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GREENBERG: Two Leagues, two MVP's

Flyers capture All-Star MVP honors in both NHL and AHL

by PhiladelphiaFlyers.com @NHLFlyers / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

In two days, in two leagues, the Flyers' organization had two Most Valuable Players in an All-Star Game­. In Monday night's American Hockey League contest in Allentown, Pa., Taylor Leier joined Wayne Simmonds, who was named in the NHL classic on Sunday in Los Angeles.

It's quite the double, and doubling down on the honor is that Leier, who scored three goals in the round-robin three-on-three competition between the divisions, is a real NHL prospect on a Lehigh Valley team loaded with them.

"He has speed, tenacity, good hands and hockey sense," says GM Ron Hextall. In flashes, Leier showed it in a 10-game Flyer call-up this season while Matt Read and Sean Couturier were out of the lineup.

Not only is there more room for a 5-foot-10 guy in today's NHL, but greater opportunity than ever for Philadelphia farmhands to prove themselves winners. Holding the second-best record in the AHL, the Philadelphia affiliate is almost surely going to be a playoff team for the first time since its final season at the Spectrum in 2008-09. 

An outdated facility in Glens Falls, NY, where the Phantoms spent five years while the PPL Center was being developed and built, was no draw for veteran AHL players. Then, during the first two seasons in Allentown, the product on the ice was not up to the ambiance of the beautiful facility, in part because the Flyers were shallow on prospects.

It has all come together now. The addition of perennial AHL All Star T.J. Brennan, who led the league defensemen in scoring a year ago, has topped off a group of successful veterans - Jordan Weal, Colin McDonald, Chris Conner, Greg Carey and Andy Miele. And, thanks to good drafting and Hextall's determination to slow cook the picks, the organization is deeper in eventual NHLers than in more than a decade.

"You are only allowed six veterans of more than 260 games, so if you don't have kids supplementing, it's tough to win," said Hextall.

"We have the two kids in goal (Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon), plus four on D (Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Reece Wilcox), who have made an impact.

"Then you have Leier (28 points in 34 games) and Scotty Laughton (19 in 29). Scotty has been a real good player since he went there and still is a good prospect for us. I wish we had a couple younger forwards, but we'll get there with that. Meanwhile, our veterans are all in. I like our mix."

Even before the Phantoms had a mix to truly love, the Lehigh Valley loved the team.

In Year Two, there was no sign that the failure to make the playoffs in the inaugural season had ended the honeymoon. Average attendance-8,244-actually was very slightly up.

This year it is 7,913, with the best drawing months to come, followed by playoffs, which bond fans to a team for another reason than just everybody getting behind a winner.

"In the playoffs somebody loses and hurts," said co-owner Jim Brooks. "That's when rivalries start.

"The AHL's first two rounds are in the division, just like the NHL. So we will have deep-rooted rivalries starting to build this year."

Seven years without playoffs also have been a greatly missed part of the development process. The most obvious example of their value was 2004-05, the NHL lockout, when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, their junior seasons completed, joined the Philadelphia Phantoms for a playoff run that culminated in a Calder Cup. Carter, Richards, R.J. Umberger, Dennis Seidenberg, Patrick Sharp, Joni Pitkanen and Antero Niittymaki were all contributors to the Flyers the next season.

"We want a winning culture in our organization through and through," said Hextall. "In any high stakes games, whether it be at the World Junior Championships or the Calder Cup playoffs, players learn what it takes to win.

"The level of play in the playoffs picks up in the AHL, just like the NHL, And the league gets better as you add college signees and two or three prospects when their junior teams are eliminated. [In 2004-05] Carter, Richards and Alexandre Picard all came out of junior for that run. Good as that team was, when we added three guys, it went up another notch."

At its core, the purpose of the AHL is development, and that's not limited to just physical and skill growth. Not everybody here is going to the NHL eventually; you need guys whose window probably has closed to still want to keep playing into May, rather than be relaxing at the cottage.  

Brennan calls it the "million-dollar question", maintaining morale on this level, which may be more important than talent. There is very little difference in ability between a lot of veteran players in this league and those playing on fourth lines in the NHL. Players who remain here longer than they believe they should be can become jaded.

"It's really comes down to the guys you have on the team," said Weal, whom Phantoms' owner Jim Brooks calls the best player in the league. "Players go up and down, you need that core group of guys who are trying to get better for themselves and for the team.

"One thing I found in Manchester (the then-Kings' affiliate in New Hampshire where Weal keyed a run to the 2015 Calder Cup), you need veterans working and that filtering down to the younger guys.  

"Philadelphia is only an hour from here, a lot closer than Manchester was to LA, but it still feels kind of far away to me, because I don't go there, except to pick up my girlfriend at the airport. You get so locked in here, you don't really think about it much. Keep playing hard, you have to believe sometime [the NHL] will happen, but I'm not thinking about it every day because I'm having a lot of fun.

"It's a good group of guys. And the fans here are great every night. We draw for Tuesday and Wednesday night games. In the dreary days of January and February, that can give you an extra pep in your step."

Brooks, who along with his brother Rob, bought the team from Comcast when it was decided to demolish the Spectrum, says the Phantoms have put élan into Allentown, too.

"Hockey energizes the community but this venue does way more than that with concerts and family shows," said Brooks. "These arenas are little engines for development. Downtown Allentown was not a vibrant place before this building was here. 

"Hosting the All Star Game meant the world to me and my brother. Being a focus of the hockey world for these few days, we have been able to talk about the revitalization of the third largest city in the state. Plus, as part of the American Hockey League, we are only as good as our league, so you want to contribute to its success."

We all have a need for community. The Phantoms have fostered it in a city that needed to feel better about itself. Likewise, it's not good enough for the Flyers to only have the best prospects who are playing here - Morin, Sanheim, Hagg, Laughton, Leier, Lyon and Stolarz - feeling like the organization cares about them.

The PPL Center locker, weight, video, and lunch rooms, plus medical facilities, are major league, and make a minor leaguer more want to come to work.

"You can tell by the facilities and the way management took on this weekend, that we are treated very well," said Leier. "If you win, it helps and we've won a lot this year. We sell out every weekend and that's something you don't get around the league."

After short trials with the Sabres, Leafs and Panthers, this is the 27-year-old Brennan's fifth AHL team. A native of Willingboro, N.J. and a Flyer fan growing up, this is as close as the five-time All Star could get in the AHL to coming home,

"You feel people here are willing to go to bat for you," he said. "The tools and the food they provide to make you do your job better makes you feel like part of a family. You have that sense of belonging, at the end of the day, make you want to keep pushing."

With Hextall determined not to push any prospect to the NHL, two years here are going to be the standard and Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny the exceptions. This is all the more reason to surround the prospects with the right examples.

"One thing you can control is having a positive attitude," said Brennan. "Within a negative environment, an excuse is the easy choice to make. Having a positive attitude is hard work but it spreads.

"On the harder path, you have to learn a lot of life lessons. But it gives a good foundation for yourself."

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