*taps mic* Is this thing on?
There’s a lot still up in the air with everything surrounding the AHL and their 2020-21 season, if and when it’s happening, and maybe that helps to explain why things have been so quiet in the world of signings at the AHL level. Things have been quiet around here, yes, but the Phantoms already look to have a pretty full lineup on their hands, between returning prospects and veterans alike, and a new face or two that we already know are set to be joining the fold, without there really needing to be any more moves to fill in, so you know what that means? We get to have a little bit of fun making some early guesses about what an opening night lineup may look like, whenever it does end up happening.
So without further ado, let’s work our way through the positional groups, make some guesses, provide some notes, and just have a little chat.
Andy Andreoff – Morgan Frost – Wade Allison
David Kase – Cal O’Reilly - Tanner Laczynski
Isaac Ratcliffe – German Rubtsov – Linus Sandin
Carsen Twarynski – Connor Bunnaman – Maksim Sushko
Extras: Pascal Laberge, Matthew Strome, Max Willman
As you can see here, and as will become apparent pretty much across the board as we work through the next two groups, the Phantoms, without making any further additions, already have a pretty robust forward group. This may be subject to a bit of change—it’s possible at least one of the forwards starts the season up with the Flyers, depending on the camp they have and whether Nolan Patrick’s healthy and ready to go to start the season. But, as it stands, they’ll have a pretty complete 12-man forward group, plus a couple of extras to cycle in and out, as needed (or bounce back and forth between Lehigh Valley and Reading, as happened with Laberge, Strome, and Willman last season). There’s a lot of skill there, and they should have some flexibility to play with different fits and looks, depending on how they shake out.
They’ve lost a couple of veterans, but most of the young players have at least a year of professional experience under their belts, so we can feel a bit better about the group heading into next season. Some are still doing some work to continue to adjust to the AHL, but it’s not like it’s a forward corps that’s overwhelmingly flying blind.
Derrick Pouliot – Tyler Wotherspoon
Egor Zamula – Nate Prosser
Samuel Morin – Chris Bigras
Extras: Wyatte Wylie, Linus Hogberg, Logan Day*
In some ways, this feels like a pretty well balanced defense corps. The Phantoms will have some rookies coming in, but they also have a good number of veterans to sort of stabilize them. The same is true stylistically—they have about an equal split of stronger puck moving offensive defensemen and more steady defensive defensemen, which is a good thing to have.
It does feel a little strange to list two prospects as extras to start the season, but there is something to be said for both their position on the Flyers’ organizational depth chart, as well as for their unproven status at the AHL level. All of Wotherspoon, Prosser, Bigras, and Morin have played at least a season with the Phantoms already, the coaching staff knows what they’re going to get from them. Pouliot’s proven a steady presence in the AHL, and has gotten some longer stretches in the NHL, to boot. And of the prospects, Zamula seems the most likely to get a real look to start the season, if we’re to assume that the Flyers bringing him with them into the playoff bubble and getting him in for an exhibition game means that, at present, they’re the highest on him of the incoming rookie defensemen group. It’s his spot to lose, but he does already seem to have a foot in the door, if you will.
Does this mean Wylie and Hogberg are going to spend the whole season wasting away in the press box? No. It just means that they’ll have to work a little harder to earn a lineup spot, and that either happens, or if they really need some extra work to get adjusted to the professional level, in a perfect world where all of the logistics work, maybe they spend some time in Reading to make sure that they’re getting even more reps to work through any potential issues.
Day is something of a question mark, as while he was a mainstay at the AHL level last season with Bakersville, he is a new player to this organization and just signing on an AHL deal, so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he found himself shuffled down to Reading as well. We’ll see what happens there.
The goalie situation is going to be an interesting one, depending on how they handle it. We’ve seen the Phantoms try to carry three goalies before and rotate them, but it pretty quickly became clear that the rotation would fall by the wayside in favor of playing the hot hand, if you will. And given his play throughout the whole of his tenure with the team, Lyon has pretty well cemented himself as the starter. So that means the team will have to decide if they want to rotate Ustimenko and Sandstrom as the backup, or to start the season as they ended the last one, with Ustimenko backing up and developing at the next level, and Sandstrom getting in more games in Reading with the Royals. Neither really seems to be a clearly right or wrong way, so it seems more of a philosophical question than anything else.
And the final question we have to address, then, is our more general feelings about this roster. We could add a massive disclaimer that things don’t always work out in reality as they look like they should on paper, but that said, on paper, this lineup should have us pretty excited. If nothing else, it’s one that seems poised to be able to take a step forward from last season. They have a lot of skill up front, and the young players that were trying to learn on the fly last season, playing at times a bit over their heads, they now have some experience under their belts and should be in a better position to succeed. Defense and goaltending seem to be a bit of a lateral move (though adding Zamula will be big on the back end), but those were pieces that were, on the whole, working well last season. Things can get weird and not go as expected, that we know for sure, but there’s still a lot of reason for optimism here (and we’re going to hold on to that for as long as we possibly can).