. A points pace that would’ve led them into the playoffs. However, their underlying numbers were not only down from a season ago, but dramatically so. The signs were there through those first 26 games of the season that a drop-off was potentially on the horizon, which as we know now did go on to happen.
Under Gordon the Phantoms had a 45.37 Corsi-For percent (CF%) and a 44.5 High Danger Corsi-For percent (HDCF%) at 5-on-5. A five percent drop off from the figure they had posted the season prior, and nowhere near what you’d expect from a playoff team. Following Kerry Huffman’s promotion to interim head coach, the Phantoms’ underlying numbers across the next 25 games were quite similar; 45.59 CF% and a 44.11 HDCF%. Now, their final 25 games are still unaccounted for in the data set, but it’d be surprising to see their numbers improve by much during that stretch. Entirely possible, but based on both visuals and official shots on goal totals, surprising.
The overarching point here is that there was relatively no change in the team’s ability, or rather inability, to out-shoot their opponents at 5-on-5 following the coaching change. Gordon is surely a good influence, but it’s not as if the team suddenly sank the moment he left. They had already been underwater.
So far underwater that, per Corsica, only one NHL team had a worse CF% this past season, with that team being the Ottawa Senators. Yes, that same Senators team that went 29-47-6. Based on NHL data it’s safe to assume that the Phantoms were at the bottom of the AHL, possibly last at times, in 5-on-5 shot differential this season and that their strong special teams play and shooting talent is what allowed them to stay as close to a playoff spot as they were.
Was the roster strong enough?
If it wasn’t the coaching change, the next logical place to turn is the roster itself. Let’s get this out of the way first: goaltending wasn’t an issue. Starter Alex Lyon finished with a .916 save percentage and per Prospect-Stats the Phantoms as a team had the 13th-best save percentage in the league. Not league best territory, but good. Heading into the season we we’re pretty optimistic about this team’s skaters. The defense looked a little thin, but soon after our lineup projection they addressed the problem by signing defenseman Philip Samuelsson to a one year AHL contract. But the forward core looked strong from the start, even with them losing one of their top scorers just days before.
It was obvious to everyone at the time that losing Danick Martel to the Tampa Bay Lightning via a waiver claim was a big blow to the Phantoms. However, I think it’s entirely possible that we underrated how big of a loss it truly was. The speedy winger who became known for not only his goal scoring prowess, but also for his work within the community, had just completed his third straight 20-goal season as a member of the Phantoms. Furthermore, in the 2017-2018 season his +4.87 CF% relative ranked third among all Phantoms that appeared in at least 20 games while also leading the team in minor penalties drawn. Nobody really came close to replacing Martel’s impact this season.
Couple losing Martel with Corban Knight making the Flyers out of camp, German Rubtsov’s season-ending injury just 14 games in, and reigning AHL MVP Phil Varone’s re-call to Philadelphia and all of a sudden the Phantoms were down four key contributors. And that’s not even accounting for the long term injuries that Cole Bardreau and David Kase sustained through the first quarter of the season. AHL teams will always have to deal with their roster getting shuffled around, but the situation that the Phantoms had to deal with up front this season was truly on another level.
On the back end, things were shaky from the get-go. We knew that Philippe Myers was going to be one-half of the team’s top pair this season, but the question was who was he going to play with? He began the season with Zach Palmquist, and the pair simply didn’t work. They were on the wrong side of the shot and chance share nightly, and it wasn’t long before Myers would start to see the majority of his time come alongside Samuelsson. Now, Myers himself wasn’t playing to level that we knew he was capable of, but as the season progressed we learned that Palmquist had a pretty negative impact on the Phantoms’ shot share with multiple partners, making it fair to question how much of the pair’s struggles really fell on Myers’ shoulders.
On the other hand, T.J. Brennan had been a driving factor of the team’s early success as he got off to one of the most productive starts to his AHL career, and unlike last season, he was driving play at 5-on-5 as well. His partner for the majority of the start of the season, Mark Friedman, was one of the most consistent players on the team and took another step forward this past season, too. Samuelsson settled in with Myers, and Reece Willcox showed a bit more offensive flash then he had in the past, but the team still bled shot attempts while he was on the ice. Overall the defense was just OK, and a full season of David Schlemko, should he return to Allentown, would be a big positive for Lehigh Valley.
So, again, was the roster good enough to make the playoffs? It’s a question that has more than one answer. At the start of the season, sure. They had already lost two players in Martel and Knight that they were counting on having, but they still had enough talent to make the postseason. After losing Rubtsov and Varone? No, the roster was no longer strong enough.
You can’t really fault the vision they came into the season with. It’s hard — no, close to impossible to predict losing your team’s best three centers before mid-December, and while the defense wasn’t overly impressive, they also weren’t outright bad. And really, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with strong enough depth to make up for losing arguably four of their five best forwards. Remember, Rubtsov had already become an all-situations player at the time of his injury; he had become one of their most impactful forwards.
The roster, prior to all of the chaos, was good. It just wasn’t good enough to survive all of the hits that it took. And that, that is largely why they found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture.
What’s to come
The good news is that this team should be better next year thanks in-part to the influx of young talent that they’ll be receiving. Last month Jay Polinksy took a look at some of the tough questions for the Phantoms as they work towards the coming season, and one thing is for sure: there are a ton of young forwards that will be AHL eligible for the first time.
Barring a trade or an extraordinarily strong showing at camp, Morgan Frost, Isaac Ratcliffe, and Joel Farabee will all be joining the Phantoms this coming season. All three have the potential to be high-end forwards at the NHL level one day and their development will be a top priority. Not to mention the later round draft picks potentially joining the Phantoms in Matthew Strome and Maksim Sushko. This is on top of the second-year forwards likely returning in Rubtsov, Kase, Carsen Twarynski, and Pascal Laberge. That’s nine forwards and we haven’t even mentioned Mikhail Vorobyev, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Justin Bailey, or any of the veteran forwards that will be back. There’s a lot going on in the forward department.
The defense is where they could use some help. Let’s assume Myers makes the Flyers out of camp. This leaves Schlemko, Friedman, Brennan, and Willcox as the Phantoms’ defensemen on NHL contracts. With both Linus Hogberg and David Bernhardt expected to play in Sweden again next season, the Flyers won’t be adding another prospect to the mix either. This is where there’s a potential free agent out there that could be brought in to play in the top-four. If he’s not bought out this Summer, it’s possible that Andrew MacDonald could fill that role as well. And let’s not count out the possibility that either Samuelsson or Palmquist — or both — could return for another season. James de Haas may return as well, but he’s primarily played a third pair role to this point. They may end up looking elsewhere, but they do have a couple of options already with ties to the organization.
The 2018-19 Phantoms lost a lot of key players early on, and their on-ice performance understandably suffered. A 2019-2020 season with fewer injuries, call-ups, and less organizational turmoil would go a long way in sending the Phantoms back to the playoffs. The path is there, we’ll just have to wait and see if they can take it.
On-ice data used has been manually tracked, most of which can be found on Phancy Stats.