Piccinich’s line change ignites Phantoms right-winger

For most of J.J. Piccinich’s young career, he played a huge role in scoring, normally playing with the top two lines on the ice.

During the 2012-2013 season, Piccinich’s first with the Youngstown Phantoms, the Paramus, N.J., native spent most of his time on the fourth line, also known as the energy line. The right winger scored just three goals and had 12 assists during the regular season and one goal and one assist in the United States Hockey League playoffs.

“Last year, he probably wasn’t in the role he had been in before in his life or he ever envisioned himself being in,” Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen said. “Every night, he was playing with Markus McCrea and Alfred Larsson. They were a great fourth line, but that’s not what J.J. wanted to be long term or what he saw himself as. But we asked him to do it, and he bought in and did it. When he came back this year, we put him in more of a scoring-line role, and he’s taken off in it.”

Piccinich has definitely thrived this season since Noreen placed him on the first line and the power-play unit, placing second on the team with 33 points through 31 games. The 17-year-old right winger has picked it up as of late, recording 18 points in the last 12 games.

Piccinich leads the team in goals with 19 and leads the USHL with 10 power-play goals. While many in the league might be surprised by Piccinich’s goal-scoring prowess early this season, Noreen said he isn’t shocked at all, which is why the franchise signed him last season as an underaged player.

“A big part of it is he goes out and he’s willing to get to the areas where you might have to take a stick, you might have to take a punch in the face, you might have to take a body, but if you get to that area, you’re more likely to score a goal,” Noreen said. “J.J. gets to those areas, and a lot of times he’s rewarded for it by pucks in areas where he’s able to tap them in.”

As to taking advantage of the man advantage, the 6-foot, 180-pound forward points toward his linemates on the power play (Kyle Connor, Max Letunov and Kiefer Sherwood) as the reason he’s been so successful this season. Connor has set up the most often Piccinich so far, ranking third in the league on power-play assists with 12.

“My teammates are really helping me, setting me up,” Piccinich said. “They just really help me bury pucks. (I) really can’t do anything about them.”

Even before Piccinich donned a Phantoms uniform, he caught the attention of the coaching staff at Boston University, one of the most storied collegiate hockey programs in the nation. The Terriers have won five national championships and have appeared in the Frozen Four 21 times.

Piccinich received and accepted an offer from Boston University prior to the start of the 2012-2013 season, meaning that either next season or the year after that, he will join the college ranks.

“I’m really happy,” Piccinich said of his commitment to Boston U. “I love the city of Boston and that school and I’m really excited to throw on a Boston University jersey and play for them because it’s a lot of fun.”

Although the Phantoms don’t know if Piccinich will be playing another year in Youngstown or joining the Terriers next season, one thing’s for certain: His teammates will be looking to get him the puck in the offensive zone.

“It’s not a bad play, everytime you get the puck to his hands,” Connor said. “He’s got a great shot, and he finds the net very well.”