And away we go! We're getting ready to drop the puck on the 2017-2018 season after an interesting preseason. The Phantoms steamrolled through the Fall Classic undefeated, including a couple dramatic wins. Final rosters should be set, as of this writing it hasn't been released but between the league and USA Hockey, I'm pretty sure I know what to expect. Normally, these beginning of the year previews are hard to write for a guy who hasn't seen much of his own team, yet alone the opponents. This year is much better after having see all 16 regular teams and the NTDP U18s, at least parts of two games each. We're kicking off the season against the Bloomington Thunder, er... I mean the Central Illinois Flying Aces. Yeah, welcome to the USHL where rebranding a franchise six weeks before the start of the season is a thing. From what I've heard this actually isn't as bad a move as you might think but after rumors about the team trying to fold in the off season but being denied after filing the paperwork to the league too late, it certainly doesn't make you look like the most professional organization.
But putting aside the stuff off the ice, the Aces don't look bad on paper. They have three players on the early NHL central scouting service list and another two on their affiliate list. One of these players is forward Tyler Madden, a C-ranked skater. Also looking really good on the offense in preseason were newcomers Lucas McGregor and returner Calen Kiefiuk. Their defense also looked really good. Mike Callahan is B-ranked on the CSS and a solid defender. Returning from last season are Simon Batula and Charlie Raith, both in their fourth USHL season. Raith alone has 120 USHL games under his belt. If there is any weakness it's in net. Zach Stejskal is a CSS C-ranked netminder who has a couple games of affiliate action with the Thunder last season in addition to a good Minnesota high school record. Also on the roster in net is Kris Carlson. Carlson, an overager, had decent numbers in preseason, a serviceable backup netminder but in the single game I saw was not what I would call a number one goalie. He had good numbers in the NAHL last year but got shelled in 10 USHL games as part of the Waterloo Black Hawks in the 14-15 season. Either way, goaltending will be the thing to pay attention too.
For the Phantoms, we have a good slew of returning players. For forwards, Curtis Hall lead the charge in preseason after a good performance in the Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the All-American Prospects game. This landed him on the CSS with a C-rank. Eric Esposito also looked to be a powerhouse with a pair of shorthanded goals at the Fall Classic. Tender Trevor Kuntar looked more than ready to compete at the USHL level. Jack Malone and Dalton Hunter were affiliates last season and look to ready to to be part of the regular roster. Another player to watch is Eriks Zohovs. Zohovs is an overage Latvian import who put up good numbers in the NAHL with the Shreveport Mudbugs last season and good numbers in Europe and international play before that. On defense we have a couple returners, Jake Gingell and Andrew Petrillo. Petrillo especially looked to be much improved, bigger and faster and frequently using his speed and size to jump into the offensive rush. He certainly doesn't look like a defenseman who will spend a good part of the season as a healthy scratch. The Phantoms, like the Aces, will have to see how things work out with their goaltending. The Phantoms are looking to Wouter Peeters, a 3rd round NHL draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, to replace last years star performance by Ivan Kulbakov. Despite the high draft pick, Peeters numbers in Europe have not been the strongest in the past season or so. In addition, in the very limited time he's played, one preseason game and a game against a NAHL team, he has not exactly wowed anyone. He'll need to get sharper and faster to compete at this level. Backing him will be Ivan Prosvatov. The 1st round, 6th overall KHL drafted netminder also did not really live up to the billing in preseason. Prosvatov had some issues tracking the puck and will need a little work as well. Given time to work things out, both have the potential to be excellent USHL goaltenders but time will be in short supply when the puck drops.
This weekend will be a battle of who can get to their game sooner. The Aces have a decent structured season under first year Head Coach Mike Watt. If they're successful this season, it will be because of the system making the team better than the sum of it's parts. The Phantoms did not seem as structured in preseason, rather relying on speed and muscle to control the tempo of the game. The key here is finding your identity with your final roster. Whichever team can get it in gear first will have the advantage. Protecting the netminders and letting them build their confidence early on will be the key. I think the Phantoms have the advantage here, I love the firepower I've seen in preseason. The trade of Nicholas Werbik to Des Moines for forward Tommy Parrottino seemed to make a few people scratch their head. With the scoring depth at forward, especially the overloaded center position, trading Werbik for more of a two-way left winger makes a lot of sense plus we get a draft pick out of it.
And hey, we open the season at home and not against the NTDP. The last time that happened was 12-13 and that was the deepest playoff run we've ever had. Yeah, I'm making a stretch in logic trying to correlate that but we haven't won a season opener since then. Getting the season started with a couple wins certainly wouldn't hurt us. Opening night crowds can be a weird thing in Youngstown hockey but starting on Saturday and not competing with the high school football games helps. Getting a good crowd behind the team early in the season could go a long way to helping the team out. I'd like to see a lot of people in the Covelli this weekend, let's start out the season right.