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10-game check-in: The Phantoms are looking up

Ten takeaways from the first ten games.

Heather Barry / SB Nation

We’re ten games into the Lehigh Valley Phantoms 2021 season (should be eleven) and now seems like a good time to take a closer look at the team’s performance thus far.

1. Even strength play trending up, but also down

With six overtime contests in their first 13 games, we thought we knew what a lot of overtime looked like last season. However, the 2021 Phantoms have matched that in just ten games. Over half of the team’s games to this point have required extra time. As one could surmise, they have experienced a lot of evenly-played close games.

The games have been so tight that at 5-on-5 the team has a 50.16 Corsi-For percentage (CF%), and a 50.09 Expected Goals-For percentage (xGF%). Overall, the team has a plus-one goal differential and a record of 6-2-2.

Looking back on the previous two seasons, the numbers are trending up for the Phantoms, who have by and large struggled in the winning department following their trip to the Conference Final in 2018. Their shot share is up from 48 percent a season ago, 45 percent two seasons ago, and have shown great improvement at both creating and suppressing dangerous scoring chances.

Though to be clear, we’re just ten games in, and the team’s underlying numbers have taken a hit over their last four games. Before this last stretch, their numbers were excellent.

Game-by-Game 5v5 Stats

Game Corsi-For % Expected Goals For % Goal diff. Opponent
Game Corsi-For % Expected Goals For % Goal diff. Opponent
1 50.00 53.63 -1 Hershey
2 49.98 42.92 -1 Binghamton
3 51.25 44.11 0 Hershey
4 56.92 67.45 2 Binghamton
5 56.25 56.72 2 Binghamton
6 53.70 59.85 -2 W-B/Scranton
7 41.10 41.82 -2 W-B/Scranton
8 52.54 53.77 3 Hershey
9 51.02 37.92 -4 Hershey
10 42.67 42.76 1 W-B/Scranton

Prior to the game’s suspension, the Phantoms had played a solid period against the Devils, with a higher quantity and quality of shots through 20 minutes. Maybe a sign of things to come, maybe just variance. Any way that you look at it, the Phantoms have been a much better team than they were last season, and to this point have played like one of the better teams in their division.

2. Wisdom, top line start strong

It can’t be overstated just how impressive Zayde Wisdom has been for the Phantoms. At 18, Wisdom became the youngest player to suit up for the Phantoms in franchise history and has also been one of their top performers. He, along with returner Cal O’Reilly and Ryan Fitzgerald have made up the team’s top line from the get-go. It’s a trio that saw a lot of success early on, creating a ton of dangerous chances. Wisdom has been a highlight machine, while Fitzgerald and O’Reilly have played great in their own right, really contributing to Wisdom’s stunning start.

More recently there’s been a bit of a lull in the trio’s play at 5-on-5, but they’re still contributing in other ways, and are still picking up points in other game situations. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if a different combination gets looked at, but if the coaching staff decides to keep them together, these three have the potential to quickly reward them for sticking with it. They were already starting to pick it back up in the team’s last full game.

Wisdom leads the Phantoms in individual Expected Goals and high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five.

3. Laczynski impressing

With the spotlight deservedly on Wisdom, Tanner Laczynski’s own impressive start at the professional level has been a bit glossed over. After missing two games with a groin injury, Laczynski has four assists and, had a penalty not been called on a teammate, would have recorded his first goal last week. Through eight games Laczynski has a 55.8 CF% (+7.82% relative) and a 64.48 xGF% (+17.38% relative) at five-on-five. He’s been the team’s most effective play-driver, and a great penalty killer to boot.

He’s someone who contributes at both ends of the ice, and that first goal is coming.

4. Inexperience on the blue line shows

The Phantoms’ blue-line is as young as it’s ever been, and some nights it’s been glaringly obvious. Without Chris Bigras, Tyler Wotherspoon, and Logan Day due to injury, Derrick Pouliot, 27, and Samuel Morin, the 25-year-old defenseman turned forward turned defenseman, are the only currently-available Phantoms defenders over the age of 21. Both Egor Zamula and Linus Hogberg, the team’s top pair, have experienced the ups-and-downs that come with adapting to AHL hockey, with the team’s most recent (full) game serving as a good example.

The pair’s shot metrics on the night finished in the mid-30s and per Maddie Campbell’s tracking, were responsible for eight (four each) of the team’s 19 failed defensive zone exits at five-on-five. Overall, both have had more positive than negative moments, but they’re still firmly in the acclimation period.

5. Millman’s numbers pop

Another rookie defenseman, Mason Millman, is seemingly getting better each and every game. The 19-year-old has two assists on the season — both coming back on February 27th against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — and possesses some of the best underlying numbers on the team. He’s not been without the occasional flub, but he has surpassed expectations on the whole.

While I cannot be certain, it does seem that Millman, more than the other young defensemen, has been a bit sheltered and has seen easier deployment thus far, contributing to his great shot metrics. With that being said, it’s still great to see that when Millman has been on the ice, the Phantoms have largely been in control of the action.

While Zamula will stand out in a game with flashy end-to-end rushes, Millman has played more of a low-key style. He’s a bit of an overlooked prospect within the Flyers’ system, being a fourth-rounder surrounded by higher picks. He’ll need to get stronger but he’s certainly someone to watch, and his skating ability is top-notch.

6. Injuries suck

Look, there’s no earth-shattering statement here; injuries suck, and the Phantoms have had to deal with a number of them already this season. It was touched on earlier that the team has been without a few defensemen, and it’s been that way for a few weeks now. Bigras only played in the first two games of the season, Wotherspoon has missed their last five games. Day’s injury was a bit more recent but he still has not played since February 27th.

At forward, Laczynski, Tyson Foerster, and Linus Sandin all missed games early, and recently Sandin has been out of the lineup once again. Max Willman, who is tied for the team lead in goals, has been sidelined by injury, as well Maksim Sushko, who has played in just one game since returning from his NHL call-up. On the plus side, Foerster’s injury that looked longer-term didn’t keep him out as long as first feared, though he still missed about a month, and Isaac Ratcliffe, who missed the start of the season with a rib injury that led to a collapsed lung, has played well since returning to the lineup.

7. Speaking of Willman...

How can you not be rooting for Willman? From a healthy scratch in the ECHL a season ago to one of the Phantoms’ most effective players, Willman’s climb has been an exciting one to follow. He was already impressive in his stint with the Phantoms last season, but his game has really reached another level. Through the first few games, his straight-line speed and quick release made Willman a threat score on every shift.

Prior to his injury, Willman had six goals and one assist in nine games and had already drawn six penalties. His play has had us wondering when an NHL team will send a contract his way, and with any luck, he won’t be out long.

8. The power play has struggled

The biggest problem through the first ten games of the season has to be the power play. However, I don’t feel equipped to comment much on it, because when tracking games I do skip over most of the special teams play, especially the power plays. So, here is Maddie’s take:

Ah yes, the power play. It’s been a weird start to the season as far as the power play goes, to say the least. They’ve scored five goals so far, and are sitting at a 12.2 percent conversion rate, which is second to last in their division. But we should, in fairness, add the disclaimer that all of the personnel shuffling has certainly hurt them, between having their own injuries and losing other players to the Flyers’ taxi squad during their COVID outbreak, not leaving them with a whole lot of consistency to work with.

The results, to be blunt, have not been there so far this season, but there are a few pieces we can point to as improvements from last season. First, they’re get more puck movement going in the offensive zone, doing some cycling rather than just getting one chance on an entry rush and then seeing the puck cleared back out. They’re relying less heavily on distributing from the points and generating more high danger chances as a result. And finally, they’re more efficient on their zone entries, spending less time drop passing and regrouping in the neutral zone. The results need to start coming eventually, but at the very least, the process has taken at least a bit of a step forward.

And the good news as far as the results go, if we’re looking for it, is that things seem to be trending in the right direction, now that their personnel is stabilizing a bit. They have four power play goals in their last four games, and seem to be figuring things out.

9. Is he a forward or a defenseman?

Ahead of training camp, the Philadelphia Flyers announced that Samuel Morin would be playing left-wing moving forward. Fast forward to present day and Morin has played as many games as a defenseman as he has as a forward. His games on the wing have largely been underwhelming, while as a defenseman he’s made more of an impact on the game.

Though, to be fair, Morin’s one game at forward in the AHL went pretty well; this could just be a difference in leagues. It’s entirely plausible that the organization still believes he could be an effective forward, but in my view, the Morin at forward experiment should be coming to an end.

10. The road ahead

While the Phantoms will only see three teams this season, they still have seven teams in their division. Now, what happens after the 38-game regular season concludes is unknown at this time, but if there were to be some semblance of a post-season, the Phantoms are in a good spot right now. It might seem early to even think about a potential post-season, but they’re already a quarter of the way through the regular season. Here’s how the North Division is shaping up:

via TheAHL

The Phantoms are 3-1-0 against the first-place Bears, 2-0-1 against the Devils, and 1-1-1 against the Penguins this season. They are scheduled to face both the Bears and the Devils 14 times in the regular season, with 10 games set against the Penguins.