Phantoms key to Flyers’ rebuild

Photo: John Mrakovcich

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

It’s not always going to be pretty or a straight line, this organization-wide rebuilding effort for the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers brought in Daniel Briere as their new general manager after finishing 26th overall in the NHL standings in 2022-23 and missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Another former Flyer, Keith Jones, joined Briere as the team’s new president of hockey operations.

Dan Hilferty, the chief executive officer of Comcast Spectacor, spelled out the organization’s plan quite clearly in May after those hirings.

“Today marks a new era for the Philadelphia Flyers. This is a storied franchise with the most passionate fans in the National Hockey League. Our ultimate goal is to deliver them a championship.

“That starts by creating a winning culture throughout the organization.”

And that includes the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, where the mandate is to develop the Flyers’ prospects and prepare them to play in the NHL. In Philadelphia, that means playing for John Tortorella and handling the demands that he – and NHL opponents – will put upon them.

Tortorella, Hilferty pointed out, “has set the tone for what is expected from our players.”

At times the results have been there for Ian Laperriere and his club. Laperriere has been with the organization since 2009, first as a player and then as director of player development, Flyers assistant coach, and, since 2021, head coach of the Phantoms.

“The organization is in a rebuild,” Laperriere said quite simply. “It’s the team’s message, the team’s new direction. You want us to see what those kids are all about.

“Torts demands hard work. It doesn’t matter if you have skills or not. You always can work. It starts with the big team, and I try to do the same thing here. I want the guys to work, and when they do get called up, they don’t have to adjust. They’re workers.”

At 9-8-4-0 (22 points), Lehigh Valley has already had its share of ups and downs this season. The Phantoms went into Hershey back on Nov. 12 and grabbed a 4-1 win against the defending Calder Cup champion Bears, a club that has been the source of considerable frustration in the past. They then took a three-game spin through the North Division, extending their winning streak to four games with victories at Laval, Belleville and Toronto, and finished their November schedule on a 5-0-1-0 run.

But this past weekend, the Phantoms picked up just one of a possible six points on a New England road swing. On Friday, they were overwhelmed by the surging Hartford Wolf Pack, allowing four power-play goals and a shorthanded marker in a 7-3 loss. In Saturday’s rematch, Lehigh Valley squandered a 2-0 lead and fell behind 4-2 but rallied with two late goals to secure a point in an eventual 5-4 overtime loss. And Sunday, the Phantoms managed just 22 shots in a 3-2 defeat at Providence.

Helping to push the organization’s message is Phantoms captain Garrett Wilson, who signed a new two-year AHL contract with the team in May. A veteran of nearly 600 AHL games, Wilson spent time in the Florida, Pittsburgh and Toronto systems before coming to Lehigh Valley in 2020.

“I love playing for the organization,” said Wilson, who put up career-bests with 43 points and a plus-17 rating in 68 games last season while also leading the AHL with 195 penalty minutes. “We have a great building, great facilities, and just a first-class organization.”

Said Laperriere of Wilson, “I love that guy. He’s pushing with me. That’s what you need. You need your captain to push with you and not against you.”

This season, the Phantoms added Rhett Gardner, Evan Polei, Victor Mete and Cal Petersen as additional experienced help.

“All those guys are in the same boat, and it makes my job easier,” Laperriere continued. “And especially when you do have a lot of young kids around, you need those veterans to carry the message in the locker room, and I’m pretty fortunate to have those guys.”

Retaining Wilson was a key step toward solidifying a strong learning environment with the Phantoms. The Flyers acquired top defensive prospect Helge Grans in a multi-player deal with Los Angeles that also landed them Petersen, who has helped to give Lehigh Valley a top option in net. Forward Samu Tuomaala, a 2021 second-round pick, is in his first full North America season after racking up 26 goals in 29 games last season in Finland’s second division. Defenseman Emil Andrae, another second-rounder, had a brief turn with the Phantoms late last season after coming over from the Swedish Hockey League. Rookie forward Alexis Gendron does not even turn 20 until Dec. 30, but he had 55 goals last season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Tyson Foerster, Bobby Brink, Egor Zamula and Samuel Ersson have graduated to Philadelphia from last year’s Phantoms core, but defensemen Ronnie Attard and Adam Ginning along with forwards Elliot Desnoyers and Olle Lycksell are among those back for further development after promising starts to their careers; Lycksell has already notched 12 goals through 21 games in 2023-24.

So, there’s hope in both Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley. But it’s a young and still-evolving group. Trying weekends like the one the Phantoms just went through are going to happen. The aim is to learn from those rough nights spread out across the long AHL season.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time,” Laperriere said, “but the team’s going in the right direction.”