Aaaaand away we go. It's that time of year, well almost. Once again, I find myself looking to write something up with just a handful of articles and sketchy rosters. And once again we're back at the UPMC/Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, PA for the Fall Classic. This time it's the new and 'improved' Fall Classic, a single even instead of separate East and West with all the USHL teams participating in a 5 day event. I highlight the improved part because I sympathize with the Western Conference fans who are miffed about being cut out. However, I can't contain my enthusiasm to see 23 games in one place.
Anyway, it's usually it hard to qualify a junior hockey team in preseason and the Phantoms are no exception. We have a good core group of returners and a lot of really promising prospects and things look good but I only have a game against a NAHL team to go by. On offense the biggest news is the return of Nicolas Werbik who lead the team in total points (39) and was tied for second on the roster in goals (18). He's a guy you really look at as having the potential to dominate the league this season. Curtis Hall, a tender last season, has made a lot of noise to start the year with a good performance internationally in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the All-American Prospects Game. He looks to be much bigger, stronger and faster and will want to make a name for himself. Also a tender last seasn, Max Ellis looks to play a different role this season. Last season Ellis cause a lot of havoc for opponents with his line mates of Marshal Moise and Tommy Apap. This year Max is moving to center and may play on the PK more than the PP, allowing him to better use his speed and backchecking ability. In addition to a few other returning forwards ,affiliates Jagger Joshua, Jack Malone and Dalton Hunter look to join the squad full time. Hunter is a big overage forward who has put up good numbers with the NAHL Johnstown Tomahawks and hopefully can do the same at the USHL level in his last season of his junior eligibility. In addition the Phantoms have some new faces. Michael Regush is a big forward with good BCHL experience, putting up 14g and 22a in 47 games last season. Matt Berry and Gueorgui Fedulov are also players with good Junior A/NAHL experience. Also add in some AAA Minor and prep/high school prospects like tender Trevor Kuntar, as well as Connor Pooley, Alex Barber and Craig Needham.
On defense, you start with a pair of returners in Jake Gingell and Andrew Petrillo. Gingell was a punisher on the blueline last season, expect more of the same this year. Petrillo looks like he's bigger and faster and a much rougher player than last season, I expect he doesn want to be and won't be a healthy scratch so much this year. The Phantoms traded in the off season to get Michael Joyaux from Omaha for experience. The overage defenseman is in his fourth and last season of juniors and will add leadership on the blueline. The Phantoms also have several interesting prospects looking to fill in the spaces on defense. Zach Metsa comes off a good season in the BCHL and has affiliate experience with both the Waterloo Black Hawks and Sioux Falls Stampede. Gianfranco Cassaro is a smooth skating blueliner with solid junior A experience. Julian Kislin is a skilled puck mover and if he can transition from AAA to the USHL, could be a good QB on the powerplay.
This year we have a similar situation in net as the year before. After our top netminder, Ivan Kulbakov, ages out and moves on to the pros we're looking for someone to fill his shoes. At least this season we have some idea of what we're getting. Returning is last years backu-up, Britt League. League entered the USHL being called up from the NAHL after Darion Hanson was not able to compete at the level he needed to. League did not get a lot of time in net behind a workhorse like Kulbakov. There were some health or injury issues and some rumors about him being a little soft for the job. Despite that, when he did play there was no real fault to his game and he performed as well as could be expected. This carried over to camp and he'll be looking to make a statement in Cranberry. Incoming will be this seasons oddity, a Belgian netminder named Wooter Peeters. Peeters was a 3rd round Chicago Blackhawks pick in the 2017 NHL draft. Despite some less than impressive numbers in Europe, there are big expectations for him in North America. And big isn't just a word to describe expectations, Peeters himself is huge. At 6"4 and 201lbs, he's a mountain in net. Maybe not the most athletic of goaltenders, he plays the angles well and puts himself in good position to make saves. Skating speed and mobility may be his biggest weakness and he'll probably need to get quicker on lateral movement but I'm sure this is something being worked on and I wouldn't worry too much. As an X-factor, Ivan Prosvetov is also competing for a spot in net. The 1st round, 6th overall KHL pick is tall and lanky but has good athletic ability and could give the other guys a run for their money.
For opponents the first up is Waterloo. The Black Hawks have already played a good preseason schedule and are 3-1 with 2 of those wins being shutouts. The Hawks might not have the strongest returning squad but seem to be filling in things well. Garrett Wait is the leading returning scorer, having put up 10g and 28a last season. Jack Drury is a 2000 birth year forward who might be the guy to pick up the scoring slack, having played well in the Hlinka Memorial. Joey Cassetti is an incoming prospect who might be able to add some offense. Defense seems to be the thinnest on returners with Hank Sorenson being the top returner on the blueline. To bolster the backend, they picked up former NTDP player Josh Maniscalco, a huge asset at that position. In net, they're looking at a couple new faces, the most interesting is Matej Tomek, a Slovakian overager who has put up excellent numbers in the Slovakian juniors, U17 international, NAHL and some NCAA. He's a 3rd round pick of the Philidelphia Flyers in 2015 and 5th round KHL pick in 2014. He's only allowed 1 goal in 122 minutes of USHL preseason (47 total shots faced) with a 0.49 GAA, a .979 SV% and a shutout. Behind him looks to be Jared Moe, who has looked solid except for part of a game against Cedar Rapids who lit him up pretty good.
Next is Dubuque, 2-0 in the early going and the only Eastern Conference team we face in preseason. Undoubtedly lead on offense by Cole Guttman who was picked up by Tampa Bay in the 6th round of the 2017 NHL draft. Last season he was second in the league in rookie scoring with 27g and 27a. Looking to break into the league and make waves is Santeri Virtanen, a Finish prospect with impressive international experince who was a 4th round pick for Winnipeg in the last NHL draft as well as a 1st round (17th overall) in the KHL draft as well. Returning in net is Jaxton Castor, who played well last season, 2.35 SV% and a .902 SV% with 4 shutouts. Castor has not played in preseason yet, I don't know his status or if he'll be dressed for the Fall CLassic. Also returning in net is last years backup, Evan Fear who posted a 2.97 GAA and a .881 SV%. He'll be looking to up his game. Also trying his luck is Cole Weaver who played a preseason game against Green Bay and stopped all 21 shots he faced.
Then we finish up with Des Moines, currently 2-2 in preseason. Their biggest returning offensive asset is Julian Napravnik, a German born forward who scored 19g and 19a last season. Brandon Costello played a 6f games for the Bucs at the end of last season and netted 2g and 2a and there are high hopes he'll continue to play at that level. On defense, Des Moines is well set with returners Scooter Brickey and Colin Ubekile on the roster and the addition of another former NTDP blueliner, Will MacKinnon and a trade for Cedar Rapids returner Jakub Sirota. the Bucs are looking at a full compliment of new goaltenders. Jake Kucharski played a couple games as an affiliate last season, spending most of his time with the Austin Bruins of the NAHL, but got dinged for 4 goals on 26 shots in his only play of the preseason. Ryan Snowden, who played the last season for the NAHL Topeka Roadrunners has played the most so far and has played well, posting a 1.58 GAA and a .945 SV% with a shutout in 3 appearances. Also looking to make the team is Christian Stover who played AAA for Victory Honda and stopped 11 of 12 in 29 minutes of play so far in preseason.
So what to expect. Well, since the Phantoms haven't played a USHL team yet I couldn't tell you what to look for from them. This will be about players getting their feet wet and trying to evaluate talent. There is not a lot of time to make final cuts and it will be interestign to see what players get released before opening night. With the way this tournament is shaping up and the way things are going with the team and league, I wouldn't be surprised to see some trades as a result early next week, or maybe even mid-tournament. I think most eyes will be on the netminders, was was the case last season. Strange things can happen in preseason and Kulbakov was a good example from last season.
Other than the Phantoms, there are 20 other USHL games going on and some youth games. The youth tournament games almost stole the show last year and may have been my favorite part of the whole event. This season there will be fewer youth games on the UPMC ice sheets as a result of the expanded USHL schedule. This is a little bit of a disappointment but there will still be a lot of great play from the kids who will be trying out for USHL teams in years to come. After it's all over it's less than a week from the drop of the puck on the regular season so things are starting to move quickly. I hope I see some Phantoms fans in Cranberry and a lot more at the Covelli Oct. 7th