So it begins... again. Yes, we're finally back with some hockey, and it's a busy week to begin the season.

First off, the Phantoms head to Cranberry, PA to the Fall Classic and face an Eastern Conference opponent in Cedar Rapids, and a Western Conference foe with Tri-City. Then, for good measure, we're back home at the Covelli Centre to face Madison. All this after only playing a handful of games in preseason and those having been against Tier II teams (NAHL). At least we won those, it would be embarrassing to lose to NAHL teams. Yes, Muskegon, I'm talking about you.

First off, the RoughRiders. Last season was a rebuild year for the 'Riders and this year they are hoping to continue that. They have a few returning forwards that could be dangerous this season. Grant Silianoff is their returning leading scorer, who had 41 points (18g, 23a) last season, as well as showing up on the NHL CSS reports. Jack O'Leary (7g, 15a) and Max Sasson (8,9) are both guys who the 'Riders will look to for veteran points. 

On defense for the 'Riders, having Will Francis back will be a big boon. The Anaheim Ducks draftee has a +/- of +9 while adding 2g and 8a. Will Zmolek will be back on the blueline after adding 4g and 22a last season while keeping a +1. 

In net is where things get weird for Cedar Rapids. Troy Kobryn was assumed to be the top guy in goal but that changed when he left for Merrimack College. Turns out Merrimack's newest recruit, Christian Stoever, deferred a year and the 'Mack brought in Kobryn to replace him. If you'll remember, the 'Riders traded Stoever to us last season. Stoever ended up in Des Moines where he started his USHL career before moving to Cedar Rapids. Small world, huh?

This lead up to the 'Riders trading to Lincoln for Shamil Shmakov, a '99 born Russian netminder and 7th round Colorado Avalanche draft pick. Shmakov put up good numbers in the Russian youth/junior systems, 2.57 GAA and a .915 SV% with Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk of the MHL. He'll be the real wildcard for the 'Riders this season, a player definitely worth keeping tabs on. Competing with him looks to be a '01 born netminder named Derek Mullahy. In USHL preseason, Mullahy has played in 4 games with a 3.91GAA and a .850SV%.

The biggest story for Tri-City, from a Youngstown perspective, isn't on the ice. Former Phantoms General Manager, Jason Kohler, is now an assistant GM with the Storm. Despite whatever feeling you might have on that, it's time for hockey and the Storm are usually a tough team for us. 

Their expected returning scoring leader was Brendan Budy, who put up 11g, 20a in 31 games (1.0ppg) last season. I guess the Phantoms aren't the only team to have problems with players defecting to the BCHL, Budy is in Langely with the Rivermen. This leaves Colby Ambrosio, a rookie last season who had 12g and 12a in 57g, as their top returning scorer. Without a lot of returning scoring depth, they've added at least one interesting prospect in Chikara Hanzawa from Tokyo, Japan. Like a lot of Japanese players, I don't have much scouting data. Hanzawa has taken a more European route to get here, playing last season in the Swedish junior and low tier pro leagues. His numbers from Sweden look good and in 5 preseason games he's notched 6 assists, obviously someone to keep an eye on as a play maker.

On defense, the Storm don't have a lot of returners from last season. Cole McWard played decent last season. So did Michael Koster, who looks like a decent two way defenseman. The Minnesota high school graduate will look to play the full USHL season this year. To beef up the blueline, the Storm added a solid veteran from Cedar Rapids, Mitchell Miller.

The Storm will have a pair of unknowns in net that appear to be their tandem for this season. Both Daniel Allin and Noah Giesbrecht have really good stats from various Canadian junior A clubs but I don't a lot of scouting data on them either. Joe Scharib played some for them in preseason, a prep school graduate who looks like a legit prospect as well.

Another netminder now showing up on the Storm's preseason roster is Zach Stejskal. You will recall that Stejskal was drafted by Youngstown in the 1st round of the last USHL Entry Draft and was listed on our 30 many roster. He has already played a few games for the WBS Kinghts of the NAHL this season, as well as all of last season following a rocky tenure in Central Illinois with the Flying Aces. This is the second experienced netminder who's rights should have belonged to the Phantoms (the other being Christian Stoever), this will bear some watching to see if anything comes back our way for either.

Madison is usually one of the basement teams in the East and this season doesn't look like it will be much of an exception. In addition, or possibly due to, issues that might be due to the culture surrounding the team, including a lot of nepotism, that might make attracting prospects hard, they have been hit hard by the BCHL bug as well. They have lost a few picks to the league. I wish I had more data on their incoming prospects but I don't

Their leading returning scorer is Kristof Papp. The Hungarian born '01 put up 11g and 27a in 57 games during his rookie season. Carson Bantle, an '02 born player, scored 10g and 10a in a full 62 game rookie season.

The only returning player on the blueline is Brandon Suter, who is related to half the bench and front office. Suter is in his last season of eligibility so this will be the last season I can make fun of him. Last season he had a whopping +/- of -24 in 54 games. He also added 3g and 10a as well as 117PIMs.

Returning in net is Garrett Mackay. I though Mackay seemed like a serviceable netminder last season, not outstanding but he held his own, despite a bad team. In 20 games he posted a 3.96GAA and .880SV%. So far in preseason, he's at 3.67 GAA and .898 SV%. Backing him up looks to be an '02 Slovakian netminder, Simon Latkoczy. He has put up good numbers in Slovakian youth programs and international competition. In preseason he's played about 7 periods total and has a 6.43 GAA and a .824 SV%. Madison will really need for him to up his game to justify spending 2 import spots for a netminder.

Now to the Phantoms. We have a great core group of returners and a lot of really good prospects. Without any USHL preseason games and only a couple NAHL scrimmage games, it's hard to qualify how we'll stack up to the rest of the league. Our last podcast Dump & Chase Ep. 007 - Road Warriors detailed a lot of our 19-20 roster. Early on we'll need to look to our veterans to lead the way. Last season, Trevor Kuntar put up 19g and 17a and will be our top returning scorer. Ben Schoen got hot towards the end of the season and ended with 6g and 22a. Josh DeLuca was our leader in PIMs last season but the way he looked in tryouts and preseason, he'll be adding a lot more points than the 4g and 8a from last season. Cade Lemmer, Garrett Steele, and Jake Suade were affiliates last season who might have a shot at putting up decent numbers this season.

In addition to the returners, we have some interesting newcomers. The big hype is a 16 year old Japanese kid taken near the end of the USHL Entry Draft. Under these circumstances, I usually wouldn't expect to be including the player in a preview like this, yet alone pinning high hopes on them. Yet, here is Yusako Ando. The Hokkaido native not only has met every expectation, he has exceeded just about all of them. He has great skating, puck handeling, vision, IQ, can shoot, pass, and just about everything else hockey related. It remains to be seen how he handles a truely physical USHL game, but he seemed to be fine in preseason. Also looking good as a newcomer was Garrett Dahm. The '00 born forward put up 14g, 26a with the NAHL Austin Bruins last season and was Johnny-On-The-Spot in preseason, notching 3 goals in the 2 games I saw.

On defense, with Jayson Dobay, Aiden Gallacher, Nikolai Jenson, and John Larkin returning, there won't be a lot of spaces left for new players. Dobay looks like a very solid blueliner this year and Gallacher, who was hampered by injuries last season, looks like an offensive threat from the blueline (and closer). Linden Alger, Artyom Borshyov, Caden Lewandowski, and Spencer Evans round out the hopefuls on the blueline.

Holding down the fort in net this season will probably be the tandem of Dominic Basse and Colin Purcell. Neither have any junior hockey experience but both are well touted and looked excellent in what action I was able to see. Basse was a 6th round NHL Draft Pick of the Chicago Blackhawks while Purcell has a bit of experience with USA Hockey, international play, and a couple games with the NTDP. Both will probably benefit from having the defense insulate them a little early in the season. Also in camp were McLean Dorr and Blaine Moore. Dorr, a '99 overager, looked very solid while Moore struggled a bit.

So how do the Phantoms approach the start of the season? Against Cedar Rapids in the opener, I think we just need to play our game. I think we can match them on offense and if we just keep to the plan, the goals will come. Their netminder is a dark horse but if we can break down the defense in front of him, we'll be fine. Against the Storm, I think we'll need to push them early on. If we can put pressure on their defense and netminders early on we'll be able to control the tempo throughout the match. Then back at the Covelli, it'll come down to gas left in the tank. Madison will have played as many games as we have and we're the stronger of the team, so I like our odds there.

I guess we'll see if the lack of USHL preseason games for the Phantoms is a good strategy or not. I've thought in past season where we didn't play USHL preseason games, that we haven't been as ready as we need to be come start of the season. I think the Tri-City game will be the real test.

Another promising tidbit I have heard from a couple people is that this group seems to have a lot more cohesion from the start than the last few years. There have been a couple running conflicts over the past couple seasons that have sometimes resulted in a less than healthy locker room culture, or at least some bad vibes. What impact that has had on the ice is probably debatable, but it seems to be behind us for now. 

And we'll be opening at home, despite the leagues page of "important dates" says that the first home games for the league aren't until Oct. 4th. It's a Saturday game, so hopefully we'll get a decent crowd, but it's still a little early in the season for me to start harping on attendance. It would be nice to see some fans at the Fall Classic too but considering the weekday dates and 2pm start time, I really can't get my hopes up. If you can make it to Cranberry, please do and let's try to get the season going right at home. In any event, I hope to have some highlights. I have an improved video camera (4K 60FPS) and we're starting a new, dedicated, Youtube channel. Keep your eyes on that.

As far as recaps and the next few weeks, I'm in a tight spot at work and will be spending almost a week in Virginia in between week 2 and 3. We'll see what I can get done but don't be surprised if I get behind and have to skip a couple articles. I apologize ahead of time.

Anyway, it's good to have hockey back. Let's go Phantoms!