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Phantoms ‘excited’ for start of 2022 season

Staff file photo / Brian Yauger Youngstown Phantoms defenseman Michael Fisher plays during a preseason game against the Maryland Black Bears in September.

As the weather slowly starts to cool down and the days get shorter, it only means one thing. Hockey season is fast approaching.

Since he was hired to the role in May, Youngstown Phantoms head coach Ryan Ward hasn’t been shy in his excitement.

It’s not just him.

The entire locker room is flooded with excitement for the team’s first game of the season on Saturday.

It’s been a long and productive summer, but it’s time for the Phantoms to put their money where their mouth is.

“Everyone in the locker room is super excited,” Ward said. “We’ve had a pretty rigorous training camp, we’ve played eight preseason games, but it was a great opportunity for us to see where line combinations shake out, set our leadership group, just let the guys be kids and get to know Youngstown. I think everyone will tell you that they’re raring to go.”

The opening day roster features five total NHL Entry Draft selections, three forwards and two defensemen.

Captain Shane Lachance (2021, Round 6, Edmonton Oilers), Reese Laubach (2022, Round 7, San Jose Sharks) and James Fisher (2022, Round 7, Columbus Blue Jackets) are the three forwards.

The pair of draft selections on the backend are Tomas Machu (2021, Round 7, New York Islanders) and Michael Fisher (2022, Round 3, San Jose Sharks).

“We just have a great, great group of kids and I think that’s the most important thing,” Ward said. “To see all of them come together so quickly, be at the rink and be excited to be here and take advantage of the resources that our management and ownership put in, that’s the thing that stands out. I think everyone’s excited to be in Youngstown and everyone’s excited to pull the jersey on.”

FORWARDS

A highlight of this year’s Phantoms team is its versatility. Up front, the team is going to feature a wide range of skill sets and abilities to where all four lines are going to be heavily utilized.

“I’ve said this all along, but I think we’re going to be a team that does things by committee,” Ward said. “We definitely have a great blend of skill and work ethic. The vision and skill that some of our forwards have is elite. You look at a guy like (William) Whitelaw, Shane Lachance and you know some of the older guys like Luke Levandowski and our NHL draft picks like Reese Laubach.

“I just think up and down the lineup, we have some depth there and I think we have a great mix of guys that can make plays and guys that work their tails off and we can kind of roll four lines and compete with anyone.”

In early line charts, Whitelaw has seen time centering Lachance and James Fisher. While the line is exciting on paper and could be a force to be reckoned with for opposing teams, it’s still early in the year and the Phantoms are still figuring out who goes where best.

“They’re all elite players and they’re different in their own regard,” Ward said. “Shane’s a big, heavy, strong player with a nose for the net and has done a great job in the preseason of being that player. Will’s a very dynamic forward obviously that can make things happen at any point in the game and James Fisher, he’s a big body with a ton of skill. I think you’re going to see him get better and better as the year goes on and obviously he’s an NHL draft pick.

“We are excited about that line and I’m excited to see how they grow, develop and mesh here as the year goes on.”

That line is just three of the 19 forwards that made the opening roster.

Another player to watch out for is Jake Rozzi, who is a Quebec-born forward that was brought in from Waterloo and played under Ward at Selects Academy 15U AAA.

Rozzi is one of four Phantom forwards in the top 10 for preseason scoring. He led the league with eight points (2 goals, 6 assists) across four USHL preseason games. Kenta Isogai, entering his third season with the Phantoms, was third in the league with six points (4 goals, 2 assists).

Lachance was sixth (3 goals, 2 assists) and Hunter Price, a forward the Phantoms pulled from the Alberta Junior Hockey League, was seventh (2 goals, 3 assists).

DEFENSEMEN

The Phantoms have nine defenders on their season-opening roster. Draft picks Machu and Michael Fisher are surrounded by returning players like Chase Pietila and Andrew Centrella as well as young newcomers Andrew Strathmann and Conner de Haro. The defensive unit is just like the forward unit.

They’ll play by committee and the position group has loads of depth. Any of the nine listed players could slot anywhere in the lineup. Ward mentioned this is one of the best defensive units he’s seen at this level possibly ever.

“The D core is as solid as I’ve seen in junior hockey,” Ward said. “I think we have a group of guys that when you look at one-through-nine that’s a capable group with a ton of depth. We feel comfortable putting those guys on the back end and in any situation, whether it’s penalty kill, power play, five-on-five, I think the depth of that group will really carry us through for the year.

“Having Tomas Machu come just join us the last couple days, he’s been excellent while he’s been here. Then you look at (Strathmann), Centrella, (Nick) Williams, Pietila, Daniil Dolzhenko, then the younger players, Conner de Haro, Jack Willson and Trey Scott have been phenomenal. The whole defensive core is extremely talented.”

GOALTENDERS

Jacob Fowler returns to the Phantoms and will be the team’s ace in net.

Fowler, who boasted a .927 save percentage across 18 game last season, is in his first year of draft eligibility and has had a stellar preseason.

So much so, that Ward lofted some very high praise toward his netminder.

“Jacob Fowler has been phenomenal. In his last outing in Chicago, he looked like an NHL goalie,” Ward said.

Expected to back him up on the opening day roster are Colin Winn and Rastislav Elias.

Elias was the backup goaltender for Green Bay last season, posting an .864 save percentage and an .899 representing Slovakia on the international circuit.

OUTLOOK

As excited as hopes are for the season, none of it matters until skates hit the ice in a regular season game.

The Phantoms’ first chance to do that is on Saturday as a part of the USHL Fall Classic in Pittsburgh. Eyes from across the hockey world are going to be there watching all 16 teams compete over the weekend.

While that might sound like a lot of pressure, Ward is confident that the bright lights aren’t going to affect his squad too much.

“The Fall Classic is great because you have NHL scouts and colleges there and you have a chance to see other teams in the league,” Ward said. “It’s probably nerve wracking for the guys, there are a lot of eyes on them there, but for our group, I think we’ve stayed humble and stayed dialed in to what we want to do here building this team. So, going into Pittsburgh, I think it’s nothing but excitement. I think the guys are ready to get the season kicked off.”

That being said, if all goes well, Ward can see this group doing great things. Just as long as they take it a day at a time.

“We want to give ourselves a chance to win every game and obviously at the end of the year hopefully be in the conversation for the Eastern Conference championship,” Ward said. “I firmly believe that there’s something special going on here and this group can play well into the spring. I think we’ll just take it day by day and build brick by brick and just keep building and if we do our jobs, I’d like to think we’ll be there.”

The first game of the season against Waterloo is Saturday, with puck drop set for 2:30 p.m.

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