We love the Phantoms. We love the arena and the hockey and the new downtown and the hometown hero and the organization and all of it. It’s great fun and some new traditions are starting among the fan base. An official “Phan Club” has formed. And now, the AHL All Star Game is coming to Allentown in January.
But there’s something missing: Winning.
Adirondack Phantoms: 161-191-14-22 (.461) No Playoff Appearances
2014-2015 Lehigh Valley Phantoms: 33-35-7-1 (Out of playoffs)
2015-2016 Lehigh Valley Phantoms: 34-35-4-3 (Out of playoffs)
We’re kind of good at this whole “minor league sports” thing around here, you know. We’ve been at it since at least 2008, supporting the AAA IronPigs, and now the Phantoms and the Steel FC and the SteelHawks. We know how this works, and for the Phantoms, we serve at the pleasure of the Flyers. Players need to develop. Players need ice time. The Flyers need a place to stash spare parts for when the inevitable injury bug strikes. We’ve been dealing with the same thing on the baseball side for years.
But, this isn’t the IronPigs. No one from the ‘Pigs ever talks playoffs–unless it’s with a sense of dread, in August, as they face the possibility of having their work year extend into September. Nope, the Phantoms have always been upfront with us about winning. They want to win. They’re trying to win. The people on the hockey side (ownership, broadcasters, coaches and players) are willing to talk about it and accept when they fall short–even when the marketing side is busy throwing T-Shirts and visiting schools and hospitals. They’re not happy about refunding the price of the playoff games they so optimistically include in my ticket package every year. The players and the coaches want playoff hockey. The team ownership wants playoff hockey. The Flyers have no problem with our playoff dreams. The fans are absolutely ravenous for playoff hockey–a whole mess of them support the Reading team now.
Here’s the thing: Just because you want something doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get it. Ask the nearest Eagles fan if that organization wouldn’t like to win a Super Bowl. Of course they would. They’ve been trying for years. Just because you’re trying doesn’t mean you’ll be able to achieve success.
So here’s my list of things to do in the off-season in order to get us to the Calder tournament next season:
- Don’t count on the prospects too much. The “Hextall Era” in Philadelphia has certainly stocked the organization with young, promising skaters and goalies to hopefully become the next dynasty of Flyers playoff teams. The thing for the Phantoms is this: Many of the most talented prospects will go straight to the Flyers when they’re ready, skipping over the AHL game entirely. Some of the others may take some development, and that’s not always pretty every night in the AHL. Talent is great, and it’s going to be fun to watch some of these young players. They’re important. And make no mistake we’ve got some good ones on their way. But, by themselves, they will not propel us to the playoffs, let alone the Calder. And the really good ones will spend minimal time helping the Phantoms win (see also: Ghost)
- Choose your veterans wisely. The one thing we can say is that the organization is not cheating us out of quality players for want of money. I’m not sure, but given the guys who were on NHL deals and played with the Phantoms this past season, we might have had the most expensive roster in the league for all I know. They did go out and get guys–so many guys we had to scratch a veteran or two for much of the year due to the AHL rules–to be veteran leaders and play quality hockey on the ice at the PPL Center and around the AHL. But even when they were playing said good hockey, they weren’t necessarily winning. You can play good hockey and still lose, you know. Turns out you need the puck in the net and that’s how we figure out who wins and who loses. We need guys who can put the puck in the net. Guys who have done it before and can be expected to do it again at the AHL level. Goal scorers. And more than one. We also need puck movers on defense. Ghost was here, but then he was gone. AMac did a reasonable job, but was injured and then called up himself. Again, more than just one guy, on defense, to break out of the zone and get the puck up the ice. More than just good character guys. Established finishers.
- Depth. As I said above, “more than just one.” Guys get injured and called up all the time. It happens to every team. If we look at teams like Wilkes Barre, who can call a guy up from Wheeling, put him in the lineup, and have him score two goals that night: That’s the kind of depth we need. The Penguins are ahead of Hershey right now, using their third and fourth goalies. Reading is in the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, and guess who they’re playing. That’s right: Wheeling. The guys we know, who are with Reading right now are ECHL guys who can play AHL, and not AHL guys we sent down. They need to be the guys we call up and not the guys we count on night-in and night-out. Don’t get me wrong, I love those guys. I want them to earn their way up to stay, but that means playing winning hockey and getting the puck in the net consistently at every level–or, moving the puck along and supporting the offense. But we’re not playing winning hockey, and if that’s the standard, then we need to get players on the ice who can meet that standard in the AHL.
- College. The Flyers did sign one of the top goalie prospects coming out of college. In order to properly stock the ECHL and AHL roster, the Flyers have to sign FA college players who can come in and help. We’ve seen it a little, but it needs to continue in order to achieve quality depth to go along with the veterans and the prospects. And you never know, some of them might just turn into prospects.
- Coaching. I didn’t have a problem with how the Phantoms were coached this past season–much fewer stupid penalties and the like–but they really started slow. The whole “system” excuse was used a ton. I don’t want to hear that anymore: Get the system installed during the camps and the preseason, and then hit the ice fast. Look, Wilkes Barre changed coaches, too, and that didn’t keep them from making the playoffs for the 14th year in a row, or whatever it is. A lot of these guys are veterans; they’ve been around. Certainly they’ve played in a variety of “systems” by now. And maybe this is part of the reason we need to…
- Win at home. It’s just unbelievable to me that the Phantoms were 29th ranked as a home squad, going 14-21-1-2. Were they just that bad? Nope. They were 8th as a travelling squad, sporting a robust 20-14-3-1. The first season, the team was 24th on the road and 23rd at home, so that makes more sense. I guess we just chalk it up to one of those weird things–but let’s make sure that it doesn’t happen again, huh? There’s no reason why the most expensive minor league hockey arena in the world, packed with orange-clad ravenous fans, should be any kind of home-ice disadvantage. Talk to the coaches and players about it, and make sure it doesn’t continue. I haven’t heard anyone even mention this absurdity, other than me.
- Phlex. Finally, I think we need some closure with Phlex. Look, I’m a fan and I’m given to all kinds of wild superstitions and rituals. I believe in karma and mojo and jinxes and all that. The Phantoms haven’t been to the playoffs since Phlex, and it might be time to bring him back, maybe for just one night or for the whole season or something: A throwback night? A giveaway? Whatever. Once we have Phlex’ blessing, I think we can get down to the business of winning hockey games. 🙂
At the start of the pre-season media conference this season with IronPigs Manager Dave Brundage, someone casually remarked, “You’ve got a lot of new players in there [the clubhouse].” The skipper replied immediately, “Well I’d better. What were we, 20-games below .500 last season?”
Coaches coach and players play. We need better players and better depth, despite may affinity for some of our current and most recent friends on skates. The coaches need to put them in a position to succeed–especially at home.
That’s what I’ve got: Seven easy steps (yeah, right) to the playoffs in the 2016-2017 season. You got any better ideas? I wanna hear them in the comments section (not everybody has SpaceBook). And remember,
“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need”
Let’s make the Phantoms great again,