After an exciting (if not exhausting for some) weekend return to the Covelli Centre, everyone was looking forward to a nice boring week before heading to Chicago for a pair of games. Owen Bartoszkiewicz got the first shutout at Covelli in years, almost guaranteeing USHL weekly honors. After showing he was progressing in his short USHL career, it would be nice to focus on getting Kyle Chauvette healthy while feeling more confident about letting Bartoszkiewicz get more time in net in preparation for next season, when he could be a starter. I'm sure that getting players back in the lineup so we could reunite lines that have worked well all season was on the agenda.
The Phantoms (12-11-2-3) can wish in one hand I guess. The first bit of news came in the form of a trade with Fargo. With the addition of Tomas Machu from Czechia, the Phantoms had 1 more import player than is allowed, and were juggling their affiliate list to accommodate. The result was sending Ryan Alexander (10g, 7a) to the Force in exchange for Charlie Lurie (7g, 11a) and a swap of Phase 2 draft picks, in favor of the Phantoms. Next came the announcement from the USHL that the first game of the weekend was off, with the typical form message that usually means it's due to Covid. Saturday's game is still on as of publication. Needless to say, no one knows which team (if not both) initiated this and how the remaining game will be affected if played. Then came Twitter rumors about Owen Bartoszkiewicz heading to the NCAA to join the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who's top netminder just signed in the NHL. Yeesh, how is a guy supposed to write up anything through all this.
So this week we might play a game against the Chicago Steel (20-5-6-0). These teams have met twice so far this season in separate weeks, splitting the games with each winning on the road. Both were weeks I had other obligations and missed the preview. Fortunately for me, they don't need a lot of introduction. And with the fact that at least one game has been cancelled for a possible outbreak, who knows who will be playing. In the last last two weeks, at least, the Steel have listed players as "protocol" or "illness", so we know they have not been unaffected though this.
The Steel have a lot of veteran offensive threats. For forwards, Jackson Blake (18g, 31a), a 4th round Carolina Hurricanes draft pick, is tied for the USHL lead in total points and assists. Blake is a great playmaker, especially in tight areas. The Steel also boast the leading goal scorer, Adam Fantilli (23g, 16a). Fantilli, an '04, is in his second year and will not even be draft eligible until next season. At 6'2" and 190 lbs, Fantilli is already physically impressive and with his shooting skills and vision, he is one of the most dangerous players in the league. However, Fantilli was scratched as a injured player in last Saturday's game for the Steel. Also keep an eye on another pair of NHL drafted veterans who can score in team Capitan Joe Miller (6th round Toronto Maple Leafs) with 14g, 25a and Assistant Capitan Sam Lipkin (7th round Arizona Coyotes).
On defense the Steel have a core group of veteran defensemen, lead by two very capable two-way blueliners. The first is Jake Livanavge with 2g, 25a. The other is Lukas Gustafsson with 6g, 17a. Both, in addition to being big parts of the Steels already potent offense, they are defensively responsible with a +/- of +7 and +6 respectively. In terms of shutdown defense, I'm a little surprised to see that the best +/- on the Steels blueline is former Phantom Austen May (1g, 5a) with a +12. May, last season with the Phantoms was more of an offensive defenseman and his defense was horrible, netting him a -19, tied for 4th worst in the league. This season he's certainly changed his game.
In net, Gibson Homer has had the bigger workload for the Steel. The ex-NTDP netminder has appeared in 17 games, an 8-3-5-0 record with a 3.64 GAA and a .886 SV%. Splitting duties for most of the season has been Nicholas Haas. Has has 10 game appearances, posting a 5-5-0-0 record, 2.96 GAA and a .902 SV%. Haas was injured for about a month and a half and has just recently returned to duty. The Steel are still carrying Christian Manz, who played and won 5 games in Haas's absence. Manz put up an impressive 2.76 GAA and a .917 SV% in those games.
So, where to begin. At least Monday was uneventful. Tuesday signs of the Alexander trade showed up early and was announced later that afternoon. A lot of people were surprised to see the third leading scorer, and one of the few consistent scorers on the team, traded. Alexander seemed to be a chemistry player, usually centering a line with Evan Werner and either Shane LaChance or Stivin Sardarian. Werner and LaChance had recently really looked like they were stepping up their scoring, and hopefully this won't take away from that. The incoming Charlie Lurie is is C ranked skater on the NHL's CSS, known for having a decent shot with good accuracy and the ability to get shots on goal. However, he also known as an active defender and puck supporter. All things the Phantoms can use. As I mentioned, the Phantoms needed to move an import player, having 1 over the limit after adding Tomas Machu. Sometimes you're limited to what other teams are offering, other options might be just dropping players or sending them to the NAHL for no compensation. Alexander was a highly desired piece I'm sure, but Lurie was pretty fair compensation.
Then on Wednesday, while I'm working on my thoughts about the trade two other balls dropped. Not necessarily in the order we got them, first I'll touch on the Friday game postponement. This isn't really a big shock at this point in time, but a major inconvenience and any disruption in the schedule is bad for teams, the league, and fans. The league's blanket statement about "per league safety protocols, minimum standards were not met to play this game" tells fans nothing at all about what is happening (or not happening) but this is usually related to Covid outbreaks. The Steel listing "protocol" and "illness" on their scratch lists the past couple weeks, transparency we really thank them for, and the Phantoms played with a depleted roster the past couple weeks as well so we know it's an issue. What would be nice is maybe a breakdown of the issue. "Team A had could only dress 14 players" or "Team B had all their netminders (coaching staff, etc.) out" or even "the refs had an outbreak and we can't run all the games that date" might let fans know why suddenly they are looking for ticket refunds.
The game postponement notice came right after we had gotten an unofficial tip that another roster shakeup was underway. Twitter quickly followed in speculating that Owen Bartoszkiewicz was on his way to the University of Minnesota after the NCAA's #1 ranked men's hockey team starting netminder signed with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. Bartoszkiewicz is one of a pair of USHL netminders that are next in line for the Golden Gophers, Cedar Rapid's Geno Pichora being the other. Pichora, interestingly enough, started opposite Bartoszkiewicz last Friday as the Phantoms beat the RoughRiders 3-1. Who knew that game might of been an NCAA tryout. Adding to this, Thursday Tweets started making their rounds that Phantoms affiliate netminder Jacob Fowler had been called up for the remainder of the season and some outlets took that as a sign that the Bartoszkiewicz rumor must be confirmed. Considering the pandemic and the previous weekend, it would not be unusual for the Phantoms to bring Fowler, an '04, in from the Selects Academy 18U AAA program where he's put up really good numbers, a 1.68 GAA and a .932 SV%. Late edit: This has been confirmed by the University of Minnesota.
So with one game against potentially the best team in the USHL, or against a skeleton crew on tap, this should be a fun weekend. I guess the keys to winning will be who has a roster up to play. The Phantoms might be glad for that extra day, especially getting Fowler in. It'll have been 8 days since Kyle Chauvette (9-5-1-2, 2.91GAA, .904 SV%) was scratched last Friday, new CDC guidelines are 5 days without symptoms for Covid protocol. It's hard to imagine that for the Phantoms after the past two weeks will have too many players left to get infected. Offensively and defensively, I think the Phantoms know how they have to play and have been more consistently in the recent weeks. Someone will need to step up a little to fill in the gap left by Alexander. Will it be Lurie or someone like Evan Werner, Shane LaChance, or Justin Varner? Maybe someone else or even better yet, everyone?
Then we're back on the road next week to Muskegon for a pair of games. We'll finish out January with a trio of games at home against the NTDP U17s, and it's always a safe and boring week when the NTDP is involved. Well, two weeks is a long way off so stay tuned.