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What happened to the 2019-20 Phantoms?

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It’s post-mortem time, folks.

Heather Barry / SB Nation

With the AHL officially announcing the cancellation of the remainder of 2019-20 season, as well as the playoffs, last week, it seems an appropriate time for us to finally put the season to rest, as well. And with the benefit of a bit of distance, it’s time for us to take a few moments to reflect on the season and dive deep into some of the pieces that brought us to, in some ways, an unsatisfying end.

Cancellation due to a pandemic is certainly not an ideal way to end a season, but even before that, it was becoming quite clear that, whenever it ended, we were going to be leaving this one with something of a sour taste in our mouths. There was a lot of optimism heading into this year—the Phantoms had a rough 2018-19 season, with some roster issues as well as All Of The Organizational Turmoil which came with the firing of the general manager and Flyers’ head coach, and this season was supposed to be different, better. But it wasn’t, not quite.

We went into the season expecting that this team should be good. With the influx of young talent, there was certainly the possibility for things to get a little weird, but they looked good on paper, and we figured they should be, at the very least, in the mix for a playoff spot. Instead what we got was a finish to the season with a 24-28-3-7 record (good for seventh in the division), a 46.40 GF%, and a league-worst 10.6 power play%.

So, what happened here? We’re going to be digging deeper into individual performances in the next week or so, so tune in for more of that later, but we’re first going to work through some thoughts for our first instinct: pointing fingers. So who’s to blame for this underwhelming season? Let’s hear the cases. [Spoiler alert: it won’t all be bad news herein].

Life just sucks, man

We’re going to dig deeper into the minutiae of what went wrong with this season in a bit, but we’d also be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge this fact early on. Things went wrong with this season in a number of ways, but there were also some confounding factors, if you will, at work as well. The Flyers surely went into the season assuming that they would have a healthy Oskar Lindblom for the whole season, and that they might well get Nolan Patrick back at some point. No one could have anticipated that they wouldn’t have these players available and that they would need to be pulling so heavily from the AHL squad to put together a healthy team, to cover for these absences on top of normal injury bug coverage. So the Phantoms found themselves extra depleted this season, at times, and that hurts. There’s nothing anyone could have done, there’s no finger to point other than at the universe. It’s not an excuse, either, but still something to keep in mind.

I want to blame the players

Maybe this feels like an easy jump to make. The players are the ones getting paid to do the hockey and make good decisions and execute the system. They’re the ones we’re spending the most time looking at, so by virtue of that, it feels natural for the first assumption to be that they’re doing something wrong. And certainly there are individual performances that we could nitpick (though that’s a task for another day), personally I have a hard time placing blame squarely on the players.

And maybe the other easy argument is that players start to check out when the team’s success is lacking, and that ends up hurting them even more, but as I’m not a member of the team, I can’t really speak to effort or engagement level or anything like that. I have seen this idea kicked around a bit as a potential issue with the team, so I’m at least acknowledging it, but the takeaway there is kind of just *shrug*. Moving on.

I want to blame the coach

Because we are Flyers fans, after all, blind rage directed at the coaching staff is something of a strong first instinct, if we’re being really honest with ourselves. And sometimes that’s unfounded, but that isn’t always the case.

We’ve just finished year five (fourth full season) of Scott Gordon’s tenure, and with something of a mixed bag of success coming on the team level and with a large enough sample on our hands, it seems time enough that we can start putting some pressure on the question of just how well he’s done as a coach in this organization.

The real sore spot of the season was a power play that just wasn’t working. Looking at the first 45 games of the season (when the Phantoms were actually still converting at a higher rate than they ended the season with), Brad and I broke down some stats and tendencies, and were particularly troubled by the removal of previously successful plays (the royal road pass to Greg Carey in the right circle), as well as the emphasis on running the puck through the top of the offensive zone, and lack of high danger plays created, in general. There was so much that wasn’t clicking there, and it isn’t much of a surprise that the results fell off further as the season went on. Personnel (or lack thereof) was certainly an issue, but the lack of adjustment to a system that simply wasn’t working is even more of an issue.

We also got another season of somewhat concerning underlying numbers, with a 48.72 CF% and 44.27 HDCF% at 5-on-5, per Brad’s data, meaning the Phantoms have been both out-shot and out-chanced pretty significantly throughout the whole of the season. And this has is starting to look like a bit of a trend—during the 2017-18 season, the Phantoms were able to drive play pretty well, but the last two seasons, they’ve dipped below 50 percent in the shot attempt differential. And if this is systems based or personnel based, and if the underlying numbers will be able to rebound under the current system, are both valid, open questions. It isn’t really one that we can answer right now, but pause heading into next season is certainly fair.

As for another issue on the season, that is, for working with a roster that was often depleted—indeed, there was a point about midway through the year when the Phantoms were missing six of the players who started the season in their top-nine for some reason or another—on this front it is easy to see both sides. On the one hand, it’s really hard to try to make something happen with a team that’s missing so many key players and has those who are left playing over their heads. But, on the other hand, we have seen very good coaches take a sub-optimal roster on paper and find a way to get them to perform above their expected level.

What’s the big takeaway here? I don’t really know. There are things about this season that should have gone better, adjustments that could have been made to push for some incremental improvements and they just weren’t. We understand that the coaching staff did have a difficult task, putting together a working lineup with a roster that seemed to be in near-constant flux, but it doesn’t feel unfair at all to come away wanting a bit more.

I want to blame management

The crux of this argument is pretty simple: we said this team looked good on paper heading into the season, but what if the judgement of what was good on paper was flawed from the start? What if, despite any reservations we might have held simultaneously, we still overrated the additions, to an extent?

There was a bit of concern about what the team might be able to do, as Fletcher started to rebuild it around the influx of young talent—and perhaps rightfully, as we look at his history in which his AHL teams in Houston and Iowa only made it to the playoffs three times in his nine year tenure, and past the first round once. And that, I don’t have to tell you, isn’t a stellar track record. And back in the summer, when the Flyers were making their free agent signings, we also talked about the fact that Fletcher brought in several players who he knew from those Iowa teams to fill in the Phantoms’ ranks. We noted at the time that this was a risk, if they didn’t pan out, and it appears that we’re leaning in that direction.

Particularly in regards to the new veteran forwards, we just really didn’t see as much from them as we perhaps expected. The Phantoms lost a few true-talent top line players heading into and early in the season, but they weren’t really able to replace them. The players they brought in up front were useful, to be sure, and they did still contribute, but it remains that management brought in a group of players who probably cap out at good (to even very good) second liners and expected them to contribute like first liners and to match up well against other teams’ top lines. And that just didn’t pan out.

Management took some gambles this season. They bet that bringing in a group of players who they knew from their (not very good) Iowa teams would serve well this new team. They bet that prospects like Isaac Ratcliffe would be able to adjust much faster to playing at the pro level (likely based on a monster draft+2 season by a 6’6” 19 year old on a very good Guelph team). They also bet that another prospect in Joel Farabee would take longer to adjust, and the Phantoms would have him for longer. Those bets did not pay off.

There were some improvements made—the coaching staff, based on my conversations with them, understand that more controlled exits are better, and when a handful of better puck movers were added to the lineup on the back end, the breakouts that were a big weakness in 2018-19 improved in turn. So we can’t pretend that they completely blew all of their free agent signings, but there were certainly a handful of other players that their reads on were just a little off (but more on that later).

I want to be optimistic

I did promise this! This wouldn’t be all doom and gloom because that’s just brutal to read, and also not the full picture of what happened this season. Yes, the end result in terms of wins and losses was not ideal. That’s a hard thing to swallow. But, that said, the AHL is a developmental league, and the Phantoms had a huge influx of prospects joining the team this season, and those prospects were the real bright spot on an otherwise somewhat bleak season. They had a difficult task ahead of them with the roles many of them were asked to play, but just about everyone showed flashes and made strides forward in improving their games. And that’s exactly what we want to see.

The Phantoms conducted some brief exit interviews with we media members yesterday, and Scott Gordon made the point that there was a lot expected of many of the young players this season, many asked to play in larger roles than they were “ready” for. He noted, “I’m hoping that the benefit of that will be our team will have that much more continuity next year. Because now all of a sudden, with the expanded roles, [they] will be able to jump [back] into it with a little more contribution than what maybe we might have gotten had they not.”

So maybe it was something of a trial by fire for a lot of the prospects this season, and while this doesn’t (and didn’t) always make for a stellar on-ice product in the now, it may well turn out that this puts them in a better position to succeed next season, when more is asked of them again. And that’s something to be excited about.