YOUNGSTOWN - In 2013, the Youngstown Phantoms set a franchise mark for wins, advanced to the playoffs for the second-straight year and were one game away from advancing to the Clark Cup Finals.
That's not enough to please fourth-year coach Anthony Noreen.
"We were happy with what we produced last year," Noreen said at the team's Media Day on Wednesday at the Covelli Centre. "On the other hand, we were nowhere pleased with the final result. Everyone within our staff and organization knows what our final goal is. We feel the way to do it is from within. The wins on the ice will take care of themselves. We need to outwork the competition with our preparation - the results will come in the end."
Youngstown went 37-27 in 2012-13, its 10th season in operation as a junior league hockey team. Since 2009, the Phantoms have been a member of the United States Hockey League, a Tier One junior league. There's currently 190 former USHL players under contract by the NHL. Former Phantoms defenseman Scott Mayfield and goaltender Matthew Mahalak were drafted by the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes in the 2011 Entry Level Draft.
Brandon Saad, a Pittsburgh native who played when the franchise was billed as the Mahoning Valley Phantoms, plays for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. On Monday, Nathan Walker signed a contract with the Hershey Bears. The Sydney, Australia native became the first Phantoms player to make a jump straight to the AHL (an equivalent to baseball's Triple A). Walker split time in preseason camps with the Phantoms and Washington Capitals.
"There's a lot of great history here and a lot of great players who kind of got their start in Youngstown," said first-year Phantom Alex Carle, who's made a college commitment to Merrimack. "With the success they had last year, I know we're hungry for more."
Co-captain Sean Romeo joined the Phantoms midway through the 2010 season. The goaltender went 31-20 in starts last year, made 1,398 saves and turned in five shutouts. In his first year, Youngstown went 23-30. The Phantoms have improved by an average of 11 wins since Romeo has been a consistent starter in the net.
"I don't think I have to even say anything about it," Romeo said when asked if he has to preach the team goals to new players. "They walk in and see the group we have and it's a championship-caliber team. Anything less than that, we're not going to be happy with."
Youngstown knocked out defending USHL Clark Cup champion Green Bay in the first round of the playoffs last season. It fell in a best of 5 series, three games to two, against the Dubuque Fighting Saints, who went on to win the league title.
"(The playoffs were) the most-fun thing I've ever experienced in my life," said Luke Stork, who enters his third season with the Phantoms. "Every little thing mattered and it was amazing how we all came together and played for each other."
Over the offseason, Stork committed to playing college hockey at Ohio State.
"I visited down there twice, but fell in love with it the very first time," he said. "I'm excited to be a Buckeye."
Eleven players have made college commitments already. There are seven returning veterans and 14 newcomers playing in the USHL for the first time, including Frederic Larsson, a native of Sweeden who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012.
"It's a good mix," Noreen said. "This group is going to take our legacy to the next step."
The oldest player is Tyler Spezia, a Michigan native born on June 7, 1993. Kyle Connor, also of Michigan and a University of Michigan recruit, is the youngest. He was born on Dec. 9, 1996.
"We want to help these players get prepared for the next level of their life," Noreen said. "Whether that's college hockey, pro hockey or going out into the business world. We help guys come to Youngstown and have them look back at Youngstown in 20 years they say, 'I'm a better person, a better hockey player and I'm more prepared for life because of the time I spent in Youngstown.' "
The Phantoms started this year 0-2 with both losses coming to Team USA. They open the home slate on Friday against the Green Bay Gamblers.