Coming off a season that saw the Lehigh Valley Phantoms win the Atlantic Division in the regular season and advance to the Eastern Conference Final in the playoffs, the team aims to take the next step in 2018-19 and earn the franchise's first Calder Cup championship since 2004-05.
The 2018 offseason thus far has been a relatively quiet one in terms of moves geared toward the Phantoms roster. There is an influx of youth, all Flyers-drafted prospects, set for their first or second pro seasons. Meanwhile, most of the veteran leadership group is the same.
Although the start of the 2018-19 campaign is still months away -- a lot can happen between mid-July and the opener on Oct. 6 -- taking stock of what's in place suggests the team very much remains a championship contender. The roster is balanced, and deep up front. The primary question marks are in terms of establishing the blueline rotation and finding sufficient playing time for three goaltenders.
Here are three reasons why the Phantoms could play deep into the spring of 2019 if the team performs to its on-paper capabilities.
1. STABLE VET LEADERSHIP
The American Hockey League typically sees a lot of year-to-year turnover, whether it is through players being promoted to the NHL, the comings-and-goings of veterans on minor-league or NHL-two-way contracts and/or coaching staff changes. In Lehigh Valley's case, there is continuity. With head coach Scott Gordon entering his fourth season in Lehigh Valley and assistant Kerry Huffman embarking on his third, there is stability behind the bench.
Likewise, there is stability in the veteran leadership core: team captain Colin McDonald, 2017-18 AHL MVP (Les Cunningham Award) winning forward Phil Varone, forwards Corban Knight and Chris Conner, two time AHL Top Defenseman (Eddie Shore Award) winner T.J. Brennan, 31-goal scorer Greg Carey and fourth-year pro Danick Martel (29 goals in 50 games last season) all remain in the fold for another season.
2. YOUTHFUL ENTHUSIAM
The biggest projected addition to the Phantoms, at least in terms of fan expectations, is top Flyers goaltending prospect Carter Hart. The 20-year-old had a record-shattering junior hockey career, last season becoming the first-ever two-time winner of the CHL Goaltender of the Year award and the first three-time winner of the Western Hockey League Goaltender of the Year (Del Wilson Trophy) as well WHL MVP winner and a finalist for CHL Player of the Year. At midseason, he added a gold medal to his pre-pro resume, backstopping Team Canada at the 2017-18 World Junior Championships.
The slate will wipe clean for Hart now as a pro, however. He will have to compete for playing time in Lehigh Valley with Alex Lyon (coming off a stellar playoff run and strong regular season, including a largely successful first NHL callup to the Flyers) and fellow veteran Anthony Stolarz (who had a successful 2016-17 season before the first of two knee injuries that cost him almost the entire 2017-18 season).
Also likely to join the Phantoms this season is Flyers 2016 first-round pick German Rubtsov. A skilled two-way forward, Rubtsov has had injuries and other setbacks in his season-and-a-half in North American junior hockey but was part of a Memorial Cup winning Acadie-Bathurst Titan (QMJHL) team last season. Also joining the Phantoms from the QMJHL is 2016 second-round pick Pascal Laberge (17 goals, 47 points last season).
Graduating from the Ontario Hockey League to the pro ranks, big-framed (6-foot-3, 214-pounds) center/winger Connor Bunnaman will join the Phantoms after the 2016 fourth-round pick captained the Kitchener Rangers to game 7 of the OHL Western Conference Final before losing to Morgan Frost's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (the 19-year-old Frost is too young to play in the AHL next season). From the Western Hockey League, the Phantoms have added feisty and solid skating Carsen Twarynski.
UConn-graduated defenseman David Drake, a Flyers seventh-round pick in 2013 who is now under AHL contract to the Phantoms, got his feet wet in the pros last season with seven regular season games with the Phantoms plus one playoff appearance. The 6-foot-6 defender will challenge for a regular starting job in Lehigh Valley. There are jobs to be won. Travis Sanheim is projected to play full-time in the NHL with the Flyers next season.
Samuel Morin is out until February after undergoing ACL surgery, but could see a conditioning stint with the Phantoms before pushing for an NHL role with the Flyers in the latter portion of next season. Veteran defenseman Will O'Neill will not be back for next season, nor will Max Lamarche. Recently signed to a two-year, two-way contract extension, third-year pro Reece Willcox has a secure roster spot this season.
Second-year pros on the Phantoms who are expected to play key roles on the team, assuming they do not win NHL jobs on the Flyers out of training camp, include highly touted righthanded defenseman Philippe Myers, playmaking Russian center Mikhail Vorobyev and 25-year-old center Mike Vecchione. Second-year defenseman Mark Friedman will look for a breakout season after overcoming a rough start to his rookie campaign last year. All of 22 years of age, third-year pro Nicolas Aube-Kubel showed a night-and-day improvement in his overall game and effectiveness from year one to year two.
3. THE RECALL CANDIDATES
With young players especially but also with some of the younger veterans, the chance of earning an NHL recall provides motivation to endure the grueling aspects -- the weekends with three games in three nights, the bus rides, etc. -- of life in the American Hockey League. Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom returned to the Phantoms for the playoffs after the Flyers were eliminated in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins but are expected to be Flyers regulars in 2018-19.
Within the Phantoms roster, Myers, Aube-Kubel, Vorobyev, Vecchione and Lyon are all candidates for NHL recall based on their play and/or Flyers injuries. Depending on the needs of the NHL roster, it is also possible that Tyrell Goulbourne (nine games with the Flyers in 2017-18) or Martel (four NHL games) could return to the Flyers. If Stolarz stays healthy and outperforms Lyon, it is possible that their spots on the depth chart could once again reverse. Willcox might be able to work his way up to a similar role to the one previously played by Mark Alt last season before he was claimed by the Colorado Avalanche.
Meanwhile, if oft-injured fourth-year pro Cole Bardreau can stay healthy, the high-energy and powerfully built agitating forward could challenge for an NHL role similar to the one he plays for the Phantoms.
Among the rookies, goaltender Hart will try to earn a fast-track trip to the NHL but will more likely need at least one year of AHL seasoning. Rubtsov will try to return to the offensive form he showed in his first half-year in the QMJHL (9g, 22 pts in 16 games for Chicoutimi in 2016-17) after struggling for offensive consistency last season. His skill level and two-way instincts are not in question. The other rookies will vie to earn regular starting jobs on Gordon's team, and build from there. Second-year pro Friedman would need a performance similar to what forward Aube-Kubel did last year to catapult himself into NHL callup candidacy.
Veteran forward Knight, who played for Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol at the University of North Dakota and has become a stabilizing force (playing any lineup role as needed, being a calming presence in the locker room) in his two seasons with the Phantoms. He is a dark horse for an NHL callup in a fourth-line role. Back in 2015-16, Knight quietly held his own in a 20-game NHL recall to the Florida Panthers, for whom he produced seven points.
The fifth season of hockey in Lehigh Valley kicks off on Saturday, October 6 at 7:05 p.m. with the Phantoms taking on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, top affiliate of the New York Islanders.