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Early impressions of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms

What have we got here?

Heather Barry / SB Nation

The Phantoms are back at it and so are we (Brad and Maddie, with our Phantoms coverage). The Phantoms have played three games so far this season, which might normally be just an opening weekend’s worth of action, but this year, with the new schedule, it’s been spread out over the first two weeks of the season. Which is all to say that we’ve made it through the equivalent of the opening weekend, and before we get rolling into the bulk of the season, it’s time for us to get way ahead of ourselves and talk about our initial impressions of the team. Will these come back to haunt us later on in the season? Who’s to say. Here’s hoping we can circle back to these takes in a few months as we’re in the middle of a victory lap. Let’s get into it.

Who’s stood out/impressed you the most so far?

Brad: After his last game, the obvious answer has to be Zayde Wisdom, right? For a fourth-round pick to step into the AHL at 18 years old and play as well as he has, it’s super impressive. However, I’m going to go a different route; Max Willman. He was good in the games he got into with Lehigh Valley last season, but this year his start to the season has been fantastic. The official stat line might not show it — just one assist in the three games — but he’s created a ton of scoring chances for the Phantoms and is absolutely flying out there. His first goal of the year feels overdue at this point, maybe he’ll make it happen this weekend. To me, he’s stood out more than any other player.

Maddie: This just feels like a real bummer to say out loud, but I was so impressed by Tyson Foerster’s first game. But now he’s hurt and it’s a real shame. But I’m excited to see more of what he’s able to do when he gets back. But beyond that, there really have been a handful of players I’ve been really pleased with so far. Wisdom is settling in really nicely and he had a stellar game last Sunday. I’ve liked Kase’s game by the eye, he’s brought a lot of energy so far on top of the scoring, and I do think (hope?) the shot impacts will improve eventually. I’ve really liked Willman’s season so far too, and it’s sort of funny, with the scoring weirdness, this is exactly what happened to him when he was first brought in last season too—he was generating a ton of chances and just couldn’t seem to buy a goal. Eventually things did break open for him, so I feel like that’s coming soon, but yeah, this just seems to be the way, I guess.

It’s a little early, it feels, to say “disappointment,” so we won’t go that far, but is there someone you’d like to see a little more from?

Brad: Certainly too early for the word disappointment, but I did come into the season with very high expectations for Egor Zamula and he just hasn’t lived up to those expectations. It’s three games, it’s really not a big deal at all, but I’ve been underwhelmed by him so far. Things can change fast, and maybe this is just a small adjustment period.

Maddie: I think for me it’s been Linus Sandin. Now, I know we’re working with an even smaller sample for him, as he got hurt in the second game of the season, and then there’s also the fact that he’s still adjusting to playing in North America, so I’m really not worried about him in the long run. But for someone whose name was floated around as being a contender for a spot with the Flyers right out of camp, my expectations were a little higher.

What are your initial impressions of special teams?

Brad: The sample size is still small but the power play still has a lot of question marks for me. I think they are really going to miss Greg Carey’s shot there this season ... but as was stated, it was already rough last season with him. The penalty kill, well, it’s yet to allow a goal so it’s hard to complain about it! It does visually look good in action as well, and I quite like Willman getting more looks shorthanded.

Maddie: You know I love an aggressive penalty kill, so I’m super pleased with their overall results (you know, not allowing a goal yet), but also just how many controlled breakouts and shorthanded chances they’re getting. That was my favorite part of last season’s penalty kill too, and it was Kyle Criscuolo doing a lot of that and he doesn’t go here anymore, so it’s nice to see other players picking up where they left off, so to speak.

And the power play having a lot of question marks is absolutely the right way to put it. I mean, I don’t know if it’s possible for them to be much worse than they were last season, so there’s that. That said, I haven’t hated the early returns for the power play this season. Yes, we would like to see them actually scoring some goals sooner rather than later. But I think they’ve been more efficient on their entries and they’ve been getting some good chances, and I do think when the personnel stabilizes a bit (which unfortunately isn’t going to be this weekend), the results should start to come for them. I’m optimistic now (but we’ll see if that ends up burning me later).

The 5-on-5 play looks... better? What’s happening there?

Brad: Better! The numbers were very — very — unkind to the Phantoms last season, and through the first three games, they have a 50.2 Corsi-For percentage and 46.6 Expected Goals-For percentage. Not great numbers, but improved. Now, something that had been a little concerning was their lack of finish in the first two games. Before the offense exploded for four five-on-five goals in game three, they had none. Hopefully, their breakthrough carries over and the offense continues to show up.

Maddie: The lack of finish was certainly concerning, but overall I did like their process through the first couple of games, and kind of had a feeling that upward regression was coming and the scoring was going to break open for them at least some, which is just what happened in the third game. The numbers aren’t stellar, but they’re good, and it’s a sharp pivot away from last season when they were just getting buried on a nightly basis.

What I keep coming back to is this moment, I think in the first game, when the Phantoms were cycling in the offensive zone and getting some chances, and I think they even got a partial change in to get fresh players out to keep that cycle going, and I remember texting Brad to be like “when was the last time we saw this happen?” It just felt different. And I’m really hoping that this is just the first step for them, and the Phantoms are able to actually turn themselves into a team that drives play this season. Wouldn’t that be nice?

What are your markers for a successful season this year, with everything being so weird?

Brad: This is tough. The Phantoms will only be facing three teams this season, so it’s going to be very hard to judge just how good/bad they actually are this year. Get stuck in a grouping of really great teams and you might come out looking pretty bad, with the reverse of course being true as well. Obviously, a winning record would qualify as a successful season, and I’d like to see their play driving numbers climb back up again. Beyond that, I’ll be sure to look for individual success from players taking steps forward this year.

Maddie: Yeah, there are definitely going to be different markers for success for individual players, and I’m sure as the season goes on, we’ll be talking more about those in greater detail. But on a team level, for me, there are a few things I’d like to see. A winning record would be great—I’m not too hung up on a specific standings position that I have in mind—as I really do think they have the personnel to get themselves there. I’d like to see the power play take any kind of step forward and contribute some more than they did last season. But the big thing is definitely that I would like to see them continuing to drive play. With how this season is, and, well, the state of the world, results are probably going to be weird no matter what, so I’m definitely keying in more on process, and I’d like to see that take a step forward this year.

Now, the big question: do we think this team is/will be good? Better than last season?

Brad: I feel pretty comfortable saying they’re better than they were last season. But, as I said in the above answer, “good” is such a tough thing to define when you’re only facing three opponents. The younger guys should only get better with more time, so yeah, I do think they’ll be good this season. But I would’ve also answered yes at the start of 2019-2020, so ...

Maddie: Yeah, exactly, we really did get burned last year saying that the team, on paper, should be able to take a step forward, and then finding out that “on paper” was not as good as we thought in practice. So it goes. But! We really mean it this time! The young players last year spent a lot of time playing over their heads, and while that was not great at the time, they sure do have that experience in their back pockets now. And then they went and added even more talent, which you would think would give them a boost. (I particularly like the injection of stronger puck movers on the back end). Do I think they have the makings to be a true powerhouse and just roll absolutely everyone in their division/mini-division? No. But I do think they should be competitive, and even if everything doesn’t go completely smoothly for them, they do have the pieces that they need to, at the very least, take a step forward.