To say that the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ 2019-20 season was underwhelming is putting it lightly. Most of the players with a high ceiling were recalled early in the season, with only Morgan Frost returning to the AHL after Christmas, leaving the rest of the team shorthanded. Reinforcements are on the way, however, and the presence of some young, talented players could be good news for the whole team. Which players will benefit most with a new and improved roster?
Number 5- Tanner Laczynski
Now that his college career has come to a close and he has signed his first professional contract, it’s time to see what Tanner Laczynski is made of. A jack of all trades, Laczynski can brings silky smooth hands, a scoring potential, a physical side, and stellar play along the boards. Hopefully he can be the offensive leader the Phantoms desperately need to help life the whole team up.
Number 4- Isaac Ratcliffe
After a disappointing rookie season, hopefully the only way Isaac Ratcliffe can go is up. Ratcliffe scored just six goals and 15 points in 53 games, finding himself healthy scratched a few times in December. Ratcliffe just turned 21 in mid-February and did see his overall consistency increase later in the year. Standing at 6’5, if he finds a way to use his size to his advantage, an uptick in points and ice time should follow. An improved roster around him won’t hurt either.
Number 3- Kirill Ustimenko
Ustimenko managed to supplant J.F. Berube as the Phantoms backup goaltender at the end of the 2019-20 season, and may have the inner track to start the 2020-21 season in the Phantoms tandem. Even though his first few AHL games didn’t go as planned, Ustimenko still has plenty of time to right the ship. Through five AHL games, he went 1-3-1 with an 3.84 goals against average and .889 save percentage. By the time he was recalled, the Phantoms were far out of the race of a playoff spot and not playing their best hockey. If he starts next season in Lehigh Valley, he’ll have a clean slate and a new year with a better team around him.
Number 2- Yegor Zamula
Zamula enters his first professional year with quite a bit of hype to live up to. Dominating at the World Junior Championships and for his Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, it wasn’t until a mid-season back surgery ended his 2019-20 campaign. Scheduled to be ready to go for the 2020-21 season, it’s good news for the Phantoms, whose blueline was a weak spot this season. It is a real possibility Zamula could step in and immediately be the Phantoms’ top defenseman. Maybe the organization will bring in a veteran defenseman or two to reinforce the back end.
Number 1- Maksim Sushko
Maybe one of the best underrated stories of the 2019-20 season was the play of rookie Maksim Sushko. The former fourth round pick scored eleven goals and 21 points through 53 games, which was fourth on the team in goals and seventh in points. His offensive potential shone through and with a few more seasons to polish his game, it’s quite possible the Phantoms, and maybe even Flyers, have a diamond in the rough.
After tearing his ACL during his sophomore year in college, Allison has struggled to get his career back on track. He did have a decent final year at Western Michigan, posting 10 goals and 23 points in 26 games. Allison’s next big test will be his professional jump. With all the forward talent in the Flyers pipeline that could possibly find themselves in the AHL next season, Allison should have the best possible chance to succeed, provided he can carry his own weight.
Taken 22nd overall in 2016, German Rubtsov’s stint with the Phantoms hasn’t exactly gone as planned. He played just 14 games during his rookie season before a shoulder injury ended his season, then suited up for 42 games during his second season, where he only scored two goals and 13 points, again missing time from November to December. This makes his third pro season incredibly important for his future. Staying healthy is just part of the puzzle for Rubtsov, who also needs to focus on improving his offensive game.
Sandstrom may have lost the starting job in Reading to Kirill Ustimenko early in the season, but he has found his groove late in the year. The Phantoms future in the crease is up in the air for next season, and with the season delayed, the free agent period probably won’t happen anytime soon. Alex Lyon, who has served as the Phantoms starter for the past four seasons, but now that his contract is up and both Sandstrom and Ustimenko are knocking at the door, his future remains up in the air. If Sandstrom makes the Phantoms roster next season and Ustimenko can’t get his play back on track, look for Sandstrom to take the reins in Lehigh Valley.
By: Daniel Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: oursportscentral.com