Sunday, April 28, 2013

A look back 4/28

By MICHAEL CIGNOLI
mcignoli@saratogian.com
Twitter.com/MCSaratogian

GLENS FALLS – The names and faces have changed, but the scene has remained the same.

One day after the conclusion of the American Hockey League’s regular season, the Adirondack Phantoms gather at Glens Falls Civic Center. They file into the home dressing room, pack up their equipment and bid farewell to their teammates before beginning their trips home for the summer.

That was how it played out again on Monday evening. The Phantoms, who failed to qualify for the playoffs for a fourth straight year, officially began their summers not even one month into spring.

This year’s elimination hurts more than the others. They began the year with no shortage of talent and promise, boasting a lockout-bolstered roster that was renowned around the American Hockey League, and proceeded to record fewer points than any of the 16 Phantoms teams that preceded them. It was the single-lowest point total of any Philadelphia Flyers AHL affiliate in two decades.

What went wrong? How did this team finish where it did, last in the AHL’s Eastern Conference and 12 points out of a playoff spot? The discussion has to begin and end with the team’s offense.

They scored six impressive goals on opening night, but an abysmal 176 the rest of the way. Their 182 total goals shattered the franchise record for the fewest in a season. They were also the least ever recorded by a Flyers AHL affiliate, dating back to the NHL club’s 1967 inception. Two of their top four scorers, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, have not set foot here since mid-January.

“We work a lot on defending the game rather than going out and taking hold with our offense,” Phantoms defenseman Danny Syvret said Monday evening. “We rely on our defense a lot, which, in some cases, might hurt you when you’re willing to defend more than you’re willing to attack.”

It would be easy to point the finger at first-year Phantoms coach Terry Murray in this situation, as the system he implemented before the start of the year is one that preaches checking above all else, but the team’s inability to score goals is one that predated Murray’s arrival to the Phantoms.

Excluding shootouts, the Phantoms have not scored 200 goals in a season since they moved to Glens Falls in 2009. Most of this season’s AHL playoff teams have lit the lamp at least 230 times.

An exception is the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who only scored 178. But they also allowed the fewest shots in the league, and goaltending duo of Brad Thiessen and Jeff Zatkoff took home the league’s Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for allowing the fewest goals among the AHL’s 30 teams. The Phantoms allowed 219 goals, which placed them well in the league’s bottom third.

And the Phantoms were 18-15-3-4 in one-goal games, while the Penguins went 23-9-2-2 in them.

“We could have won more games,” Marcel Noebels said after Adirondack’s season-ending win Sunday evening, echoing Murray’s comments from the day before. “We had so many one-goal games. I think if we won even half of those, we’d play next week probably and make the playoffs.”

So why didn’t they win more than 18 of their 40 one-goal games? Why didn’t they score more?

“I think sometimes we just hurt ourselves with turnovers that we made, that (opponents) didn’t really force,” center Garrett Roe said as the Phantoms parted ways Monday. “That always hurts you. Just little things. Not creating enough traffic in front of the net, or coming in on the rush and you miss the net instead of getting an extra opportunity or making the goalie make a save. It’s just little things like that. Whenever you find yourself struggling, it kind of reverts back to the basics.”

The power play was also an issue. It accounted for 35 percent of Adirondack’s total goals (64 of 182), the largest percentage since the team moved to Glens Falls, yet finished atop the bottom half of the league with a 16.5 percent success rate. Most teams shoot to hit the 18 to 20 percent range.

“It was like hot and cold,” Syvret said of the unit. “Pieces came in and out, more so near the end. About a month ago, we had a consistent five-man unit. We were pretty comfortable with knowing each player’s tendencies and what they like to do with the puck, or where they are on the ice.”

Scoring too few goals and allowing too many of them was the root of several other problems, each damning for Adirondack’s playoff chances: They twice had stretches where they lost seven of eight games. They did not win more than three consecutive games all year. They lost 10 straight games on the road, and dropped eight of their 12 games with the Albany Devils, who only won 31 times. The penalty kill, while a strength, was perhaps asked to play too much. They were the eighth-most penalized team in the AHL, committing nearly a period's worth of infractions every night.

“I think a lot of guys had tough years,” Roe said Monday evening. “You can learn a lot. You can see where things weren’t as good, maybe, as they used to be. Maybe you did some good things. It’s kind of read and review and go over how you played. Evaluate yourself honestly. You’re not going to give yourself 10s for everything. Evaluate yourself honestly, and kind of work from there.”

Injuries also took a toll throughout the organization, and neither the Flyers or Phantoms had their full varsity squads for an entire season. Phantoms captain Ben Holmstrom went down with a season-ending ACL injury in December. But injuries and illnesses are expected to be part of a season.

Teams must adapt to them, and the Phantoms did.

Jason Akeson led the team with 20 goals and 53 points, finishing as the team’s No. 1 scorer for the second year in a row. He earned a call-up to Philadelphia last week and scored in his NHL debut Saturday. Tye McGinn had a breakout season with 14 goals and 26 points, improving on his 12-6-18 totals from last year despite playing 17 fewer games. Danny Syvret hit the 40-point mark again, becoming the only AHL defender to accomplish that feat in each of the past five seasons. He and Rob Bordson played in all 76 games, and Bordson emerged as a legitimate fourth-line prospect as he anchored a penalty kill unit that finished seventh in the league at 85.6 percent. That was the team’s best percentage since they moved to Glens Falls. Marcel Noebels scored 13 goals in a little more than half a season, and was on pace to score 22 as a rookie. Another rookie, Matt Konan, wowed the coaches with his size and speed on the blue line, and has since debuted with Philadelphia.

The Phantoms have used inexperience as a crutch, repeatedly pointing out that they have one of the – if not the – youngest teams in the league, when it comes to professional experience. They have a point. Of the 15 players who dressed in more than half of Adirondack’s games, only one of them had more than three years of pro hockey experience on their resume. Nine had two or fewer.

But some of Adirondack’s better hockey was played down the homestretch, when their line-up was the youngest it had been. They started to ice a team filled with contracted junior players and amateur try-outs whose pro games were in the single digits, and went 10-8-1-2 since March 8.

“You have a philosophy as a team or as an organization,” Phantoms coach Terry Murray said after Sunday afternoon’s victory over the Devils at Times Union Center. “Are you a development team? Are you a team that wants to go out, add a bunch of veteran players so that you’re going to be one of the better teams in the league and try to win the Calder Cup at the end of the day? And you’d like to have, ideally, your young players step up and play well and give you the Calder Cup at the end of the day. I look at us as a team that’s a development group. We’re feeding the parent club. That’s what’s most important. That’s our priority. We’re aware that the fans are coming and paying their dollars and we have private owners that want to get extended runs into the playoffs so that they can recoup a little bit of their investments too. We’re trying to accomplish both, and it’s not always easy. But when you have a feeling of a pretty solid foundation coming out of this (season) with a young group of guys, I’m hoping there’s many better days ahead for this group.”

The question now becomes how many in this group will return to the Phantoms next season?

Virtually all of the team’s veterans, with the exception of Syvret, are going to be free agents. AHL-contracted players like Jon Sim, David Laliberte, Zack FitzGerald, Jeff Dimmen, Bordson and Roe are free to sign anywhere. NHL-contracted Erik Gustafsson, Oliver Lauridsen, Brandon Manning, Mitch Wahl, Shane Harper, Eric Wellwood and Blake Kessel are restricted free agents, and the Flyers have the first priority for re-signing them. Two other players – Brian Boucher and Andreas Lilja – are unrestricted free agents, and could sign anywhere. Lilja has already signed in Sweden.

Realistically, not all of them can be brought back. The organization, riddled from injuries from top to bottom this season will become healthy, and there needs to be roster spots for many of the players who arrived on amateur try-out contracts. One of them, former University of Minnesota defenseman Mark Alt, has been impressive early. Lilja, Alt’s defensive partner, sung his praises.

“I think he’s going to be something special,” Lilja said. “I think he’s really, really good.”

Statements like that give hope that the future will be better, that the talent pool is deeper and that a last-place finish in the conference will not be replicated. Because next season is the Phantoms’ last in Glens Falls before they leave for greener pastures in the form of a new arena currently being constructed for them in Allentown, Pa. For the fans in Glens Falls who have endured four years of non-playoff hockey, the old sports adage “There’s always next year” will no longer apply.

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