Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thursday practice update 3/14

The Phantoms had a new set of forward lines at Thursday's practice, and that got me thinking about just how many different line combinations the Phantoms have gone through this season. Since the start of the month, you've had Marcel Noebels on the top line with Garrett Roe and Jason Akeson, then centering the third line with Tyler Brown and Matt Ford, then playing second line left wing with Mitch Wahl and David Laliberte, then last night he was on the fourth line with Ian Slater and Brown.

Today at practice, Noebels was skating on a line with Rob Bordson and Harry Zolnierczyk. That means in the first 14 days of this month, Noebels has played with at least nine different linemates. Meanwhile, I could not find a record of Adirondack's defensive pairings changing since the Feb. 22 game at Wells Fargo Center, until they got Erik Gustafsson back in the line-up last night at Portland.

He took Cullen Eddy's spot to Brandon Manning's right. The defensive pairings of Matt Konan and Andreas Lilja and Oliver Lauridsen in Danny Syvret stayed together, and were together again at practice this afternoon. Why's that? Well, for one, the Phantoms have had much more player movement up front than they have had on the blue line. Since the start of the month, they lost Tom Sestito, Shane Harper and Wellwood before getting Wellwood right back, then Zolniercyk and Tye McGinn a few days later. Gustafsson was the only move on defense. The other part of it is that the Phantoms really like the pairings they have now. Here's Phantoms coach Terry Murray on that point:
You've got a veteran in Lilja with a young kid in Konan. I think he's been good for him. There's importance put on the veteran aspect of it, with communication and helping him to figure out the game. You have Lauridsen and Syvret. I think sometimes you're put in a situation too where there are only a couple of guys that can move to the right side when they are left(-handed) shots. That's part of the reason on that one, but they've read off each other fairly well. You've got a defending defenseman, basically, in Lauridsen with more of a skill player playing with in Syvret. It just seems to match up pretty well with that grit, that kind of role and veteran experienced player playing with a young guy. That's the match-up that we try to look for.
I think the right-handed vs. left-handed issue is an important one here. Right-handed defensemen are such valuable commodities that coaches try and structure their d-pairings to give them a lefty and righty on each of them. It changes some things with puck control, and it's a little easier for a right-handed shot to control a puck that has been rimmed around the boards than if a lefty went to his backhander. However, both of Adirondack's right-handed defensemen, Eddy and Jeff Dimmen, are currently healthy scratches, and Dimmen has sat out for 11 straight games, 12 of 13, and 17 of 20.

What's it going to take for him to get back into the line-up?

"Right now, someone is going to have to get hurt," Murray said. "The line-up on the back end is what it is and it'll stay that way. It's unfortunate, but that's the slot that the players fall into sometimes. I kind of wish that he was more of a utility kind of player who is capable of playing up in the forward position. I could take advantage of him as a forward and still use him on the back end on the power play, as an example."

If you go back 20 games to the first time Dimmen was scratched, it's Jan. 25. That's when Gustafsson returned from his leg injury. When Gustafsson went up to Philadelphia in February, Lilja came down. Now they're both here, so that's creating even more of a log-jam for the Adirondack blue line. And Dimmen is the only one of them who is on an AHL contract, so he tends to be the odd man out.

That's unfortunate, because I always thought that Dimmen was pretty responsibly defensively. He has an even plus-minus rating through 26 games, and he has finished with a non-negative plus-minus rating in 16 of his past 18 games. Manning, meanwhile, has been asked to log a lot of minutes on the blue line and has racked up a minus-27 rating that is currently 1097th out of 1097 AHL players. The rating is not the be-all-end-all of judging a player's defensive ability, but it does say something.

In that case, though, you're talking about a guy who plays the left side of the ice. If Dimmen came in, he'd have to replace one of the three who plays the right side -- Lilja, Syvret or Gustafsson. That doesn't preclude the option of moving one of those three to the left, but again, Dimmen is the only one on an AHL deal. (I'm considering Zack FitzGerald a forward here, since he seldom plays back.)

He's also 26 years old, which gives guys like Manning and Konan years on him development-wise.

Story in tomorrow's paper focuses on Adirondack's road struggles. More after Binghamton tomorrow, where the Phantoms will try and snap a 10-game road winless streak that is tied for the longest in the AHL this season.

MC

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