In most hockey leagues the so-called puck luck starts before any games are played. I'm talking about the schedule of course. Junior hockey and the USHL are no exception. Long bus trips, back-to-back-(to-back) games; it all is part of the season. Everyone has to deal with it and that's sometimes what defines a team is how they deal with it. Other times, it's just bad timing. Playing the third game in as many nights on the road after losing a few top players can hurt you in more ways than just the standings if the team can't pull through. You also have to look at who your playing. Are you playing a lot of games against the defending champs who have most of their core players returning from last season or do you have more than your share against a group that's rebuilding with new, younger, players? So with the season opener looking, let's take a look at how the Phantoms upcoming season stacks up.

We'll we are about 6 weeks away from the USHL Fall Classic East, the USHL Eastern conference preseason showcase. For the second year this event will be held at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, PA and the Phantoms will be in the spotlight at the heavily promoted event which should draw in a large amount of press and scouts from every level. The following week we drop the puck on the regular season, on the road against the NTDP U18s in Plymouth, MI. Time is ticking down to get the 2016-2017 Youngstown Phantoms ready to hit the ice for competition. Last season was a rebuild year, a lot of turnover from the previous season, but the Phantoms managed to stay competitive down to the final weeks of the season and came a lot closer to the playoffs than the final points standing may have indicated. So the big questions is, "can we build off of last season?" Not surprisingly, we have no clear answer.

Most people's question is about the roster. I've got a little bad news there, so far it only looks like we'll return 7 players from last season - 5 forwards and 2 defensemen. Out of the forwards the top scorer returning is Alex Esposito who notched 25 points (11g, 14a) in 58 games, 7th best on the team. Noah LaLonde came into the fold a little after the season started and managed 20 points (7g, 13a) in 45 games. The remaining 3 returning forwards are Tommy Apap, Garrett Hall and Eric Esposito, who have a combined total or 41 points (11g, 30a). The 2 defensemen returning are Ty Farmer and Carter Ekberg. Both saw limited action last year. Ty Farmer, the only returning player with more than 1 season of USHL experience, only played 19 games, mostly due to injury. He was tendered by the Phantoms for the 14-15 season where he played 39 games, a little over the minimum required for a tender. Carter Ekberg has 10 combined games of USHL experience last season. After starting the season with Des Moines Buccaneers he was released to the NAHL Janesville Jets. The Phantoms picked him up towards the end of the season where he played 8 games.

So, not a lot of scoring depth returning and defensive experience is even thinner. You've probably also noted that there aren't any goalies mentioned. Tryout camp showed a lot of promise though. Connor O'Brien, who played a game as an affiliate last season, looked very good and is probably going to make the final cut. Both Britt League and Ivan Kulbakov looked good as well. Britt League is a young netminder, a 99 birth year, and may be considered too young to face regular USHL action. On the other hand, if he is ready he could be in net for the Phantoms for a few seasons and a big part of the long-range plans. Ivan Kulbakov is 1 of 2 overage (96 birth year) imports from Belarus trying to make the cut in their final year of junior eligibility. He's interesting in the fact that he has a few years of pro experience in the the Belarus league. However, both imports and overagers being capped at 4 per team and he would count towards both.

It's that time of the year, that awkward period called preseason. Initial rosters have been submitted and now we're just waiting to see how they look on the ice. For me it's that time between having names and actually having some usable data. I'm not going to lie, I don't have a lot of info or insight going into this season. The team turnover has left us the least amount of returning players in the teams history, only 7 players from last years squad are in camp. The Phantoms aren't even the worst off in the league. Add to that the protected/affiliate lists from USA Hockey and the USHL haven't helped much. Tomorrow we hit the ice for the Fall Classic East at the UPMC/Lemieux Sports Complex I've got to come up with something to say here. If I had to put an emphasis on these 3 games it would be on the selection of over age ('96 birth year) and import players, both if which we're allowed up to 4 after the final roster cuts.

I guess I'll start with our offense. Alex Esposito stands as our top scoring returning forward. The elder Esposito brother, one of 5 '96 birth year players on the roster, was actually drafted by the Muskegon Lumberjacks but cut from camp. After making the roster in Youngstown he tallied 11 goals and 14 assists in 58 games. That's not burning out the goal lights but it's a solid start. Also returning are Eric Esposito, Noah Lalonde, Tommy Apap and Garrett Hall. In the offseason we traded to acquire Asutin Pooley from the Fargo Force, a defensive forward who could really make an impact on the penalty kill. Pooley is also a '96 born player. Of the remaining forwards on the roster, my eye is on Samuel Solensky. Solensky is a '98 birth year player from the Czech Republic with a stellar record in the Czech juniors. Most recently he posted 27g, 20a in 41 games (including playoffs) in the Czech U20 league. Another import to watch is Brett Murray, a big (6'4", 210lbs) forward who was a 4th round pick of the Buffalo Sabers. Last season in the CCHL (Junior A) he posted 19g, 40a in 64 total games. Of course I'll also be watching our 2 tenders, Curtis Hall and Max Ellis, both of which are expected to be a big part of the Phantoms future.

Defense is the one area I'm concerned about, with just Ty Farmer and Cater Ekberg returning. Farmer was hampered by injuries last season and only played 19 games. Ekberg played 10 games in the USHL total, 8 for the Phantoms. To bolster the blueline experience the Phantoms picked up free agent Jake Gingell who has played over 100 USHL games for the Omaha Lancers the past 2 seasons. The Lancers are in what I'll just call a restructuring and the Phantoms may be the beneficiary. In terms of prospects, I'm watching Daniil Bokun. Bokun is a big (6'1" 210lbs) '96 born import from Belarus, one of 2 overage players from Belarus. Brandon Estes is another player to keep an eye on, he's played solid in the NAHL for the Lone Star Brahmas and hopefully can make a quick transition to the USHL.

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