Lehigh Valley Phantoms set to play first and only preseason game

OSHAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 12: Zayde Wisdom #74 of the Kingston Frontenacs and William Ennis #5 of the Oshawa Generals skate during an OHL game at the Tribute Communities Centre on February 12, 2020 in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images)
OSHAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 12: Zayde Wisdom #74 of the Kingston Frontenacs and William Ennis #5 of the Oshawa Generals skate during an OHL game at the Tribute Communities Centre on February 12, 2020 in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images) /

For the first time since March 11th, 2020, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms are taking the ice together as a team tonight in their only tune-up before the 2021 36-game AHL schedule begins. Here we are 330 days later, Lehigh Valley will be taking on the Penguins at the PPL Center. Odd, weird, and eerie that it’s the exact same way things were left.

Nevertheless, we’ve got AHL hockey on the dock in less than four days, five for the Phantoms with Lehigh Valley opening a day later in Hershey at the Giant Center.

WBS comes into their final pre-season match up warmed and ready to face this Phantoms team. They won their pre-season opener 5-1 in Newark, NJ on Sunday. Penguins head coach  J.D. Forrest has to be pleased at the way the start of camp went and how much the Penguins prospects have steadily improved over the course of its first organized game in 326 days.

Lehigh Valley isn’t the only one bringing in veteran leadership for camp.

Tim Schaller, who is at Penguins training camp on a PTO, scored the Penguins first pre-season goal. Schaller is most remembered for his time with the Buffalo Sabres organization spending it with the Rochester Americans. WBS offensive game is something to watch out for as a storyline entering the campaign.

Players who stood out to me in the WBS win and throughout the entire game were Josh Maniscalco (who scored), Jonathan Gruden, Chase Berger, Zack Nastasiuk, Tim Schaller and goaltender Emil Larmi.

Larmi looked sharp stopping 21 saves for the win. The Finland goalie was also put on loan by former GM Jim Rutherford before leaving the Penguins organization. Larmi, 24 spent 12 games in his home country playing out of Liiga for HPK where he recorded a 1-5-6 record finishing off with a 2.61 GAA, .896 SV%.

Even though its pre-season WBS penalty kill was another stand-out, going four-for-four including a two-man advantage for the Devils in the first period.

With no Calder playoffs this year and no team being awarded the Cup, the AHL this year is strictly a developmental league and I truly believe no one is in a better place for that this season than Scott Gordon’s hockey team.

When I sat down to do my Top 14 Flyers Prospects in the system, I knew we would see a lot of action from the rookies. Two factors go into that reason. One being that junior hockey, especially the OHL, is still on suspension for a start/game plan for the 2021 season. It looks like all junior players that are 18+ that have junior eligibility will be staying either in the ECHL, AHL, or NHL for the season. Why? Well with COVID-19 and the Canadian border still on lockdown, it looks like each day that goes by the OHL season won’t play out this year.

The second reason being is because the Reading Royals decided on voluntary suspension for the season along with the entire north division in the ECHL to sit out this hockey season due to COVID-19. One of the key reasons is because of non-allowed fans in the buildings. So out of all teams and looking at rosters throughout the entire AHL, besides a couple of other teams, GM Brett Flahr of the Phantoms has the best possible scenario to groom these Flyers draft picks and international signings to the next level.

Tonight it looks like nine rookie prospects will be in the lineup for the Phantoms come puck drop. That includes this past year’s first-round draft selection Tyson Foerster, who lit the lamp 36 times last season with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. Foerster is just one of three teenagers on this squad. Joining the 19-year-old is forward and 18-year-old 2020 fourth-round draft pick Zayde Wisdom along with defenseman Mason Millman.

Millman, 19, was another fourth-round selection by Chuck Fletcher and his scouting department in 2019. Other first-year pros that should be suiting up for Scott Gordon are defenseman Linus Hogberg, Egor Zamula, and Wyatte Wylie along with forwards Tanner Laczynski and Linus Sandin who signed as a free agent from Sweden.

There will be eyes on these nine with the mass amount of pressure to see how they perform in all sorts of situations presented to them during the 60 minute or more hockey game tonight.  Eight out of the nine rookies were in my top 14 prospects pool.

Along with those nine rookies, nine more players will be returning to Allentown this winter. They may have a more limited ice time, but we shall see what line combo’s Scott Gordon and Kerry Huffman decide to do. You’d have to think that Fletcher and Flahr also will have some input.

Chris Bigras, Tyler Wotherspoon, and Cal O’Riley return to Lehigh Valley after signing two-year deals in the 2019 off-season. David Kase, Pascal Laberge, Maksim Sushko, Matt Strome, and Felix Sandstrom are still on their respected entry-level deals.

Max Willman is the most interesting one returning because he’s a talented forward who never got the chance with the Buffalo Sabres when drafted in 2014. Last year he signed an ECHL deal with Reading, worked his tail off, and earned a spot with the Phantoms on an AHL deal at the mid-way point last season. He then re-signed his AHL deal during the “November” off-season.

There is confirmation that forwards Wade Allison and Isaac Ratcliffe won’t be playing in the game tonight. Both are still in Philadelphia skating with the Flyers Taxi Squad nursing their injuries. There is also no word when they return or if it will become available for the Phantoms AHL opener on Saturday.