It’s been a rough start to the 2021-22 season for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. They’ve come out of the gate with an abysmal 0-5-2 record as a team filled with young players busy assimilating to the professional level and trying to adjust to a brand new coaching staff.
Last week, I wrote about the Phantoms having issues, but it wasn’t exactly in their level of play, but something intangible. The famous Peter Laviolette “jam” seemed to be missing.
It’s natural to look to the new coaching staff fronted by Ian Laperriere, whose got quite the history within the organization, and point the blame at them and their suggest they lack the ability to get the train back on track. While he can and should shoulder some of the blame, the X’s and O’s aren’t terrible (with the exception of their inability to set up a powerplay) but rather, the team seems to lack a third gear, so to speak. Young players still trying to get their bearings in professional hockey and the few veteran players they have on the team just aren’t good enough to carry the bulk of the load by themselves.
After another weekend of the Phantoms playing perfectly fine hockey, yet losing two more games to tank their record to 0-5-2. It’s not the hockey 101 that’s hurting them, it’s their experience, or lack thereof that’s their biggest noticeable issue.
Their goaltending duo of Felix Sandstrom and Samuel Ersson, who are 24 and 22 years old respectively, have less than two dozen games of AHL experience between them. The third man on the depth chart, Kirill Ustimenko, is in the same boat; 22 years old and just five AHL games to his name.
Four of their six regular defenseman- Cam York, Egor Zamula, Wyatte Wylie and Linus Hogberg, not to mention Mason Millman who is currently injured, are all playing in their first real AHL campaign after getting their feet wet in the discombobulated shortened 2021 season.
The forward group is composed mainly of underwhelming Ron Hextall-era draft busts such as German Rubtsov, Isaac Ratcliffe, Maksim Sushko, and Connor Bunnaman. Players that have been thrust into the veteran leadership roles while youngsters like Tyson Foerster and Morgan Frost are still learning the ropes.
Entering last season, I pointed out that it was an end of an era in Lehigh, with three longstanding pillars of the team, TJ Brennan, Greg Carey and Reece Willcox all moving on. Instead of finding proper veteran replacements, a flood of young and promising draft picks were tasked with replacing them.
Cal O’Reilly, Adam Clendening, and Gerry Mayhew are the new veteran group in town. While all three are very good players in their own right, do they collectively have the same leadership ability as the former group? The answer seems to be no. Even losing players like Andy Andreoff, Chris Bigras and Nate Prosser hurts if they aren’t properly replaced.
Because it’s an AHL team, they’re not exactly a priority when it comes to righting the ship from an organizational standpoint. They’re certainly not going to fire the coaching staff they hired less than six months ago after less than 10 games. If things don’t work itself out over the next few months, it wouldn’t be impossible to see some minor trades to bring in a vet or two, otherwise, the Phantoms may just have to grin and bear it for the season and it’ll then be up to Chuck Fletcher to make proper additions during the 2022 offseason.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: nhl.com