Phantoms head coach John Stevens is the prototype of the modern-day coach: young, a student of the game, systems-oriented and organized.
Very organized, in Stevens’ case, with laptops, pre-scouts and video cassettes by the bundle being the tangibles of his system. Stevens has two assistant coaches — former NHLers Kjell Samuelsson and player/assistant Craig Berube — and a video coach.
In any given conversation, it’s not long before Stevens refers to the Phantoms’ “system.”
Literally, it is a system, meaning the power play, the penalty kill, the forecheck and such.
Figuratively, for those elements of the system to work, it encompasses everything from his club’s work ethic to winning battles along the boards to playing 60 minutes on a nightly basis. Stevens is a preacher and his team has bought into his message.
Stevens believes in that system — swears by it, in fact — and has stuck with it, even when his club sunk to a 2-5-1-1 start to this season.
Roles and players handling those roles effectively are key points of making any system a workable one. Lacking a bona fide sniper, scoring has been by committee this season in Philadelphia. Kirby Law is the only Phantom to top the 20-goal mark so far.
Besides Law, nine other players have hit double-digits in goals, but Patrick Sharp and his 15 goals are now in the NHL with the Flyers.
Of course, roles have taken awhile to settle with the topsy-turvy lineup with which Stevens has had to contend with this season. Much more than ever before, the Flyers have tapped the Phantoms’ roster throughout the season. Fourteen skaters have spent at least one game with each of the two clubs.
However, the arrivals of P.J. Stock from the Providence Bruins and Berube in November served to help solidify some of those roles following the dreary October start.
Ian MacNeil was a little slower in easing into his role on Stevens’ roster and struggled for much of the season to pinpoint what exactly that role entailed.
He weathered a rough middle stretch during an 11-game span from December 28 to January 17, a healthy scratch for eight of those games. Becoming an extra body in the press box at the Wachovia Spectrum was not where a 26-year-old player who captained the Lowell Lock Monsters earlier in his career expected to be this season.
But now MacNeil, a lanky 6-2, 195-pounder from Halifax who played his junior hockey in Oshawa, has gotten back on track in the past month as well.
When he did return to the Phantoms lineup, a matinee on January 18 against visiting Norfolk, MacNeil responded with two assists in a 4-1 win and another assist in the following game against Bridgeport.
A two-goal game in Binghamton on February 7 marked MacNeil’s big return, and he has not been out of the lineup since.
MacNeil laughed when asked about his scoring touch.
“The scoring touch isn’t too prevalent,” MacNeil said, though his 10 goals in 52 contests are relatively solid numbers for a checking-line forward playing in Stevens’ somewhat conservative system.
“But around the net, I like to get around the goalie and bang in the rebounds.”
Defensively solid, MacNeil can hold opponents in check, throw his body around and create some havoc around the net, just what the Phantoms need from him.
“I’ve got to be a gritty forward out there and getting in guys’ faces. I’ve got to play the body and get to the net.”
Which is what he has been doing, filling a role. It’s also why, for Stevens’ purposes, MacNeil as a solid checking-line winger fits the needs of the Phantoms, and his skating fits well in the team’s transition-based game.
“He can get on top of you fast because he skates so well,” Stevens said, “and he creates a lot.”
The press box stint a memory, MacNeil thinks it benefited him.
“I think sitting out some games there really was a wake-up call for me,” MacNeil said. “[Now] I’ll do anything I can to stay in the lineup and contribute to the team.”
“It’s tough,” MacNeil said of his stretch out of the lineup. “If you’re not working, not playing well, you’re going to sit. But that’s great. It holds a guy accountable. Everybody’s got to step up and play their role.”
Stevens agrees, and believes that MacNeil’s adaptation to his role mirrors that of a lot of the forward’s teammates.
“I think that’s the key,” MacNeil said of the team’s sustained success this season despite the lineup problems. “Everyone is doing something out there. Some guys are not scoring a lot, but they’re doing different things out there and contributing in other ways.”
The Phantoms, who have yet to endure a serious swoon since their November renaissance, closed out February with a very solid road win in Grand Rapids against the powerful Griffins that included a four-goal second period.
The Phantoms dress an abrasive lineup most nights, one that contended with some discipline problems earlier in the season. MacNeil is one of those players who has behaved himself a bit more lately.
The Hershey Bears did their best in a recent home-and-home series between the teams to goad the Phantoms into bad penalties. The Phantoms would have none of that, repeatedly ignoring Hershey’s attempts to spice up the affair.
The Phantoms continued to play a physical game, but did so staying in the roles that Stevens and the season have defined for them. Stevens would prefer to see the Phantoms dictate when the physical play before and after the whistle will commence, and his players have mostly adopted that line of thinking
“We know that we have a tough team,” MacNeil said. “We’re team-tough out there. We have to stay away from the stupid penalties. I think we can play anybody five-on-five.”
Meanwhile, MacNeil and his teammates are tweaking and firming up their roles as the Calder Cup playoffs approach, doing the little things necessary to make Stevens’ system work.
“It’s just a total team effort right now.”