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Phantoms 411: Young players contribute to leading the AHL

Get caught up on the prospects playing with the Flyers top affiliate

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

Entering this week, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms boast a record of 8-3-2. Based on points, that puts the Phantoms in first place in the American Hockey League's tough Atlantic Division. The Charlotte Checkers have 16 points through 11 games and the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins have 15 points with just 10 games played to date.

Partially due to NHL recalls (Mark Alt and Will O'Neill) and partially due to injuries on their own blueline (Samuel Morin, Philippe Myers and, previously, perennial AHL All-Star offensive defenseman T.J. Brennan), the Phantoms have had to make due with a patchwork defense corps of late. Even so, the team has found ways to collect points in the standings. 

The Phantoms' roster features a mixture of proven AHL veterans for stability and consistent production along with a crop of prospects being developed with NHL futures in mind with the Flyers. While the members of the veteran group- most notably team captain Colin McDonald, Brennan and forwards Chris Conner and Corban Knight along with the experienced likes of Greg Carey, Alt, O'Neill and newcomer Phil Varone - are vital forces in the team's success over the last season-plus, the focus here will be on the younger players. 

FORWARDS

Oskar Lindblom (LW): After being one of the final preseason NHL roster cuts from the Flyers, the 21-year-old rookie left winger got off to a slow statistical start early in the AHL regular season. There were some games, however, where he played into tough luck, including hitting the goal post three times in the first five games. In the meantime, Lindblom continued to display a strong defensive game.

"When you play good without the puck, it leads to offensive chances," Lindblom said on Oct. 25. "You are still helping your team. I expect to score, too, but if I play the right way, hopefully that will come soon."

Recalling how Lindblom took a few games to acclimated to the North American smaller-rink style during his eight-game stint (two goals, seven points) with the team in the spring of 2016, Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon predicted that the points would start coming in bunches for the Swede.

Gordon was soon proven right. 

From Oct. 21 to Nov. 3, Lindblom assembled a streak of points in five consecutive games, during which time he racked up eight points. The stretch included Lindblom's first two goals of the season, as well as six assists. Neither goal was pretty - one went in off Lindblom's skate before he could get his stick to the puck, the other off his shin pad - but both came about by him getting to the net to put himself in position to score. 

Lindblom's early-season point streak came to an end in the Phantoms' 6-5 road win over the Binghamton Devils on Nov. 4. So, too, to a more remarkable streak of having not been on the ice for a single opposition 5-on-5 goal through the first 11 games. Nevertheless, things are definitely trending in the right direction for the young forward. 

Gordon has used Lindblom in a variety of different situations, including the top Phantoms power play unit as well as in penalty killing situations. At 5-on-5, he started out the season on Varone's line, then spent some time with Knight. Most recently, he's been with rookie center Vorobyev and veteran McDonald.

As much as Lindblom's offensive upside draws attention, it his ability to learn fast and play a complete two-way game that draws raves from Gordon.

"Very rarely is he out of position. He is a smart hockey player. Oskar makes good decisions, wins most of the battles for the puck and he gets to the greasy areas where goals get scored," Gordon said. 

"He does everything right, wins a ton of puck battles, and he's always in the right position. And when he does make a mistake, he immediately understands. Sometimes you get the deer-in-the-headlight look with some players and they don't know what you're talking about. With him, sometimes he's finishing your sentence before you get everything out. When he does make a mistake, he knows exactly what he did before you even tell him. Just as important, he grasps right away how to correct it."

The number one reason the Flyers assigned Lindblom back to the AHL was to work a little more on his feet. A tad more quickness in getting from Point A to Point B will be the key to eventually translating his dramatic success in the Swedish Hockey League (2016-17 Forward of the Year) and early promise with the Phantoms into an eventual regular spot on the Flyers.

"There are things he can improve. His skating can get a little better; probably could be more efficient. But he does a lot of good things. He knows how to use his body to protect the puck. He's got a strong core and upper body, and he will only continue to get stronger."

 

Mike Vecchione (C): With the Flyers landing the second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and selecting Nolan Patrick, coupled with the ascension of Scott Laughton finding his identity as a player ready for an NHL role, 2016-17 Hobey Baker finalist Vecchione found himself caught in a roster numbers game during the Flyers' training camp. He played some wing at camp but did not earn a spot with the big team, and then had a rough preseason debut for the Phantoms.

To his credit, Vecchione quickly landed on his feet. He is off to a strong start for the Phantoms in the regular season.

"I think Mike was thinking a little too much before the season; you could see the wheels turning [in his head] a little bit," Gordon said. "Now, it's been like night and day. He knows where to go. The reads are much better, the support down low. The decisions he makes up-ice and getting back. Pretty much right across the board."

In the early going of the season, there has been a lot of line juggling. One trio that has been a near-constant, however, has been a line with rookie Vecchione centering third-year pro Danick Martel and second-year pro Nicolas Aube-Kubel. The line quickly found chemistry. 

Vecchione earned AHL Rookie of the Month honors for October. From an offensive standpoint, he posted 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 10 games. One other area that has surprised Gordon has been the rookie's prowess in the faceoff circle, which is an area where most young centers (even older rookies such as the 24-year-old Union College graduate) tend to struggle. His play without the puck has also very quickly and steadily gotten better, with only occasional hiccups.

"I've been working on the details of my game," Vecchione said on Oct. 25. "I think it's going well. Things we've talked about here are things I know that [Flyers general manager Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol] put value on up at the next level. Getting to the right spots. Being responsible. Back pressure, helping the D. Making reads, like if there's a chance to work the puck down low or if there's a low-to-high play to make."

 

Danick Martel (LW): There has never been a question about late-blooming winger Martel's hands, feet or heart. He is quick in open ice, feisty and has a deft finishing touch that produced back-to-back seasons of 20-plus goals in each of his first two AHL seasons. 

The Drummondville, Quebec native, who will turn 23 on Dec. 12, has been red hot offensively ever since the puck dropped on the 2016-17 regular season. It started with an opening night hat trick and one goal apiece in each of the Phantoms season's first four period. Through 13 games, he leads the AHL with a baker's dozen goals (five more than his closest pursuers) and is tied for the league scoring with 17 points.  

Martel's 12th goal, a top-shelf power play snipe from the right circle, came in Saturday's 6-5 win in Binghamton. It was his fourth power play goal of the season (tied for 2nd in the AHL). His 45 shots on goal tied for second in the league. 

Standing just 5-foot-8, Martel faces the usual challenges of pint-sized players. He has work annually to improve his all-around game in order to avoid being a liability when not scoring, but his role in the lineup is primarily dictated by his offensive production. A waterbug who materializes in the scoring areas, he is also fearless in standing up to bigger players who think he can be manhandled. Euphemistically put, Martel knows how to find "equalizers" to dissuade those who might try to bully him. 

With Martel posting gaudy early scoring numbers, his name comes up frequently on social media as a potential call-up candidate for the Flyers. 

"It's early. You've got to be very careful about reaching conclusions [based] on a small number of games, seeing a little bit of a body of work and assuming someone is ready to come up and play, and can help you," Hextall said on Oct. 23. "With that being said, Danick has played well so far. He gets to open areas and he can finish. He has some speed. I saw the game in Hershey [on Oct. 15, in which Martel had a goal and an assist], and I think he had about six good scoring chances."

On an NHL team that already has some undersized but highly skilled wingers among its top nine forwards - namely Travis Konecny's dynamic creativity and Jordan Weal's surprising all-around game - it would likely take the right fit for Martel in the NHL roster mix and his continued top-notch AHL productivity beforehand to forge such an opportunity. So far in the current Phantoms season, however, Martel is doing an excellent job of taking care of the things that are within his own control. He's scoring regularly and his enthusiastic off-ice personality has made him a favorite of teammates and fans alike in Allentown.

 

Mikhail Vorobyev (C): There is often a steeper learning curve for young players from Russia than those from Scandinavia or even from the present-day Czech Republic, both on and off the ice. Vorobyev showed considerable promise in training camp and the preseason as a playing center with good two-way instincts as well as size. The tools were obvious, both equally obvious was the need for time and patience.

First the off-ice adjustments: Vorobyev speaks almost no English and his early progress with the language has been somewhat modest. At training camp, Vorobyev and Flyers 2016 first-round pick German Rubtsov could lean on Phantoms second-year pro Radel Fazleev (who speaks fluent English) and camp invitee Ivan Kosorenkov (who now speaks passable English) to help them out. Rubtsov and Kosorenkov (who was later released from his tryout) are now back in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.  

Fazleev is on hand in Allentown and willingly helps Vorobyev with some of his acclimation to understanding instructions from coaches and in day-to-day life off the ice. However, Fazleev himself is still a young player and is working on his own game to try to stake down an everyday spot in the Phantoms lineup. 

Vorobyev starting the regular season on a scoring line, but Gordon noticed the youngster was struggling with nuances of adjusting his game to the North American style and was putting pressure on himself. To alleviate some of the pressure and give him opportunity to work on adapting to the AHL, Gordon moved Vorobyev down to the fourth line (where Fazleev played on his line in a couple games). 

"There's no question he's our best passer," Gordon said of Vorobyev to the Camden Courier Post. "I think what he found out is he's got to move his feet more when he's making his passes. The second thing is standing still. Options can close down quicker because it's a smaller ice surface. (He's facing) smarter players and the space isn't there that you have with the bigger rink. That was his biggest challenge probably the first two weeks."

When McDonald returned to the lineup from a preseason injury, the coach placed the veteran leader on Vorobyev's right wing. Prior to getting hurt, McDonald had played a bit with Vorobyev during training camp with the Flyers. Moreover, his heaviness on the puck, willingness to defend his teammates, adaptability to playing with linemates of a variety of different styles and his status as one of the AHL's most respected veteran leaders made McDonald a good candidate to ride shotgun on Vorobyev's line. 

In their first game together on Oct. 25, a forechecking Vorobyev stripped the pick from a Springfield Thunderbirds defenseman and made a perfect feed to McDonald for a one-timer goal. More recently, Lindblom was added to the line as its left wing. On Nov. 3 against Wilkes Barre/Scanton, Lindblom helped set up Vorobyev for a tap-in goal; the Russian's first in the AHL. 

Through 13 games, Vorobyev has posted six points (one goal, five assists). From Oct. 21 to Nov. 3, he put together his first point streak, getting on the scoresheet in four of five games including three in a row.

 

Nicolas Aube-Kubel (RW): Aube-Kubel had a rough first season in the American Hockey League. He discovered there was much less time with the puck and more structured play in the AHL than what he thrived under offensively in junior hockey. Most important, he found out that there's not always a "perfect" play to make. Things are going considerably better so far this season.

Gordon recently explained Aube-Kubel's learning curve to the Courier-Post.

"He's night-and-day from last year but there's still room for growth. This is what I stressed to him: you've got a great shot. Be a shooter. Shoot first, pass second. If you can't shoot, then there's probably a pass to be made because they've taken the shot away. It was a slow start for him in recognizing that, but I found in the last week and a half, even in practice, he's taken it to heart and has become a shooter and with that he's gotten more confidence with the puck," Gordon said.

Through 13 games, Aube-Kubel has posted eight points (four goals, four assists) and is plus-eight at even strength on a line with Vecchione and Martel. More important than raw numbers, though, is the fact his shift-in and shift-out play has been more consistent thus far than it was as a rookie.

 

Cole Bardreau (RW): Now in his third full pro season, the hard-charging Cornell graduate plays much bigger than 5-foot-10, 193-pound vital stats would suggest. He is very strong physically with a low center of gravity - a trait he share with rookie defenseman Mark Friedman. Bardreau is a spark plug in the Phantoms lineup, increasing the energy of any line on which he's deployed and adaptable to being moved around the lineup. 

A preseason injury knocked Bardreau out of action until Oct. 25. In his six games since his return, he's opportunistically chipped in offensively (two goals, five points including a goal and an assist in the Binghamton game while playing on a line with Varone and Conner). 

In the meantime, he's kept up his aggressive puck pursuit and agitating style. The 24-year-old Bardreau is a player who willingly sacrifices his body to block shots or make plays, and he frequently gets under opponents' skin. 

"The main thing with Cole is that he is tenacious," Gordon said. "When you are a pro, it means you can replicate the same process, not just here and there but with consistency. He takes pride in playing sound defense, killing penalties, finishing checks, winning puck battles; all those work ethic things we talk about. He has some skill, too, but the things he does that set him apart are in details."

 

Radel Fazleev (C/W): The second-year pro is still in the process of making the transition from being a scoring-line player in junior hockey with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen to being in the AHL. Although he was always considered a responsible two-way player in junior hockey, the bar gets elevated at the professional level, especially when a player is projected to play what could be deemed "a current-day fourth line role" along the lines of the duties that Michael Raffl performs in the NHL on a line with Laughton and fellow Phantoms alum Taylor Leier.  

Fazleev has dressed in 10 of the Phantoms first 13 games. From an offensive standpoint, he's chipped in three assists and put 11 shots on goal. As with Aube-Kubel, albeit in a different role, he's begun to make second-year adjustments that were struggles for much of his rookie year.

 

DEFENSEMEN

Samuel Morin: The Flyers' 2013 first-round pick is currently sidelined by a nagging injury that worsened last weekend, just as the Flyers planned to call him up to the NHL with Andrew MacDonald and Shayne Gostisbehere (who has since returned to the Flyers' lineup) sidelined. Morin has dressed in eight games for the Phantoms this season. 

He had some ups and downs in his first game after loaned back to the Phantoms, but soon snapped back into form. One of Morin's best games came on Oct. 25, in which he was a tower of strength on the penalty kill, doled out some crunching hits and also soundly defeated Bobby Farnham (the fight's instigator, although not penalized as such) in a brief fight.

"There are some details of the game that Sam can still improve, but he found his identity in the second half of last season. He knows what works for him and what he can continue to get better at doing. The mantra with Sam has been less is more. He's also a tremendous young man," Gordon said on Oct. 25.

 

Philippe Myers: The highly touted rookie defenseman had his share of ups and downs in the preseason - this time around, there were higher expectations than a year ago when he blasted out of the gates in the Flyers' training camp - and a couple rough games to start the regular season. Not long thereafter, however, the pieces started to snap into place. 

Unfortunately, Myers was sidelined for a few games by a nagging injury. He returned to the Phantoms lineup but had to leave the game in the first period on Friday's game against Wilkes Barre/Scranton and was unavailable for the next night's game in Binghamton. 

To date, Myers has appeared in nine games. He's shown flashes of why the Flyers are excited about his potential as a big and mobile defenseman with puck skills. Offensively, he has two goals, three assists and nine points. When healthy, the player's early learning curve mirrors much of what Travis Sanheim experienced with the Phantoms last fall in his first pro season.

"Travis was told to play a certain way in junior and it took probably two months for him to get out of that mode of 'You're going (into the offensive zone) and you're staying,'" Gordon said to the Camden Courier-Post. "The reality is 'You're going and you're getting back quicker than you got up.' That took two months."

 

Mark Friedman: Speedy, feisty and brimming with two-way self-confidence, Friedman was a standout in camp for the Flyers and Phantoms. Spending several weeks at practice with the Phantoms late last season after turning pro following his junior year at Bowling Green University helped him grasp systems. 

However, now that the AHL regular season has begun, Friedman is going through the normal early ups and downs that most rookie defensemen experience. Dressing in 12 of 13 games to date, Friedman has posted two assists and is minus-10 at even strength.

Gordon notes some adjustments that Friedman can make. 

"Mark is really fast, but he has to learn to use his speed defending [while] skating forward," Gordon told the Courier-Post. "They all defend the same way skating backwards. Sometimes guys are off the map as far as where they should be as it relates to the dots, but with Mark, because he's so fast skating forward, there's times where he can defend skating forward to give himself the ability to go get the pucks first, versus getting pucks in 50/50 situations."

 

GOALTENDER

Alex Lyon: With Anthony Stolarz sidelined, the Phantoms net was the sole early season domain of second-year pro Lyon. He enjoyed a strong training camp and got off to a solid start once the regular season began. He played all three games of the Phantoms' first three-in-three gauntlet of the year.

In more recent weeks, however, Lyon has hit a spell of inconsistent play. The acquisition of veteran Dustin Tokarski and some strong starts Tokarski has at least temporarily made the Phantoms' goalie playing opportunities more of a split-time situation. Tokarski got the start on Friday against Wilkes Barre Scranton and then replayed Lyon (11 saves on 15 shots) after two periods of Saturday's 6-5 win in Binghamton. 

For the season to date, Lyon has appeared in nine games. He's posted a 5-2-1 record, 3.08 GAA and .897 save percentage. The spate of injuries and NHL recalls that depleted the Phantoms' blueline corps did not help either Lyon or Tokarski but Lyon has shown himself to be capable of better play than in some of his recent outings. The bigger picture remains bright for him.

 

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