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Lehigh Valley Phantoms

Lehigh Valley Phantoms

Phantoms Building Towards Brighter Days

Phantoms Building Towards Brighter Days

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – The 2021-22 season for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms was a roller coaster ride, to say the least. The utter turmoil in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers combined with the regular wear and tear at the AHL level to derail the season for the Phantoms despite a desperate push late in the season to move into the expanded playoff field.

The Flyers struggled mightily during the season.  They lost top free agent Ryan Ellis early on for the entire season, alongside one of their top centers in Sean Couturier, among other injuries.  Also, two losing streaks in excess of ten games saw Philadelphia miss the postseason for two consecutive seasons for the first time since the turn of the century in a head-scratching turn of events. It would be easier to count the players on the Phantoms’ roster who were not pressed into action at the NHL level as a result, but even despite some drama at the end of the season, the Phantoms are not too far from being a contender when the puck drops in the fall as several key prospects took some big leaps.

The Flyers will have a lot of evaluations to conduct with many roster decisions looming, with a total of ten players who last skated with the Phantoms up for new contracts as restricted free agents while four more are unrestricted free agents. Those are just among players in Lehigh Valley, with seven more regulars on expiring contracts that mostly skated in Philadelphia, including Morgan Frost.

Even if the season was far from the expectations of the club, the players who suited up put in a lot of work to prove to the organization that they are progressing towards joining the Flyers in years to come. Naturally, the organization will have plenty of decisions to make, but more than likely most of the restricted free agents will return, considering their age and status as draft picks or targeted signings by the Flyers.

Philadelphia has a lot of stock in forward Wade Allison, who had a turbulent season in 2021-22 after suffering a high ankle sprain before the season began in a prospect scrimmage with the New York Rangers. Allison missed part of the 2020-21 season and ultimately dressed for ten games in Lehigh Valley that season, as well as a stint in Philadelphia.  The injury threw off his place on the depth chart and derailed a chance to make the team out of training camp. Allison returned in December and played just one game in the NHL this season.  It seemed as though the Flyers wanted to get him back into action with quality minutes with the Phantoms rather than playing lower in the lineup in the NHL or be rotated in and out of the lineup. Allison was a prominent face and a relied-upon player down the stretch.  He played well, with 17 points (ten goals, seven assists) in 28 games played. Although the Phantoms largely fizzled out towards the end of the season, Allison is a player of the not-so-distant future for the Flyers as general manager Chuck Fletcher mentioned earlier this month.

Egor Zamula had a lot of hype around the Flyers organization when he made the jump to the professional ranks, and he has exceeded his first season by a mile in the league’s return-to-normal play, posting 29 points (four goals, 25 assists) in 58 games played, which was good for second on the team amongst defensemen only to Adam Clendening.  His impressive season led to a ten-game stint in Philadelphia from late April leading up to the conclusion of the season, and his play shows steady signs of improvement to potentially make that jump to the NHL permanent sooner rather than later. With several NHL veterans set to be unrestricted free agents, in addition to the unfortunate permanent loss of Sam Morin due to his recurring injury issues, the gap to making the NHL lineup in The City of Brotherly Love has never been so close, depending on what the Orange and Black elect to do this summer.

One of the other impressive forwards who should be on the Flyers’ radar is forward Isaac Ratcliffe. Selected 35th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Ratcliffe, standing at 6’6, 225 pounds, has a lot of potential as a power forward with a similar style to former fan favorite Wayne Simmonds. Ratcliffe struggled to find his niche in the AHL when he made the jump to the professional ranks in the 2019-20 season, but he had a strong breakout year in which he tallied 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 59 games played with the Phantoms.  He similarly made an impact in a brief stint with the Flyers, where he had a goal and three assists in ten games played. At one point, Ratcliffe appeared to have found himself a solid spot making noise on the fourth line in Philadelphia, tallying four points over a five-game span but was sent down to the Phantoms at the beginning of March. His scoring was good for fourth on the Phantoms roster by the season’s end, and he was a strong presence on the team and a pest to opponents.

Two more players to keep an eye on in Philadelphia are forwards Hayden Hodgson and Tyson Foerster, two prospects who took very different routes to get to their current situation on the bubble of being Flyers. Foerster was selected in the first round, 23rd overall, of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and made an immediate impact upon making his early AHL debut in the 2020-21 season, when younger prospects could jump into the lineup sooner due to the issues with junior teams at the time. Foerster has been plagued with injuries in his short career, getting hurt once at the tail end of that season and suffering a shoulder injury in November, just nine games into the 2021-22 campaign, and was sent to the Barrie Colts after recovering in mid-March. Hodgson, on the other hand, battled his way to the NHL ranks from the ECHL including a stint with the Reading Royals in 2019-20, who ultimately did not compete in the 2020-21 season. His production this season saw him finish with 31 points (19 goals, 12 assists) in 46 games played, with a brief stint in Philadelphia that saw him tally a goal and an assist in his NHL debut as one of the brighter spots in the Flyers’ season. The Flyers signed him to an NHL-level contract just before his impressive debut, and he should be a key cog for the Phantoms next season to get another NHL chance.

Finally, the goaltending battle in Philadelphia should lead to another tremendous season between the pipes in Lehigh Valley. Although starter Felix Sandstrom is an unrestricted free agent this summer, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Flyers pursue one of their top goaltending draft picks to play regular minutes in the NHL alongside Carter Hart. Sandstrom played well despite the circumstances of the season as a big bright spot, posting a 2.89 goals-against average and a 0.902 save percentage in 44 games played in the AHL, alongside five NHL games. Sandstrom was a rock last season and gave the Phantoms a fighting chance each night alongside Samuel Ersson and Pat Nagle, but the Flyers made a splash by signing 2015 draft selection Ivan Fedotov to a contract for the 2022-23 season to further solidify depth. Fedotov posted impressive numbers in the KHL last season, with a 2.00 GAA and a 0.919 save percentage in 26 games with CSKA Moskva and performed well in the playoffs with a 1.85 GAA and a .937 save percentage over 22 games, winning the league championship.

It all adds up to an interesting summer and an interesting leadup to the 2022-23 season as the Flyers seek to get back on track and become contenders in the NHL while developing their prospects in Lehigh Valley. The Phantoms have not qualified for the playoffs since the 2017-18 season, and success tends to flow when the entire organization plays well. Philadelphia will hope to sort their situation out, and the PPL Center will hope to once again be rocking for a contending AHL squad when hockey returns in the fall.

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