ALLENTOWN, Pa. – The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are preparing to build off a solid season in 2020-21 with a few significant changes. First-year head coach and former Flyer Ian Laperriere takes over the reins behind the bench. On the ice, the team has added some veteran talent to complement a younger mix. Felix Sandstrom takes the starting position in goal as he looks to challenge for NHL time, and strong talent like Tyson Foerster looks to take the next step at the AHL level.
The Phantoms will be contending with a number of injuries to start the season but will look to their veteran players to guide the team in the early portions of the new campaign.
Last Season in Review
Record and Playoff Appearance: 18-7-4-1, 32 games played, second place in the North Division. Did not participate in postseason play.
Season Summary: With a varied roster thanks in part to the early AHL debuts of Zayde Wisdom and Foerster, the Phantoms made a strong push to be one of the league’s top teams in the shortened 2020-21 season. After losing a portion of their schedule due to COVID-19 issues, the Phantoms struggled a bit but still finished second place in their division this past season. Stability was a key issue with their NHL affiliate in Philadelphia, who endured a difficult season, and the Phantoms are looking to build into one of the league’s top teams as the hockey world returns to normal.
Statistics: The Phantoms were led by forward Cal O’Reilly with 23 points (four goals, 19 assists), dressing in all 32 games for the team in 2020-21.
Lehigh Valley’s 96 goals for was at the middle of the pack offensively, finishing 18th in the league, while their 92 goals against ranked eighth-best amongst their peers. Their power play struggled at 17.9% efficiency, ranking 18th in the league, while their penalty kill was sixth-best across the AHL.
It’s safe to say Lehigh Valley thrived defensively and had success by suffocating their opponent’s offense.
Key Acquisitions: The Philadelphia Flyers were very active over the summer, making trades and signing new faces to bolster their lineup, and built depth that should result in a stable lineup for the Phantoms. No bigger signing was that of former AHL MVP Gerald Mayhew, who had back-to-back 60 point seasons with the Iowa Wild from 2018-20. That includes an astonishing 2019-20 season in which the 28-year-old had 61 points (39 goals, 22 assists) in just 49 games played before the season ended early. That stat line included ten game-winning goals, 13 power-play goals, and two shorthanded goals on his way to being awarded the league MVP honors.
Alongside Mayhew, veteran defenders Adam Clendening and Nick Seeler bring a combined 195 games of NHL experience to Lehigh Valley’s blue line alongside skilled young defender Cooper Zech.
Key Losses: The Flyers are going with youth in their goaltending system, and that meant the loss of AHL veteran Zane McIntyre over the summer. McIntyre is a consistent, solid presence between the pipes, and although the organization is confident in the abilities of Felix Sandstrom, Kirill Ustimenko, and Samuel Ersson, it places a lot of responsibility for them to carry the load for the Phantoms.
Other key departures were veteran defenseman Derrick Pouliot, Nate Prosser, and Tyler Wotherspoon, who brought a lot of experience and poise to the blue line.
2021-22 Schedule Breakdown
It will be a challenging schedule for the Phantoms over 76 games, and a large portion of their games will feature their two interstate rivals, the Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who combine for 26 games of the slate. The season is often won or lost in those matchups, which was the focus of last season’s entire calendar, and the three Pennsylvania teams know this well.
They will have eight games against the Charlotte Checkers in their return to play with their new NHL affiliates in Florida and Seattle for this season, and six games against Bridgeport, Springfield, Providence, and Hartford. They’ll also play the teams in the North Division two times each (four games against Cleveland).
Top Storylines for 2021-22
Lehigh Valley’s biggest storyline is the youth movement, which is in full swing with a lot of possibilities. Players like Seeler, Clendening, and Mayhew will look like veterans at the oldest age on their roster at 28, while the time to shine is now for Foerster, Jackson Cates, Isaac Ratcliffe, and Linus Sandin. The Flyers have been very willing to insert young players into their lineup and allow them to take the reigns as has been the case over the past few seasons, and these players will be looking to continue their strong first impressions this season.
Health is going to be a storyline to watch out for, at least in the early going of the season. Wade Allison, Wisdom, Zech, Tanner Laczynski, and Egor Zamula are all on the shelf in addition to Flyers regulars Sam Morin and Kevin Hayes. Laczynski is likely done for the season with a hip injury, and Allison may not be too far behind him. Wisdom may be out until December at the soonest, and Zamula and Zech are a few weeks out.
It’s a lot of injuries before the puck has dropped on the new season, which leaves the Phantoms digging into their lineup a bit already and missing some key players. There’s enough talent on the roster that it’s not back-breaking, but it leaves the team on thin ice once the normal grind begins.
The youth story extends to the net as Sandstrom takes over the goaltending responsibilities after a solid debut in 2020-21. Lehigh Valley is missing a key figure in Alex Lyon, who has been a fixture in Allentown for many years, and it’ll be up to potentially three goaltenders with 18 combined games of AHL experience between Sandstrom, Ersson, and Ustimenko between the pipes for the season. All three are draft selections of the Flyers over the years, with Sandstrom previously dueling current Flyers starter Carter Hart during their days of competitive World Junior Championship play, so confidence in the trio is naturally high. It will be up to the Flyers coaching staff to guide the three without a traditional veteran goaltender in the group.
Prediction Sure to Go Right
The Phantoms are going to get impressive seasons from young players like Foerster and Cates, and will show that 2020-21 was no fluke with a strong showing. Sandstrom will put any doubts to rest and will come out of the season poised to take over in Philadelphia’s backup role in 2022-23.
Predictions Sure to Go Wrong
The injury bug is mounting amongst the team’s top prospects, and if it causes significant issues for the Phantoms in the early going, it might play a role in derailing an exciting season. With teams looking to hit the ground running this season, it could prove devastating.
How will the Phantoms fare this season? Will they miss the playoffs, become victims of the AHL’s new playoff format, make a deep run, or win the Calder Cup? Let us know your thoughts!
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