The Gamblers are a team on a bad slide. Last week they got their first win in 8 games, a 5-2 victory over the hapless NTDP U17s only to give up a 5-2 loss to the same U17s the next night. I am really hard pressed to come up with anything that I didn't cover in Week 8 and feel I may have over estimated the Gamblers a bit. Matt DeBoer wasn't mentioned last time and I was mildly surprised by his speed and skating ability. He is the son of Vegas Golden Knights head coach and former NHL player Pete DeBoer, and his brother Jack played 2 seasons with the NTDP. So it isn't that I wasn't expecting a certain degree of skill, but he exceeded that by more than a little.
One of the notable changes for the Gamblers will be the addition of Wisconsin native, '03 forward Trey Zagrzebski from the OHL's Barrie Colts. In the shortened 19-20 season, Zagrzebski only recorded a goal and and assist in 43 games for Barrie. Last season, due to the OHL shutdown, he played in the USPHL's Premier division, opting to play in his home state for the Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings. Sure he put up over 2 points per game, 23g and 26a in 24gp, but this isn't even the top tier of Tier III league. This season in Barrie, he only dressed for 3 games and had 1 assist. Maybe playing closer to home will help him but this doesn't seem like a huge addition from my view.
The other area to watch for the Gamblers is inconsistency in net. Veteran Aaron Randazzo (4-6-0-1) has performed well sometimes not as much other times, and other times would include the loss to the U17s. Randazzo has a 3.27 GAA and a .900 SV%, serviceable numbers but not exactly as strong as you would want to see your top netminder and I've seen him play better. In net for the last victory over the U17s, as well as the loss to the Phantoms, was backup Rastislav Elias (2-4-0-0). The '04 Hungarian born, Slovakian national goaltender is a rookie with good potential if the Gamblers don't get him killed. He's a C-Ranked netminder on the NHL's CSS list but has been hit for a lot of goals and has a 5.33 GAA and a .822 SV%.
The Phantoms hit the road for this shindig at .500 in the standings and playing above that for the moment. Adam Ingram still has the longest point streak in the USHL at the moment at 12, as well as running away from the pack in the rookie point race, now owning the top spot in both goals and assists and a 7 point cushion over his nearest competition. Justin Varner has visibly improved his game in the previous few weeks, and has points in 4 of his last 5 and is now in the top 10 rookie scores as well.
Last weekend the Phantoms showed us the first glimpse of what William Whitelaw will look like in a Phantoms uniform. The highly touted '05, first overall Phase 1 USHL draft pick, dazzled everyone with his skill, vision, and IQ. He scored on his first shot, an easy one with Ryan Alexander setting him up. By the second period he was not just taking but winning faceoffs after being listed as a winger to start the game. But unfortunately this is more me shamelessly plugging the kid and not really part of the preview, he was only expected to play the one game after coming to practice over the holiday.
Also, last weekend we saw Owen Bartoszkewicz start in net in a game that most thought Kyle Chauvette would have (and should have) started. It was a confusing move with only 1 game on the weeks schedule, against the top team in the league, and a weaker schedule next week if you wanted to give him ice time. Bartoszkewicz was dinged for 6 goal on 10 shots and was left in for 38:14. He clearly looked out of sorts. Chauvette eventually entered the game but was left hung out to dry for 2 shorthanded goals, both on the same Phantoms powerplay, giving up 2 goals on 11 shots. Otherwise, Chauvette has been playing some of the best we've seen in net in some time. He's 7-3-0-1 with a 2.82 GAA and a .912 SV% and clearly playing with confidence. Bartoszkewicz is an '03, first year netminder. You expect some growing pains and 1-5-0-2 with a 3.95 GAA and a .859 SV% is not great but certainly not worrisome yet. The key is to manage his ice time and that is easier to do with a starter like Chauvette playing well, I just don't know why we took this step backwards last week.
The late breaking news, as far as this preview is concerned is the trade with Omaha, who apparently have had their roster unfrozen. The Phantoms send '02 defenseman Chris Hedden and '01 (OA) forward Morgan Winters to the Lancers in exchange for '04 defenseman Andrew Centrella and '05 affiliate forward Braiden Clark and some Phase 2 picks get swapped in the Phantoms favor. In my assessment, the defensive swap should be even on face value. Centrella is a little smaller than Hedden but is a skilled puck mover and good skater. Losing Winters for a prospect who only played 1 game means a hole in the offense that needs filled. Winters was playing well after starting the season on the IR list, goals in the previous 2 games and definitely adding to the overall team energy. At least for now it looks like more time for players like Evan Werner or Quinn Kennedy. I'm not sure if Clark is going to be activated on the roster any time soon, we'll see who the Phantoms plan to add. We have 2 spots for '01 over age players now, it's getting to be NCAA decommitment season.
Honestly, I don't know what to make of the American Cup. The USHL has done little to promote this in normal areas. It's obviously geared for the Buffalo area hockey scene, the AHL Americans and their NHL parent Buffalo Sabers. The Sabers organization has a lot of connections to the USHL and these two teams are among those. Current Saber Casey Mittelstadt played some games for the Gamblers and his younger brother John currently active on the Gamblers roster. Of course we all know Brett Murray is a former (and always) Phantom, and he scored his first NHL goal for the Sabers this past Monday. Currently, Phantoms forward Stivin Sardarian is a 3rd round pick of the Sabers in the last NHL draft. I expect he'll want to elevate his already fast paced game in front of his prospective NHL and AHL teams.
Other than the Buffalo angle, I don't see much else here other than a neutral arena and a different crowd for the Phantoms, or the Gamblers for that matter. For fans of these teams, it's a lost home game. For the Rochester area, there is also a youth tournament attached to the event at the various rinks in Rochester where they don't lack in ice sheets. The USHL games will be held at Bill Gray’s Regional Iceplex, also know for the Zamboni catching fire. I'm sure there will be scouts of all tiers there but without much noticeable promotion, I can't even guess at the numbers.
Both teams will probably want to ignore the oddity of the event, it doesn't matter much to either side. Green Bay has a little more travel time but both teams will be taking a bus ride to get there, we'll see how their legs are affected. The Phantoms just need to do what they did on the road in Wisconsin, play an aggressive game and take it to the Gamblers early and often. It doesn't have to be complicated, the Gamblers aren't that good. We'll see how the trade works out, if Centrella joins the lineup. If Bartoszkewicz needs some ice time, this might be a good time against a struggling Gamblers, but otherwise I expect to see Chauvette at least once, maybe both games. Since we're on the road all of December, this is a great way to start off the long road stretch so we need to make the most of it.
I'm planning on making the trip, but I am not sure what kind of coverage I can do on the road. I'll try to recap the games at some point later but might do some live segments if I can (or at least record something I can post during the weekend). This will depend on a lot of factors. Next week will be a little tricky but I should be back to normal scheduling as soon as I get caught up from this trip. Stay tuned.