Anthony Stolarz took his first steps into realizing his NHL dream last season when he turned professional. Now that his first year is barely over, the 45th overall selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft is already looking forward to next season in Lehigh Valley.
“I thought it was a very good year,” said the 6’6”, 227-lb Stolarz. “Obviously it being my first year a pro you don’t know what to expect and you don’t know how things are going to shake out with road trips and playing three-in-three games, but I had Zepper [Rob Zepp] there who was able to help me ease into it.”
Although the 33-year old veteran Rob Zepp made a majority of the starts, Stolarz received a good amount as well, posting a 9-13-4 mark in 31 appearances as a rookie netminder. With years of experience under his belt, in both North American Hockey and in Europe, Zepp was a good influence on the 21-year old.
“It was big for me having him there. If I had any questions, he was there for me, when I struggled he would help me out, even on the ice he would go out and if he saw me do anything he would point it out. I took big strides this year and I’m excited to work hard this summer and get going for next year.”
The talk about jumping from junior hockey to the NHL level is one that is written about often, but a significant difference still remains, especially on goaltenders, making the transition to the AHL even though the schedule and playoff structure is similar. And the difference isn’t just speed and age as is often noted by rookies.
“Another thing is how skilled everyone is,” said Stolarz, who appeared in two consecutive Memorial Cups with the London Knights after a brief stint at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. “Everyone can play and when any line is out there, they’re a threat to score so you just have to be ready. The players are bigger; the traffic in front is heavy; it’s a lot harder to pick up the puck and you just have to fight through it and adapt.”
He recorded his first pro win by pitching a 36-save shutout on Nov. 21 and had 35 saves or more on six other occasions to post a .905 save percentage, while the first year Phantoms in Allentown had a record of 33-35-7-1.
But adapting on the ice is just one factor to consider. Stolarz first year was also one that made hockey his full-time job. And he loved every minute of it.
“Now that you’ve turned pro you have 100 percent attention on hockey and that’s your job, that’s what you’re getting paid to do so you have to have results and you have to go out there and keep improving and getting better every year. For me, it’s exciting to go to the rink every day and have fun playing hockey.”
A big reason for that excitement is the Flyers transitioning their AHL affiliate from Adirondack to a brand new facility in Lehigh Valley at the PPL Center, as well as a fan-base that was ready to embrace the Flyers top prospects.
“You’re kind of lucky to have such a amazing facility and to top it all off we have around nine thousand fans coming to every game to watch us and cheer us on. I think that they were kind of like the seventh player out there energizing us and getting us going. It’s a shame we didn’t make the playoffs but for the guys that are coming back we owe it to them to work hard this summer and get back out there and make a playoff run.”
And Stolarz also made it very clear that he wants to be central to that playoff run in 2015-16.
“My main goal is to seize the starting job in Lehigh Valley. Last year I was eased into it, but I think this year I’m ready for the challenge to step up and play 30 or 40 games. For me I just want to put that on myself and I’m working hard this summer, so I will do anything I can do to better myself. But I’m excited for the upcoming season and we have a good bunch of guys. It’s going to be exciting. I think we’re going to have a really good team.”