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Phantoms 2021-22 Season-in-Review

This year, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms took a backward step in 2021-22 during a somewhat more "normal" season.

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

After posting an 18-7-6 record and playing an all-divisional game schedule during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms took a backward step in 2021-22 during a somewhat more "normal" season in which playoff spots were determined by points percentage rather than points due to teams playing differing numbers of games. The Phantoms finished in last place in the eight-team Atlantic Division with a 29-32-10 record (.480 points percentage).  

First-year head coach Ian Laperriere's team started out the season 0-5-2 with a combined 10 goals scored. Through 20 games, the Phantoms only had four wins (4-11-5) to their credit. Thereafter, the team's play picked up significantly but the club faced an uphill climb that proved to be too steep to navigate. The Phantoms flirted several times with getting to the .500 mark on the season but never quite made it. 
 
This season, six teams in the Atlantic Division qualified for the playoffs. The Phantoms had a chance down the stretch to move up in the standings but a series of four straight overtime or shootout losses in mid-April proved fatal at a time when the Phantoms desperately needed to put together a sustained winning streak. Over the final 10 games, the Phantoms went 3-3-4.
 
The Phantoms were riddled with injuries and COVID-related absences this season. The team lost 479 man games to injuries or illnesses. Meanwhile, the slew of injuries on the parent Philadelphia Flyers caused a severe strain on the Phantoms' roster; to the point that there were several games where Lehigh Valley was unable to dress more than 10 natural forwards.Thirteen separate Phantoms players were called up to the NHL for varying periods of time.
 
In the cases of center Morgan Frost and defenseman Cam York, the Flyers always intended to recall the players at some point during the 2021-22 season. Their initial recalls -- both players went back and forth a few times from the AHL to NHL -- happened sooner than the organization considered ideal, but were necessitated by injuries on the parent club. Both Frost and York eventually started to show progress at the NHL level.
 
In other cases, the recalls were less expected. For example, gritty forward Hayden Hodgson was not even on an NHL contract until the latter part of the 2021-22 season but he unexpectedly posted 19 goals and 31 points in 46 games to earn both a two-way NHL contract and six games (1g, 1a, 11 PIM) with the Flyers.
 
During the 2020-21 season and a portion of 2021-22, the NHL's adoption of taxi squads affected the depth and overall caliber of play in the American Hockey League. The one bright spot to this was that certain junior-league prospects were eligible to play in the AHL.
 
In 2020-21, the Phantoms received significant contributions from Flyers 2020 first round pick Tyson Foerster (24 games played, 10 goals, 17 points) and 2020 fourth-round pick Zayde Wisdom (28 games played, 7 goals, 18 points, 33 penalty minutes). 
 
Offseason shoulder surgery prevented Wisdom from rejoining the Phantoms in training camp or the regular season in 2021-22. When he was cleared to play, Wisdom was assigned to the AHL's Kingston Frontenacs. 
 
Foerster, who got into a couple of NHL preseason games, opened the 2021-22 season with Lehigh Valley. So did Flyers 2021 second-round pick Samu Tuomaala. However, in his ninth game, Foerster (2g, 1a) went down with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Shelved for roughly five months, Foerster finished the season with 13 regular season games plus six playoff games for the OHL's Barrie Colts. 

During the AHL preseason, Tuomaala scoring a dazzling end-to-end goal. Apart from that, the Finnish teenager struggled. He appeared in two regular season games for the Phantoms and was scratched in several others. Ultimately, Tuomaala returned home to Finland to play in Liiga, where he also struggled for ice time.
 
Last season, Ryan Fitzgerald was a valuable contributor to the Phantoms, posting 12 goals and 21 points in 28 games. Fitzgerald, who is a cousin of Flyers' center Kevin Hayes, parlayed his strong 2020-21 season into a two-way NHL contract for this season. Unfortunately, surgeries on both hips limited Fitzgerald to four games with Lehigh Valley in 2021-22. 
 
Offseason addition Gerry Mayhew clicked on a line with Frost and vetan power forward Garrett Wilson (17 goals, 33 points, 115 penalty minutes), posting nine goals and 16 points in 24 games. Mayhew also put together a solid stretch in the NHL for the Flyers on a mid-season line with Frost and Willman. Played on waivers by the Flyers on March 21 for purposes of AHL reassignment after his play leveled off somewhat, Mayhew was claimed by the Anaheim Ducks and finished the season in Anaheim.
 
A midseason addition to the Phantoms roster, Adam Johnson, picked up some of the slack with 12 points in 30 games.Charlie Gerard had 12 points in 55 games for Laperriere's team.
 
Ultimately, the 2021-22 Phantoms were done in by teamwide scoring struggles that started right from the outset of the season and only improved modestly. Lehigh Valley ranked 30th in the 31-team American Hockey League with 195 goals scored. Only the Tucson Road Runners (182 goals in 68 games played) lit the lamp fewer times than the Phantoms. The Lehigh Valley power play ranked last in the AHL with a 13.8 percent success rate (35-for-253) and the team also gave up 10 shorthanded goals. 
 
Defensively, the Phantoms were inconsistent. The club was capable at times of cranking out strong 200-foot-performances but was prone to slow starts in first periods for the vast majority of the season. Overall, the team finished 25th in the American Hockey League with 239 goals allowed.
 
However, the penalty kill was a bright spot for the Phantoms. Coached by assistant Jason Smith, the Lehigh Valley PK finished 7th in the AHL at an 82.5 percent success rate (45 opposing PPGs on 257 opportunities). The Phantoms scored seven shorthanded goals this season: three by veteran team captain Cal O'Reilly and two apiece by Max Willman and Jackson Cates.
 
The Phantoms' goaltending was often a bright spot for the team this season but dealt with its own share of injuries and periodic bouts of inconsistency. The good news was that Felix Sandström generally held the team in games amid his 44 appearances (16-18-5, 2.89 GAA, .902 save percentage, two shutouts). Originally brought to Allentown as a fill-in for the injury-riddled goalie corps, veteran AHL/ECHL goalie Pat Nagle played particularly well at midseason and wound up appearing in 22 games (10-6-6, 2.74 GAA, .904 save percentage, two shutouts) for the Phantoms this season.
 
PROSPECT TRACKER

 
In the closing section of the Phantoms' season-in-review, we will primarily look at Lehigh Valley players under NHL contract to the Flyers who played in at least 25 American Hockey League games this past season and finished the season on the farm team. As such, players such as Frost and York will not be listed here.
 
FORWARDS
 
Wade Allison (RW): Allison has had miserable luck with injuries dating back to a torn ACL suffered midway through his sophomore collegiate season at Western Michigan. Both of the power forward's two pro seasons to date have been delayed by preseason injuries, and Allison was especially injury-plagued in 2021-22. It was not until the final month of the season that he was able to stay in the lineup for at least two consecutive weeks without suffering another injury.
 
Allison suffered a high ankle sprain in September during the second of two Flyers' Rookies games against the New York Rangers Rookies. He was out of the lineup until joining the Phantoms on Dec. 11. 
 
In the third game of his return, Allison suffered an arm/wrist injury on a check near the player bench. He was out until Jan. 14. 
 
Once back in the Lehigh Valley lineup, the high-energy power forward may have been playing more from adrenaline than being in peak game-readiness. Nonetheless.it was impossible to ignore that Allison strung together a three-game goal scoring streak and had 12 shots on goal over his four-game stint with the Phantoms.

The Flyers recalled Allison to their NHL roster in time to play in the team's Jan. 23 road game against the Buffalo Sabres. Unfortunately, the winger did not make it through his first NHL game of the season unscathed. In the third period, Allison suffered a sprained MCL and found himself right back on injured reserve. He did not appear again in the NHL the remainder of the season. 
 
The MCL sprain kept Allison out until March 11, when he returned to the Phantoms' lineup for a game against the Laval Rocket. On the bright side, Allison celebrated his return with a three-point game (1g, 2a). Unfortunately, Allison got nicked up even in this game.
 
Early in the first period, Allison dove for a puck near Laval net, Allison suffered a scapel-like skate cut to his right wrist and left the game for the rest of the first period to get repairs. This time, however, Allison was able to return to the game and ended up having a big night.
 
With the score knotted at 3-3 in the third period, Allison scored a power play goal that proved to be the game-winner. From his favorite shooting spot near the left faceoff dot, Allison ripped home a shot to put the Phantoms ahead to stay.
 
Even so, the cut was serious enough to keep Allison out for the rest of the week. He missed a game against the Hartford Wolf Pack and then returned on March 18 against Springfield. One day later, Allison posted his best statistical game of the season, scoring twice and assisting on two additional Phantoms goals for four points in a 7-4 victory.
 
On April 3, Allison had to leave a game in Bridgeport after the first period due to back spasms. He missed the next game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Thankfully, this was the final game Allison missed during the season. He dressed in all 12 of Lehigh Valley's remaining games.
 
On the negative side, Allison struggled mightily down the stretch drive. Once the usual first-game-back adrenaline rush wore off (one goal, one assist, four shots on goal on April 8 against Hershey), Allison scuffled the rest of the way. 
 
After all the time he'd missed due to injury-related interruptions to his season, Allison struggled with his stamina, timing and confidence. He wasn't winning nearly as many puck battles on the forecheck as normal and he also wasn't finding open shooting lanes with the same regularity. Over the final 11 games, Allison posted only a single point (1g, 0a). 
 
Overall, Allison dressed in 28 games this season for the Phantoms, posting 10 goals, 17 points and four penalty minutes. At least he finished the season healthy. Allison, who will turn 25 on Oct. 14, is a restricted free agent this summer.
 
Tanner Laczynski (C/W): Just as with Wade Allison, Tanner Laczynski entered his second pro training camp with high hopes of parlaying a promising late-season NHL recall last season into an extended NHL opportunity in 2021-22. Just as with Allison (not to mention Foerster and Wisdom this season and Frost a season ago), injuries put a damper on that plan.
 
Laczynski had season-ending hip surgery in the late stages of 2020-21. He returned for training camp in September but soon had to be shut down to undergo surgery on his other hip. 
 
The versatile two-way forward missed the first half of the season, finally returning to the Lehigh Valley lineup on Feb. 19 against the Utica Comets. In much the same way as Allison, Laczynski came on strong almost immediately after his return (goal in his second game, five points overall in his first seven games played). Similarly, once the early energy leveled off, it was clear that Laczynski was playing catch-up to fully recover his game.
 
The good news for Laczynski was that he remained relatively healthy the rest of the season. He also had a nice mid-March surge where he strung together a three-game goal streak with 15 shots on goal. He later closed out the month with a four-game point streak (1g, 4a) that Laczynski carried into early April.
 
Nonetheless, Laczynski never fully got back to the level of overall play that he displayed his rookie year leading up to his first NHL recall. He had some ups and downs during the stretch drive for Lehigh Valley with some strong games and some just OK performances. Laczynski did get into one NHL game for the Flyers this season, dressing as the fourth line center on April 13 against the Rangers.
 
Overall, Laczynski posted 17 points (7g, 10a) in 28 games for the Phantoms this season; the same number of points and games as Allison. Laczynski, who will turn 24 on June 1, is a restricted free agent this summer. No longer waiver-exempt next season,he will vie for a fourth-role on the Flyers' NHL roster out of training camp before the 2022-23 season.
 
Isaac Ratcliffe (LW): Ratcliffe scuffled through an injury-curtailed 2020-21 season in his second pro campaign. That followed a roller coaster rookie year in which former Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon changed Ratcliffe's role to that a fourth-line winger and penalty killer one season after the team's 2017 second-round pick posted 50 regular season goals and 15 playoff tallies for Ontario League champion Guelph in his draft-plus-two season. 
 
Ratcliffe did not get off to a particularly strong start this season for the Phantoms but had surges at midseason and down the stretch. He moved up in the lineup and became a regular on the power play. In fact, Ratcliffe was arguably the Phantoms most reliable winger down the stretch. He used his big frame more effectively down low in the offensive zone and got to the scoring areas more regularly. To close out the season, Ratcliffe posted 10 points (4g, 6a) over the team's final 13 games.
 
Even more encouragingly, Ratcliffe earned a midseason recall to the Flyers -- his first NHL callup -- and held his own in 10 games (including his first NHL goal among four points) before returning to the Phantoms. The player put together a three-game point streak in fourth-line and second-unit power play duty, earning a one-game look on the first line.
 
When he's at his most effective, Ratcliffe keeps his focus on using his size to his advantage, and playing a very direct game. He showed this season that he is adept at setting screens. He also scored several deflection goals. Ratcliffe's overall 2021-22 totals for the Phantoms (11 goals, 26 points, 61 penalty minutes in 59 games) may not look like much but his play in the second half of the season was encouraging. There's still room for more consistency. 
 
Ratcliffe turned 23 on Feb. 15. He is a first-time restricted free agent this offseason. He is no longer waiver-exempt come next season.
 
Maksim Sushko (W): The Flyers have always loved the physical tools of their 2017 fourth-round pick. He is both physically strong (6-foot, 208 pounds) and a decent skater. There is upside to become a player who can be plugged into different spots in the lineup while primarily being based in the bottom six.
 
Sushko had an encouraging rookie season for the Phantoms in 2019-20. However, he took a step backward -- he also dealt with a injury -- in 2020-21 despite a two-game recall to the Flyers while the team was besieged with COVID cases. The 2021-22 season was a roller coaster ride for Sushko. 
 
The Belarusian forward had surges where he was effective. Sushko put together a three-game goal streak in April (among the 10 goals he scored overall in 63 games) and he previously strung together two consecutive strong weeks in mid-to-late December. Overall, though, Sushko's all-around game was rather uneven on the whole. He also dealt with injury/illness in January.
 
Sushko turned 23 on Feb. 10. He is a first-time restricted free agent this summer. He is no longer waiver-exempt come next season.
 
Jackson Cates (C): Signed by the Flyers last spring out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the older Cates brother played in four NHL games late last season and 11 NHL games in a fourth-line role in 2021-22 (one goal, zero assists). Additionally, Jackson Cates dressed in 38 games for the Phantoms this season, playing a fourth line and penalty killing role. 
 
Cates notched a pair of breakaway shorthanded goals for the Phantoms, which represented his only tallies of the season for the Flyers' AHL affiliate. Overall, he chipped in 10 points. On March 5, Cates had to be stretchered off the ice to a waiting ambulance after a frightening crash into the end boards. He was hospitalized for a couple of days and then released. 
 
Cates did not play again after the mishap. However, he has recovered and is on target for a normal offseason, wherein he will train with younger brother Noah (who impressed in 16 NHL games with the Flyers after completing his college career at Minnesota-Duluth). 
 
Jackson Cates will turn 25 on Sept. 26. This offseason, he is a 10.2 (c) free agent, meaning that he does not have enough professional service time yet to qualify as a restricted free agent. Frost and Ustimenko also fall into this category. Basically, the difference between a 10.2 (c) free agent and a restricted free agent is that the player is ineligible to receive an offer sheet from another NHL team. Frost falls into that category because he missed nearly the entire 2020-21 season due to his shoulder injury, while Ustimenko was out for the entire season last year due to hip surgery.
 
Hayden Hodgson (RW): Hodgson came out of nowhere this past season to raise his stock from a player likely ticketed for the ECHL to an AHL regular and, ultimately, to a contracted NHL player. He greatly impressed Laperriere with a rugged, straightforward physical brand of hockey along with an unexpected finishing touch. Hodgson also impressed in his first three NHL games for the Flyers although his play level off over his subsequent games. 
 
Hodgson turned 26 on March 2. He is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent this summer. He will attempt to vie for an NHL roster spot in camp but will be battling against a numbers game in competing with multiple drafted prospects who will lose their waiver exemption come next season.
 
Max Willman (W/C): A Cinderella story in his own right, the now 27-year-old Willman worked his way up in 2020-21 and 2021-22 from undrafted ECHL healthy scratch to an AHL all-situations Swiss Army knife player to an NHL role player for much of the 2021-22.
 
Willman dressed in exactly half -- 41 of 82 -- of the Flyers' games this season, primarily on the third or fourth line. His speed and work ethic enabled him to have a handful of noticeably effective games at the top level, although his overall performances varied in generally limited ice time. 
 
Overall, at the NHL level, Willman chipped in four goals (including, oddly enough, goals in each of his final two NHL games of the season) and six points. He returned to the Phantoms when the Flyers started to finally get some healthy bodies back in the lineup.
 
For the Phantoms, Willman was one of the team's more valuable players. He was particularly effective early in the season, even as the team as a whole struggled both for goals and wins. Ultimately, Willman appeared in 34 games for Laperriere's club, and posted 11 goals among his 19 points. Willman was a particularly effective AHL weapon on shorthanded and 4-on-4 transition opportunities. 
 
Willman has one season remaining on his two-way NHL contract. He will earn a $750,000 AAV next season at the NHL level ($135,000 in the AHL). Thereafter, he can become an unrestricted free agent. 
 
Matthew Strome (C): A Flyers fourth-round pick in 2017, Strome had trouble holding down a regular AHL roster spot as a winger over his first two professional seasons. He got a new lease on his pro career this season when he was shifted from wing to center. In a bottom-six center role, the player proved better able to work around his skating deficiencies and use his big frame effectively.
 
Strome, who turned 23 on Jan. 23, dressed in 63 games for the Phantoms this season after previously playing in just a combined 28 American League games and 51 games in the ECHL. He chipped in five goals and 11 points. Strome is a restricted free agent this offseason.
 
Linus Sandin (RW): Sandin entered his second North American pro season with high hopes of making a strong impression on the Phantoms as a two-way forward with power play ability at the American League level. Unfortunately, in just the second game of the season, Sandin suffered a serious eye injury and required surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone.
 
The player missed two months. Even after his return, Sandin wasn't quite 100 percent healthy yet. He also suffered further unrelated injury setbacks that ultimately limited his season to just 36 games played (8g, 12a, 20 points). On the bright side, Sandin fulfilled a dream as he made his NHL debut on Jan. 25 against the New York Islanders. Playing fourth line left wing, Sandin received sparing ice time in a 4-3 loss.
 
Sandin turned 26 on May 19. He recently inked a one-year, two-way deal worth AAV of 750K.
 
DEFENSEMEN
 
Egor Zamula: Poise and mobility are the calling cards of the tall but skinny Russian blueliner. Zamula is still working on achieving greater consistency and will focus this offseason on adding muscle to his frame. A bout with COVID-19 caused Zamula, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 177 pounds, to lose further weight. 
 
Nonetheless, Zamula showed progress in 2021-22 from his first pro season the previous year. Overall, he posted 29 points (4g, 25a) in 54 games for Lehigh Valley and showed increased confidence. He is a skilled puck mover but, like many young defensemen, sometimes tries to force plays that aren't there. 
 
When the Flyers were riddled with blueline absences, Zamula spent a total of 10 games in the NHL this season. Most notably, much to Zamula's excitement, he started one game on a pairing with countryman Ivan Provorov. Overall, Zamula averaged 16:22 of ice time in 10 games with the Flyers (19 blocked, three credited takeaways, eight charged giveaways, four shots on goal on 11 shot attempts, five credited hits).
 
Zamula has one season remaining on his entry level contract. He remains waiver-exempt for one more season. The player, who turned 22 on March 30, carries a $756,666 AAV at the NHL level on his current deal.
 
Linus Högberg: A largely no-frills blueliner who is usually a reliable positional defender and still has some puck-moving upside, Högberg appeared in 58 games for the Phantoms in his second North American pro season (0g, 8a). He also dressed in five late season NHL games for the Flyers (two assists, eight blocks, three credited takeaways, four charged giveaways) and generally held his own despite poor underlying puck-possession numbers (42.1 percent on-ice Corsi rating).
 
The 6-foot-1, 194-pound Swede will turn 24 on Sept. 4. He is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent this summer. 
 
Wyatte Wylie: The right-handed shooting Wylie quietly showed improvement in his second pro season with Lehigh Valley. The Flyers' 2018 second-round pick appeared in 65 of the Phantoms' 75 games.Offensively, he chipped in five goals and 18 points and his overall usage increased somewhat, too. 
 
Over the long haul, the Flyers organization has envisioned Wylie's developmental goal as evolving into a shutdown defenseman who can also contribute periodically up ice. He is still working toward that goal, along with his first NHL recall.
 
Wylie, who will turn 23 on Nov. 2, has one season remaining on his entry-level contract. He has an $820,833 AAV on the deal at the NHL level. 
 
Cooper Zech: Signed by the Flyers last summer to a two-year entry-level contract after previously playing in the Bruins' organization on an AHL deal, Zech has one season remaining on the contract. Zech will turn 24 on Dec. 18. He dressed in 53 games for the Phantoms this season (1g, 10a, 11 points), while 20-year-old Mason Millman primarily played at the ECHL level with the Reading Royals (12 AHL games, 36 ECHL regular season games plus13 Kelly Cup playoff games).
 
GOALIES
 
Felix Sandström: Sandström was not entirely injury-free this season but, for the most part, was able to stay in the lineup for Lehigh Valley. In addition to his 44 AHL games with the Phantoms, he appeared in five NHL games with the Flyers. Despite going winless at the NHL level (0-4-1, 3.23 GAA, .910 SV%), the Swedish netminder generally handled himself well. At the AHL level, Sandström was not immune to the occasional letdown but the positives outweighed the negatives overall in his performances. 
 
At age 25, he qualifies this offseason as a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. With the Flyers having signed Ivan Fedotov, it remains to be seen how Sandström's situation will play out this offseason.
 
Samuel Ersson: The Flyers were very high on Ersson's upside entering his first North American pro season but a recurring lower-body injury basically ruined his rookie year with the Phantoms. He was only able to complete three early season games before exiting the lineup. Twice, he returned to the lineup after lengthy absences. Both times, Ersson suffered a reinjury in his first game back in the lineup.  
 
In 2022-23, Ersson will play the second season of his three-year entry-level contract ($859,167 AAV at the NHL level, $70,000 in the AHL). He will turn 23 on Oct. 20.
 
Kirill Ustimenko: The Belarusian netminder returned in 2021-22 from Dec. 2020 hip surgery that cost him the entire 2020-21 season.This season, "Usti" got into 19 ECHL games for Reading (9-6-3 record, 2.67 GAA,.916 save percentage) and eight AHL games with the Phantoms (1-3-2, 2.91 GAA, .900 save percentage). The player, who turned 23 on Jan. 29, is a 10.2 (c) free agent this summer.

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