Lehigh Valley Phantoms rookie defenseman Philippe Myers' first season in pro hockey has been a learning experience in the vicissitudes of the sport. He's emerged from periods of adversity as a stronger all-around hockey player than he was entering the season as a much-hyped NHL blueline prospect.
Over the course of the 2017-18 season, Myers has dealt with injury-related absences and adjustments from the junior hockey game to the pro level. He's made great strides in knowing when to be aggressive and when to make safer plays.
Dealing with several injury setbacks, primarily in the first half of the season but also in the latter stages of the stretch drive, Myers needed a few games each time to get reacclimated before he was ready to pick up again from where he'd left off before being forced from the lineup. Each time, however, he has ultimately succeeded.
"I feel really good. I'm just trying to not worry about things, play my game and see what happens," Myers said during the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. "We have a great team here - a good mix of veterans and young guys - and I feel like I've learned a lot. It's just fun to be in the playoffs."
Now, the righthanded shooting Myers - who is an outstanding skater despite his 6-foot-5, 205-plus pound frame - is playing a vital role for the Phantoms as they advance to the Eastern Conference Final against the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup playoffs.
In the absence of partner Travis Sanheim (lost for the duration of the second round against the Charlotte Checkers after a lower-body injury late in Game 1 of the series) and Samuel Morin (lost to a lower-body injury in the first period of Game 4), the Phantoms had to lean very heavily on Myers along with the other still-standing members of the blue line corps. The rookie responded.
During the Phantoms' five-overtime marathon 2-1 win in Charlotte in Game 4 of the series, which set a new record for the longest match in American Hockey League history, Myers logged a staggering 66 minutes of time in a game that lasted 146:48 and stretched six hours into the early morning, six minutes of real time from the drop of the opening faceoff until Alex Krushelnyski's game-winning goal at 6:48 of the fifth OT. His ice time would have been even higher if not for a pair of minor penalties he had to serve during regulation.
"He looked the same in overtime as he did in the first period," head coach Scott Gordon marveled. "He's a horse and in phenomenal shape."
Three evenings later, the Phantoms closed out the series with a 5-1 victory at the Bojangles Coliseum. Myers again played a key two-way role for his team and also chipped in a goal. At 4:04 of the third period, fellow rookie Oskar Lindblom won a puck battle on the boards and sent the puck up high to Myers. From the right point, Myers fired a shot through traffic that beat Charlotte goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and found the net.
For the playoffs to date, Myers has posted five points (2g-3a) and 6 PIM. During the regular season, he appeared in 50 games, contributing 21 points - 5 goals, including 3 power play goals, and 16 assists), 54 penalty minutes and a +12 rating.
Myers, like virtually all young defensemen, is still undergoing a learning curve. The 21-year-old is not immune from getting on the wrong side of the puck, misreading an occasional coverage or trying to do a little too much with the puck in a risky situation. However, the good plays have outnumbered the miscues with ever-increasing frequency when he's been able to stay healthy. He shows good poise under pressure and quick bounce-backs from adversity.
Myers makes very good breakout passes, with an ability to deliver many of his medium-range passes right on the tape and also ability to periodically spring a teammate with a stretch pass behind the opposing defense. He has a heavy shot from the point, joins the rush effectively and has enough speed to cancel out some mistakes. His positional play, stick-on-puck work, and gap control were sometimes issues early in the season but improved significantly.
He also has some physicality to his game; falling somewhere north of the generally finesse-oriented Sanheim (whose own physical game is making strides albeit still a work in progress) and a bit south of the bang-and-crash style that makes the 6-foot-7 Morin an intimidating presence when healthy.
Unfortunately for Myers, the rookie lost much of the pre-Christmas portion of the season - including a lengthy stint from late November to late December - to a nagging lower body injury. The lost time temporarily stalled the progress he'd been making at a rapid clip following some ups and downs in his play during NHL training camp and the very early portion of the AHL regular season. By January, however, Myers was hitting his stride again.
Speaking to The Morning Call shortly past the midway point of the season, Gordon compared Myers' rapid development to that of Sanheim in the second half of his rookie AHL season in 2016-17.
"When you look at Travis last year and probably around January is when Travis started to hit his stride where he just wasn't a body out there," Gordon said. "He started making contributions offensively and defensively. Now with Phil, …he's done it in half the amount of time because he's missed half the games and he's missed half the practices. You wonder where he'd be right now if didn't have the nagging injuries."
Myers played some of his best hockey of season when he was paired with Sanheim during Sanheim's 18-game return stint to the Phantoms during the second half of the regular season. The two made for a dyamic duo in many of their games together. Sanheim was soon recalled to the Flyers. Myers continued to play well but then suffered a new injury setback. He missed the final eight games of the regular season with a lower-body injury unrelated to his first-half issue.
As the playoffs rolled around, Myers rejoined the lineup for the first round series against Providence. After the Flyers were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Sanheim returned to the Phantoms for Games 3 and 4 of the Providence series. He and Myers quickly re-established their chemistry. Unfortunately, Sanheim's injury in the first game of the Charlotte series interrupted his playoff run but the Phantoms and Myers kept going.
The Phantoms kick off their series with the Marlies on Saturday, May 19. The series schedule is as follows:
Game 1 - Sat., May 19 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 4:00 p.m.
Game 2 - Sun., May 20 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 4:00 p.m.
Game 3 - Wed., May 23 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m.
Game 4 - Fri., May 25 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m.
*Game 5 - Sat., May 26 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m.
*Game 6 - Mon., May 28 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 7:00 p.m.
*Game 7 - Wed., May 30 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 7:00 p.m.
*if necessary... All times Eastern