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Have the Phantoms finally taken the next step forward?

Let’s go to the numbers!

Heather Barry / SB Nation

It feels like we’ve been kicking at this for just about a whole year at this point, but we’ve only just passed what would have been the halfway point of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ season (if they'd been able to make up the games that were postponed due to their recent COVID shutdown), and arrived at the point when, with a large enough sample of games, we can feel pretty confident talking about some of the team’s trends. And that means we’ve hit one of our favorite* times of the year—the “midseason” report. (*Just go with it.)

The Phantoms, through their first 23 games of the season, have certainly found some success. They have a 15-4-3-1 record, scoring is up significantly from last season (the Phantoms are averaging 2.13 5-on-5 goals per game, up from 1.71 last season), and are currently sitting second in the North Division by both points and points percentage. And even with the bit of roster flux that’s come from injuries and call-ups to the Flyers, they’ve continued to post solid results.

But the question that lurks, as we consider the arcs of the last few seasons, is that of sustainability. Do these generally positive results belie a strong underlying process? What are we to take from this first group of games? And what can we expect as the Phantoms close out the season? As we take a look at the team’s underlying numbers, shot impacts and transition data, we’re looking to answer perhaps the biggest question of all—is this Phantoms team (finally) the real deal?

All stats are via Phancy Stats and Maddie’s NZ tracking project, and come at 5-on-5.

Shot impacts

We touched on the positive results in our introduction, but turning to the underlying process, we can see that, on the whole, it’s been a pretty good one. Through the first 22 games of the season (excluding their April 23 game, which we don’t have data for just yet), the Phantoms have been just about breaking even in the shot attempt differential, having put up a 48.92 CF% at 5-on-5.

There has been some variance on a game-to-game basis, which is something we could expect in any season (you’re not going to dominate possession in every single game, after all), but the Phantoms have been largely consistent in their results. Their absolute lowest that they’ve fallen in a single game was to 40 percent, and their highest to 56.92 percent, so while the single game results haven’t always been stellar, they’ve generally been driving play well enough (they have 12 of 22 games above 50 percent), coming close to if not exceeding breakeven in most of their games, without falling victim to wild swings in either direction.

Now, we noted that this season feels like a significant improvement over last, but the results here have been pretty similar, comparing this season’s 48.92 CF% with last season’s 48.74 percent. So why, then, have we seen both more positive goal-based results, as well as a different perception, with those similar figures?

In part, it’s certainly the fact that the Phantoms are getting less than nothing from their power play this season (which is a little outside of the purview of this article, as we focus on 5-on-5 impacts), but another key is that consistency that we mentioned earlier, something that was pretty sorely lacking last season.

This chart with last season’s game-by-game CF%s, by comparison, looks insane. There’s really no other way to put it. The game-to-game swings could be upwards of 20 percent in many cases, and even creep up to 30 percent in some. The Phantoms’ average for the season is largely carried by their early season success, after things really fell off in the second half of the season—23 of their final 31 games saw them post a CF% below 50 percent, and six below 40 percent. The average still comes out looking at least relatively fine, but if the Phantoms had been able to finish the season, and had continued playing like they were for the second half (which they were well on track to do), we likely would have come away from that season with both worse numbers and a worse impression. That downward trend was a concerning one, but it’s one that we haven’t seen replicated this time around.

But if we’re talking about lack of consistency, well, we should also talk about this season’s shot quality share. The Phantoms have averaged a 49.32 HDCF% so far this season, which is a pretty marked improvement from last season’s 44.39 percent, and that’s something worth feeling good about. The trouble, of course, is that we’ve seen the team be a bit all over the place as far as their game-to-game results go (they’ve put up anywhere between an 88.89 HDCF% and a 12.5 HDCF%) and those same kinds of wild swings don’t exactly leave us with a great feeling.

But to reign things in a bit, it’s worth noting that 16 of these 22 games, though, have hung out in the 40-60 HDCF% range, which is less dramatic, and while they haven’t had the effect of skewing the average too far in one direction or the other, the outliers still remain, if nothing else, striking.

And, in short, is all to say that, on average, they’re helping out their goaltenders and tightening up defensively more than last season, but what they’ll get on a night in and night out basis is bit of a toss-up.

In transition

One of the bigger changes that we saw to the Phantoms’ 5-on-5 process this season came in how they’re moving the puck up ice in transition. It’s been something of a gradual work in progress for them over the past few seasons, particularly regarding their breakouts. Last season they added a few more strong puck movers on the back end, and that was a real boost—they improved their Controlled Exit Percentage to 54.53 percent after a 2018-19 season which saw them struggling mightily to do much of anything beyond off the glass and out.

But the negative flip side to that was, while they made some improvements on their breakouts, they were also relying more on a dump and chase style that didn’t really seem to gel with the styles and strengths of the forwards. The Phantoms, last season, were controlling only 41.79 percent of their entries (a figure that might not seem immediately troubling, but takes on that tone when you add into the mix the fact that the Phantoms, while relying on dump-ins, were recovering just 28.41 percent of them). And, considering how controlled entries tend to drive more shot attempts, it doesn’t seem a stretch to list this as a contributor (at least in part) to why the Phantoms’ shot and scoring rates ultimately dropped off last season.

This season, though, we’ve been seeing a consistently quite well-rounded transition game from the Phantoms. They’ve made pretty tremendous strides (no pun intended) in their consistency in moving the puck with control—this season, they’ve averaged a 50.58 Controlled Entry% and a 62.35 Controlled Exit% over these first 23 games, which are both good for close to 10 percent increases from last season’s totals. This process felt like something of a natural one—the Phantoms have a good bit of speed up and down their lineup, and a host of players skilled enough to generate quality chances off the rush, so to move to a style which best suits that skillset (and then to reap the benefits of that cohesiveness) all makes sense.

And as far as standouts go, the names shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. On the back end, it’s been largely the veterans asserting themselves as the more dependable puck movers among lineup regulars, as each of Tyler Wotherspoon, Logan Day, and Derrick Pouliot have come in comfortably above the team’s 62.35 Controlled Exit% average. And this isn’t a knock on the rookies, but it’s a considerable group (Egor Zamula, Linus Hogberg, Mason Millman, and Wyatte Wylie) who have been acclimating to the professional level and have been riding out some of the growing pains. All of that we expected coming into the season, so the stability brought by some of the older defensemen has been welcome.

Then among the forward group, no surprise here, it’s Tanner Laczynski and Wade Allison who stand out the most by the entry numbers. With their 74.47 and 80.77 Controlled Entry% respectively, they’re well above that team average of of 50.58 percent. They’ve been pretty massive additions to the team this year, it goes without saying, offering a nice boost of skill to fill out the top of the lineup, and bringing well rounded games to both help the Phantoms, but also to ultimately punch their tickets for a call-up to the Flyers.

And, as one “fun with small sample sizes” aside before we move on—Cam York, though he’s only played four games with the Phantoms, has not only asserted himself as one of the defense corps’ strongest puck movers, but also come remarkably close to replicating his very solid results from college this season, as he’s put up a 72.22 Controlled Exit% so far with the Phantoms after averaging a 76.87 percent in 20 games with Michigan. And, if nothing else, that’s pretty neat.

Is all of this sustainable?

And now, the question of the hour. One of my favorite adages remains “regression eventually comes for us all,” which is to say that results will eventually stabilize and become reflective of the underlying process. And this is something that has hurt the Phantoms quite a bit over the last two seasons, as, despite some promising early results, their struggles to consistently drive play and move the puck in transition with control have meant that regression was always lurking just around the corner, waiting to deliver a swift kick in the rear and send the team back down to earth.

The good news, though, is that this doesn’t really seem to be the case for them this season. The team hasn’t been without their handful of poor games by the numbers, but overall they’ve been consistent in their playdriving—their longest stretch when their team average dipped below 50 CF% was three games (as compared to seven in a row last season... twice). We’re certainly not saying that this season has been perfect, and that there isn’t room for improvement, there certainly still is. But we’ve seen the team playing to their strengths, rather than just trying to force a system on a group regardless of fit, and they’ve taken a step forward for it. A strong transition game is supporting improved shot impacts, and they’ve finally found some consistency in scoring because the pieces are supporting each other, and the rug isn’t constantly at risk of being pulled out from under them.

It’s a shame that there isn’t going to be a post-season for the North Division this year, and the Phantoms’ season will come to an end without playoffs in a few weeks, because this is a group that we would certainly feel comfortable betting on to make a run, and certainly would deserve it, based on their play.

The turnover for next season will remain an open question, but there’s a lot of reason for optimism, real, grounded optimism, about what they’re building down the farm.

That’s a new feeling, in all honesty, but it’s certainly a good one.