📝 by Patrick Williams
Lehigh Valley Phantoms head coach Ian Laperriere could have chosen to search for excuses and silver linings to describe his first season leading an American Hockey League club.
“I told every single one of [the players] individually I would be honest with them,” Laperriere explained. “I like to be upbeat. I like to be positive. But you still can be positive and upbeat and be honest with the players.”
Those excuses and silver linings are not so difficult to find.
Silver linings? Laperriere’s team has taken five losses via overtime or the shootout, tying the Phantoms for most in the AHL. They have seen another three one-goal decisions not go their way. Eleven road games already rank the Phantoms second in the AHL. The Phantoms have young prospects Cam York and Egor Zamula on the blue line. A talented veteran core that includes the likes of sniper Gerry Mayhew and one of the best playmakers in the AHL for the past decade in captain Cal O’Reilly has been strong. If the 30th-ranked power play can rumble back to life, that could pull out some of those one-game games. This roster has enough talent to make some noise.
Excuses? Injuries, certainly. Samuel Ersson’s injury has forced goaltender Felix Sandstrom into a heavier workload. Forward Tyson Foerster, a 2020 first-round pick by the parent Philadelphia Flyers, is out long-term with a shoulder injury in a major hit to the Lehigh Valley line-up.
But Laperriere did not manage to play 1,083 NHL regular-season games as a seventh-round pick by grasping for silver linings or by making excuses. Fresh off nine seasons as an assistant coach with the Flyers and hired in June to head the Phantoms, the 47-year-old is a results guy.
And with a 3-10-4-1 record, that is where Laperriere’s honesty comes through. Those five extra-time setbacks? Difficult, no doubt. But there are also those 10 regulation losses, as he points out.
“Those 10 (regulation) losses, it’s hard to swallow for everybody,” Laperriere stated. “I know the players are not happy. My staff’s not happy.”
So when the Phantoms welcome the Atlantic Division rival Charlotte Checkers to PPL Center tonight in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (7 ET/4 PT), Laperriere sees the matchup as a chance to begin turning around this start.
Some good news came Lehigh Valley’s way this week with forward Wade Allison’s assignment from Philadelphia. A training-camp ankle injury has kept the 24-year-old out of action after he played 14 games last season for the Flyers while also putting in 10 games for the Phantoms (four goals, five assists). Philadelphia also sent energy forward Max Willman back to the Phantoms.
The Flyers are on a seven-game winless slide, and Phantoms players putting in strong performances certainly could attract attention from the NHL club. Laperriere has tried to stress that message to young prospects like center Morgan Frost along with York and Zamula. He wants his players to grab NHL jobs and knows what that will take. Frost has since been recalled to Philadelphia. York and Zamula are still trying to play their way into roles with Philadelphia.
“As an ex-player, what drove me crazy was when the coaches weren’t honest with the players,” Laperriere recalled. “Guys are smart, they can see through you. I don’t know any other way to coach than to be honest. And they might not like what they hear all the time, but that’s the deal I made with them individually and as a team.
“‘I’ll be honest with your play, and if I do make mistakes, or if I saw something and I was wrong, I’ll be the first one to admit it.’”
Sandstrom reflects that same forthright mentality. The Swedish Hockey League veteran is a 3-6-3 record along with a 3.01 goals-against average and .900 save percentage.
“There’s no secret why he’s getting better every year,” Laperriere said of his 24-year-old goaltender. “It’s because he’s a pro, and he gets to work every day. And he’s a competitor. He wants to win.
“I know he’s one of the guys who are really [annoyed] right now with our record, and I want that. I don’t want anybody to be happy. And he’s one of the guys who’s telling me, and he’s telling his teammates, ‘It’s not good enough.’ And that’s what I want from our starting goalie.”
The Checkers have affiliations with the Florida Panthers as well as the expansion Seattle Kraken. Leading the way for the Checkers is 24-year-old forward Alexander True; the 24-year-old, taken by Seattle in NHL expansion draft, has a team-leading 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 19 games.
True, who spent the past four seasons with the San Jose Barracuda, says the Florida-Seattle union in Charlotte has meshed quickly. Florida and Seattle employ similar systems, which simplifies building cohesion in Charlotte.
“It’s been really good so far,” True said. “The guys with Florida have been great. So, we’re actually a pretty tight group. I feel like even though we’re two different [NHL] teams, I don’t really feel like it’s been [an obstacle] or anything. It’s been good.”
Charlotte presents the Phantoms face another difficult challenge after the teams split a two-game series in Charlotte last month. Laperriere intends to continue to pound that message and lean on players like O’Reilly, Mayhew, Sandstrom, Willman, Adam Clendening, and Garrett Wilson to stress it even further. Each win makes selling that message a bit more easy.
“It’s my job to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” Laperriere said. “And right now we’re on the same page for 45 minutes out of 60. We’re not a scoring team. So we need to be on the same page for 60 minutes, and that’s my job to make sure we’re on the same page.
“I want to build that structure. I want to build that style of play. I want to build an identity. And to do that, you need wins, and for me, I only know one way to do that — to keep pushing the system. Keep pushing the details.
“I know it’s going to turn around at one point, and that’s when we’re going to start building [success].”
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER SHUTOUT
Utica Comets goaltender Akira Schmid continues his storybook season.
Making the leap to the AHL straight from the United States Hockey League, the 21-year-old Schmid has back-to-back shutouts after stopping 23 Belleville Senators shots in a 2-0 win Wednesday. The Swiss-born Schmid has league-bests in GAA (1.24) and save percentage (.956) to go with his 8-0-0 record. He went to the New Jersey Devils as a 2018 fifth-round choice.
Utica is now 16-1-0-0 on the season going into a Saturday trip to see the Bridgeport Islanders.
Ontario Reign forward Martin Frk had a strong October. An even more dominant November made him the latest AHL Player of the Month.
Frk amassed 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in eight games for the Reign last month. That output has put him third in AHL scoring at 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 16 games as he pursues Rochester Americans forward Jack Quinn’s AHL-best 24 points.
After a rare three-game stretch without a point, Frk broke out with a goal and an assist in a 5-4 road loss to the Abbotsford Canucks on Wednesday.
Belleville has experienced a busy week in preparing for this weekend’s visit from the Manitoba Moose.
First, NHL goaltender Matt Murray cleared waivers and headed to Belleville on assignment from the Ottawa Senators. Murray, 27, will try to rediscover his form with Belleville after an 0-5-0 start in Ottawa.
Murray won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins after arriving in the AHL full-time in 2014-15. He had a dream rookie season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, going 25-10-3 with a 1.58 GAA, a .941 save percentage, and 12 shutouts, winning both the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender and the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as the league’s rookie of the year. He also won spots on the AHL First All-Star Team and All-Rookie Team in addition to teaming with Jeff Zatkoff to land the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton allowed the fewest goals in the league.
More changes hit Belleville this past Tuesday when Ottawa shipped forward Kole Sherwood to the Nashville Predators. Sherwood, an offseason signing by Ottawa, played 13 games with Belleville and had four points (one goal, three assists). The 24-year-old feisty forward, who had a 16-goal season for the Cleveland Monsters in 2018-19, has been assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals, who visit Cleveland on Friday.
Finally, Belleville has captain Logan Shaw in from Ottawa for the first time this season. Shaw, an AHL All-Star and 29-goal scorer in 2018-19, made 16 appearances this season for Ottawa, where he had three points (one goal, two assists). Last season in Belleville, he put up 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 24 outings.
COLORADO GOALIE SWAP
Out west, the Colorado Eagles have had their own roster shake-up.
An injury to Colorado Avalanche netminder Darcy Kuemper this week necessitated Justus Annunen of the Eagles to make a same-day race from Colorado to Toronto to join the NHL club for their game on Wednesday against the Maple Leafs. That news capped an eventful day for the 21-year-old Annunen, who also was named the AHL Goaltender of the Month for November; the Avs’ 2018 third-round pick put together a 5-1-2 month while finishing with a 1.83 GAA and .937 save percentage for the Eagles.
The Eagles do now have goaltender Pavel Francouz in on a long-term injury conditioning assignment from the Avalanche. The move sends the veteran back to the AHL, where he had a 27-20-1 line in 2018-19 for the Eagles, a 2.68 GAA, a .918 save percentage, and three shutouts. Injuries have kept Francouz out of action since the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Forward Martin Kaut is also back from the Avs in a return from an upper-body injury. The 16th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft has played parts of four seasons for the Eagles, including two games this season (two assists).
Colorado will host the Tucson Roadrunners for meetings tonight and Saturday.
AROUND THE AHL
🏒 Cleveland goaltender Daniil Tarasov made his first NHL start Thursday for the Columbus Blue Jackets as they visited the Dallas Stars. Tarasov, 22, made 34 saves and was selected as the game’s third star in a 3-2 loss. The Monsters got a boost with the assignment of forward Emil Bemstrom from Columbus. The 22-year-old has been out of action since sustaining an oblique strain Oct. 12. He played 20 games with Columbus last season, finishing with five points (three goals, two assists).
🏒 Springfield Thunderbirds goaltender Charlie Lindgren has been called up to the St. Louis Blues. Lindgren is 8-1-1 with a 2.16 GAA and .925 save percentage for Springfield after signing with the St. Louis organization this past offseason.
🏒 Long-time AHL defenseman Jimmy Oligny has been named Manitoba’s new captain.
🏒 Tucson forward Matias Maccelli won November’s AHL Rookie of the Month honor after he had 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in eight games. Maccelli, 21, came to the Arizona Coyotes organization as a 2019 fourth-round pick.
🏒 After going 7-for-14 in wins over Hershey and Syracuse last weekend, Rochester has moved into the AHL power-play lead with a 26.5 percent conversion rate (18-for-68). The Providence Bruins still own the AHL’s top penalty kill at 88.7 percent (63-for-71).
ON THE MOVE
🏒 All three New York City-area NHL clubs have shuffled their respective AHL line-ups. Bridgeport received Thomas Hickey and Paul LaDue along with forwards Anatolii Golyshev and Richard Panik back from the New York Islanders as the parent team recovers from its COVID-19 situation. Hartford Wolf Pack forward Morgan Barron has been promoted to the New York Rangers. New Jersey has sent forward Chase De Leo back to Utica.
🏒 A pair of forwards in Chicago organization traded places this week. Philipp Kurashev has been sent to Rockford, and Josiah Slavin is up with Chicago from the IceHogs and made his NHL debut Thursday.
🏒 Defenseman Santeri Hatakka has joined the San Jose Barracuda after playing his first seven NHL games as a 2019 sixth-round pick. Defenseman Nicolas Meloche is on recall to the Sharks while forward Scott Reedy has been returned to the Barracuda.
🏒 Ontario added defenseman Christian Wolanin after the parent Los Angeles Kings re-acquired him from Buffalo via waivers. Wolanin appeared in two games with Ontario last season and contributed three assists.
🏒 Bakersfield Condors defenseman Markus Niemelainen has joined the Edmonton Oilers, skating in his first NHL contest on Wednesday. There have been 57 AHL players who have made their NHL debuts in 2021-22.
League COVID-19 protocols affecting several teams have shuffled the weekend schedule… Bakersfield, which has played just once in the last 16 days, is back in action Saturday against Ontario for its Hockey Fights Cancer night… Toronto is off the schedule until Sunday afternoon when the Laval Rocket visit in a game that will air on NHL Network… After a 2-0 win over Iowa on Thursday, the Chicago Wolves visit Des Moines on Saturday and Sunday… The Griffins have Rockford in for two… An inter-conference matchup sees the Texas Stars in Laval on Friday night, following the Stars’ 4-3 overtime win there on Wednesday… The San Diego Gulls bring a five-game winning streak to Stockton for a Friday-Saturday set, while the Barracuda have a Saturday-Sunday visit with the Abbotsford Canucks.
“What they do on a daily basis, whether it’s practice or a game, is exactly how you would want your older players and your veterans to conduct themselves. It’s easy for the younger players to hop on, look up to these guys, and want to replicate it.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast. Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.