After 31 games, there’s no doubt the Phantoms aren’t happy with where they sit in the standings. They are 13-16-1-1 for 28 points. And while that is only six points out of a playoff spot, it is also tied with the Connecticut Whale for the fewest points accumulated through the first three months of the season.
The Phantoms inconsistency has stemmed from several issues. There’s no question that injuries have plagued the Phantoms as only four players (Brayden Schenn, Danny Syvret, Harry Zolnierczyk and Rob Bordson) have played in all 31 games.
But the Phantoms have struggled to find consistency in their game as well. Scoring has been an issue as only five teams have scored fewer goals than the Phantoms 77 so far this season, and are averaging fewer goals per game than the Phantoms (2.48).
The Phantoms have relied heavily on top prospects like Schenn and Sean Couturier to provide a bulk of the offense – and they have come through.
Schenn has 32 points, which ranks fifth-best in the AHL this season. His 19 assists also rank in the top 10 in the league (ninth) and his 13 goals are tied for 16th in the league.
Couturier has nine goals and 18 assists for 27 points and has done that while often being asked to play against the best players on the opposition because of how defensively responsible he is on the ice.
Aside from those two though, the Phantoms have really struggled to find any other regular offensive contributors.
Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is third on the team in scoring with 14 points, and he’s missed the last seven games for the Phantoms with a foot injury.
Zolnierczyk and Tye McGinn are tied for third on the team with eight goals each, but McGinn has proven to be mostly a power play specialist offensively and Zolnierczyk scored more when he was playing with Couturier because he was afforded space to use his speed to skate, but since being asked by coach Terry Murray to play more of a checking line role, while he has done a fine job of filling that role, his secondary offense has dried up a bit.
Jason Akeson is the only other player with double-digit points (3-10-13) but he spent the first six weeks of the season with the Flyers’ ECHL affiliate Trenton Titans.
The power play has really struggled as well, clicking at just a 14.9 percent clip, which is tied for 22nd in the AHL.
McGinn does a fine job of taking away the eyes of the goaltender, positioning himself in front of the net as a big-bodied screen while Schenn and Couturiere work a nice two-man game to set up the power play – once it’s set up.
However, aside from McGinn, Schenn, Couturier and Brandon Manning, who has a cannon from the point and has scored three of his four goals with the man advantage, no other player has more than two goals on the power play.
The Phantoms have also been victimized by a lack of discipline and turnovers in their own end. While the penalty kill is a strength for the team, ranking ninth in the AHL with a kill percentage of 84.9, they have taken the fifth most penalties in the league, and often tax their best players by being forced to kill too many penalties a game.
The Phantoms average killing more than five penalties per game,, which means half the time it’s even more than that.
Meanwhile, the turnovers have been killer, forcing goalies Scott Munroe and Cal Heeter to either have to make huge saves or fall victim to a goal that is a direct result of a defensive zone mistake.
Murray talked repeatedly over the first few months about the gap being too big, the breakout not functioning properly and too many tries for home run passes from below the defensive end line that immediately come back into the zone.
These are the basic reasons why a team with big time playoff aspirations finds itself at the bottom of the standings, not at the top.
That doesn’t mean individually players haven’t been good.
The following groups will divide the players into groups based on their performances so far this season.
As expected: Schenn, Couturier, Gustafsson, Munroe, Syvret – Schenn and Couturier have been the offense for the Phantoms. They have accounted for 30 percent of the total points and 29 percent of the total goals the team has scored. Gustafsson was easily the Phantoms best defenseman before the foot injury. Munroe has provided a calming, veteran presence in net and his 2.59 goals against average a .918 save percentage have been good enough to keep the Phantoms in practically every game he starts. Syvret has provided that on-ice leadership, playing a very calm and collected game on the back end.
Flashes of brilliance: McGinn, Zolnierczyk, Eric Wellwood, Zac Rinaldo – McGinn needs to be a better five-on-five player, especially in his own end, but, he is really growing into his size nicely on offense and is developing a strong, power forward’s offensive game. Zolnierczyk may have surpassed Wellwood as the fastest skater on the team and he has used that speed to his advantage offensively, but sometimes he lets that speed take him out of a play as well. If he can reign it in when he over-skates, he can be a reliable, two-way forward. Wellwood got off to a miserable start for the Phantoms but has been much better in the past month, and it shows. There’s no question he has NHL ability. Rinaldo may lead the team in penalty minutes (90) but he’s not even in the top 20 in the AHL in that category. He has played with an edge and has toed the line nicely. As such, he’s been the best forehecker on the squad.
Pleasant surprises: Heeter, Bordson, Matt Konan – Cal Heeter expected to start his season at Trenton in the ECHL, but beat out Niko Hovinen in camp and made the Phantoms roster. He’s had some really strong performances in goal and continues to work with Flyers’ goalie coach Jeff Reese on the weaknesses in his game and gets better every day. Bordson is a guy that every team needs – smart, responsible forward who can play any position and is willing to do anything for the team, follows the system to the letter. And to think he was a throw-away contract in the Mike Richards trade. Konan started the season battling injury, but since joining the lineup has assimilated in a tough AHL very well for a first-year pro. Has earned a regular spot on the blue line.
Team-oriented professionals: Garrett Roe, Jeff Dimmen, Zack Fitzgerald, Cullen Eddy – Roe plays on the power play. He kills penalties. He’s moved up and down the lineup – and he’s even taken a seat a few times as a healthy scratch based on matchups – oh, and he’s very good at the shootout. He keeps his head down, doesn’t say much and plays hard. Dimmen was brought in as a depth defenseman, but has done a fine job filling in on an injury-depleted blue line and has posted eight points in 15 games. Fitzgerald is a veteran defenseman who has played primarily as a fourth-line forward. He brings an element of toughness to a team that was in need of one early in the season. Eddy has played in all but one game for the Phantoms and has been a steady second or third-pair defenseman.
Has higher expectations: Manning, Tyler Brown, Mike Testwuide, Oliver Lauridsen, Matt Ford, Shane Harper – Manning is still viewed as a top defensive prospect for the Flyers organization, but has had an inconsistent season. He has been on the upswing lately, and is well-respected in the locker room as an alternate captain, but he certainly hasn’t played his best brand of hockey yet this season. Brown was looked at in the summer as a guy who could make some noise for a fourth line role for the big club, but has not shown the same promise this season for the Phantoms and has spent 13 games as a healthy scratch. Testwuide is a similar player who has dropped down the depth chart over the past year and spends more time as a healthy scratch (18 games) than actually on the ice. Big fall for a guy the Flyers were excited about as recently as 12 months ago. Lauridsen could have been in the “Flashes of brilliance” category because he’s had some good games and is the Phantoms best plus-player (plus-5), but for a guy with his size, he needs to play bigger and stronger. He’s not afraid to be physical – or drop the gloves, but he needs to use his size smarter and better in-game, which is why he was a healthy scratch for a few games last month. Ford was a top scorer in the AHL last season, but has just one goal so far this season for the Phantoms in 19 games. His healthy scratches have been more based on a numbers problem, but Ford hasn’t gelled with either Couturier or Schenn and as a result has had a disappointing season so far. Harper is looked at as a good prospect for the Flyers, but again hasn’t been able to stick on any line so far this season. Harper has three goals and has played most games (23) but his time on ice is getting more and more limited and he hasn’t shown a propensity to be defensively conscious.
Victims of Circumstance: Akeson, Ben Holmstrom, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Andrew Johnston, Matt Mangene – Akeson started the season in Trenton as part of a numbers game despite being the Phantoms leading point producer a season ago. Since his return, he’s been good offensively, but has only played in 17 games. Holmstrom, the team captain, was having a nice season as a defensive-minded forward until he blew out his ACL and was lost for the season with injury. A big blow for the organization, Holmstrom was thought to be a guy the Flyers could turn to as a reliable replacement if a forward was injured once the NHL returns. Bourdon has only played 17 games for the Phantoms, and has been out of action for more than a month as he continues to battle problems related to a concussion he suffered with the Flyers last season. He’s definitely a top defensive prospect when healthy, but he hasn’t been healthy all season. Johnston and Mangene started the season with the Phantoms, but were both sent to Trenton of the ECHL to refine their games. The Flyers do like both players down the road, but need them to develop at a lower level first.
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