Well, we're just a couple days away from the puck drop on the regular season. I joked around last season about it being a tradition to kick off the new season against the NTDP U18s, since last season was the third year in a row we had done so. I'm not joking anymore. For the fourth year straight we're going to face the USA Hockey's best of the best, or at least they would like to think so. And if you're keeping track, we've lost all 3 previous openers. The first 2 were in Ann Arbor at the Ice Cube with the scores being 9-3 and 4-2. Last season we kicked things off at home losing 6-4. This seasons opener is on the road at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, where the NTDP moved to last season. After last season, the NTDP lost head coach Donny Granato who went to the University of Wisconsin to be an assistant for his brother Tony. Their replacement, last years Phantoms bench boss, John Wroblewski. With Brad Patterson promoted to the vacant position for the Phantoms we'll certainly have an interesting match up between the two former benchmates. It will also be the first regular season game for both in their current positions.

Honestly, I don't have the best info on the NTDP U18s. Most of the squad is last years U17s who we only played twice, once at home and once on the road and I wasn't able to make the road trip. What I saw in preseason was a mixed message, they lost 3 of 4 games but the one they did win was an 8-2 blowout of Dubuque. Several of the forwards looked like they could turn into strong offensive threats but no one had a real breakout game. Michael Pastujov, Scott Reedy, Brady Tkachuk, Grant Mismash, and Sean Dhoogie all showed potential but I couldn't point out any as a dominate scorer. Surprisingly quiet is former Phantoms tender, Jacob Tortora. On defense, the only player I really noticed was Tyler Inamoto, who plays a solid game and is one of those players I might be keeping an eye on. In net, Dylan St. Cyr is an outstanding goaltender and may be the big equalizer against the regular USHL clubs. As I mentioned last week in the Fall Classic Preview, St. Cyr is the son of womans hockey pioneer Manon Rheume. He's also the nephew of Pascal Rheume, a stalwart NHL/AHL veteran. His pedigree is good and he posted good numbers in preseason, a 2.41 GAA and .906 SV%. Backing him up is Adam Scheel, who we put up 4 goals against in Cranberry and has posted a 6.26 GAA and .763 SV%. It's only preseason but those numbers aren't going to get you into to many games, I expect we'll see St. Cyr on Friday.

This years Phantoms look to be an outstanding squad, bigger and faster than last year. All the returning forwards that played in preseason looked to have upped their games. Alex Esposito lead the way. After coming to the Phantoms just before preseason last season, cut from Muskegon's main camp, the elder Esposito mildly surprised many and continues to improve in speed and aggressiveness. And he has good reason, his younger brother Eric was by far the most improved returning forward and clearly has closed much of the gap between him and Alex with speed and creativity. Among the new faces there were quite a few very impressive new names. Griffin Loughran and Coale Norris, both smaller forwards, displayed similar speed and creativity on offense but the standout was Max Ellis, the 2000 born tender, who'se hands and vision will make him an immediate impact player on offense and also displayed excellent backchecking ability. The other 2000 tender, Curtis Hall, wasn't as visible on the radar but played solid enough to have notable hockey writers putting him in the 2nd round or higher of the 2018 NHL draft. Add in some larger, 200+ pound forwards like Austin Pooley, Nicholas Werbik and Brett Murray and we have a very formidable offense.

Week 2 is harder than the first week to preview. It always seems like I should have actual data and not just the preseason hype. So now I have to come up with something after last weeks fairly typical season opener against the NTDP 18s. To complicate matters this week we're back in Plymouth facing off against the NTDP U17 squad on Friday and Saturday. Needless to say, I don't have a lot of data on the U17s but don't think this is going to be any easier because they're so young. Last week in their season opener at home they beat Muskegon 7-2.

It's hard to quantify the U17. The majority of the team is unknown to me and they have only played a single regular season USHL game. Heck, most of what I know is because many of these kids have fathers with connections to the game. Some players have generated a bit of a buzz and one is Johnny Gruden. His dad, John, is better known, a former NHL player, assistant coach with the NTDP, and former coach of the OHL's Flint Firebirds. Yeah, the guy who got fired twice by the same owner in the same season before the OHL removed the owner. The younger Gruden is a a gifted forward who understandably chose the NTDP over the OHL. With good hands and vision, I think he's probably going to be a first or second round 2018 NHL draft pick. Another forward with a NHL connected father is Jack Deboer. His father, Peter, is a longtime head coach in the NHL, having coached the Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils and now the San Jose Sharks. Jack is decent sized center for a '00 born player6'2", 180lbs. Another bigger '00 forward with an Jacob Pivonka, 5"11 and 190lbs, whose father Michal, was one of the all-time great Czech players and played 12 years for the Washington Capitals. On defense is the U17 that I most want to see, K'Andre Miller. Miller doesn't have an NHL famous father but  is quickly developing into an outstanding two-way defenseman who keeps things clean on the blueline and also provides a huge boost to the offense. And at 6'3", 192lbs you have to wonder what they're feeding these 2000s. If you're looking for kids with NHL players for fathers, there is Adam and Mattias Samuelsson - no relation to each other. Adam is the son of famous Pittsburgh Penguins agitator, Ulf Samuelsson, who won 2 Stanley Cups with the Pens in 91 & 92. At 6'5", 220lbs, Adam already is larger than his father and probably a little less of an instigator. Or at least I hope he's not the hit-man his dad was or we're in deep trouble. He's touted as a close down defender, as most would guess, and has a good reputation for his active stick on defense. Mattias is the son of Kjell Samuelsson, who spent 14 years in the NHL and won a Cup with Ulf and the Penguins in 92. At only 6'3" and 205lbs, he isn't the giant his dad was... yet. He does have a good shot and plays good defense and will probably be looking to make a name for himself. In net are two goalies I don't have much on. Keegan Karki earned a 2.00GAA and a .935 SV% in the first game. Ryan Ullan posted a 3.00 GAA and .889 SV% in preseason/exhibition.

Now for the Phantoms. We're still a team looking for identity and it's hard to build that playing against a non-standard organization like the NTDP. Coale Norris was rewarded with a goal for his hard work. He's a player I think could really be a major factor as his game develops. Alex Esposito has clearly elevated his game from last season and could be a very dominate player as well as a leader by example on the ice. Tommy Apap and Chase Gresock seemed to explode towards the end of the game, too late to change the outcome but definitely something that can be built on for this weekend. Max Ellis and Griffin Loughren skated well and Curtis Hall looked good, showing some growth in his game also. On defense, I thought Alec Mahalak quietly had a very solid game. I thought there were some mistakes made on defense as the game progressed but that was expected with the lack of USHL experience on the blueline. Darion Hanson didn't fare well in his first game. Pucks seemed to find ways into the net at times. I don't know how much I can fault the netminder in his first game and he made some top notch saves at times, but I feel he could have stopped one or two that went in and that could have swung the momentum in our favor. I'm pretty sure we'll see a split between the goalies unless the starter Friday has a really good or really bad game. A couple players were listed as injured scratches last week, maybe we'll see one or two of them healthy and inserted into the line-up or Andrew Petrillo, who was a health scratch on defense.

It's finally the preview for the home opener. Opening night at the Covelli is just around the corner and after a few trips to Plymouth, I'm really looking forward plopping my butt into my usual seat. This season, the Phantoms (2-1-0-0) kickoff the home stand against the Madison Capitols (1-1-0-0). This is also our first test against a normal USHL team in regular season. The only other game we played against a USHL team other than the NTDP was a 3-1 win over Cedar Rapids in preseason.

Madison comes into their third USHL season looking to improve over their sub .500 performance in their freshman and sophomore seasons. The Caps started their third season with their fourth head coach. After some ownership changes in the off-season, Ryan Sutter has taken over as GM and named his brother Garrett Sutter as a coach, as well as Garrett's son Jake as an assistant coach. Yeah, sounds shady but the Sutter family is synonymous with American hockey so we'll hold off judgment until we see if they can accomplish what the last three regimes have not. This season they have a little more firepower up front. Mick Messner , who played 27 games for the Caps last season, has landed himself on the NHL's CSS report with a goal and 2 assists on the season. Rookie Kamil Sadlocha is also on the CSS report in  the early goings of the season. Eetu Selanne, son of NHL great Teemu Selanne, has a goal and an assist in his 2 games and showed a lot of taent during preseason. Also looking impressive in preseason is Russian returning forward Eugene Fadyeyev, a smooth skater with good vision and also doesn't slack off on the defense. Marcel Godbout is another player that the Phantoms should look out for. Godbout isn't exactly a prolific scorer, but the fourth year, four team USHL veteran scored 6 goals as well as adding 3 assists in 10 games against the Phantoms last season. Cole Hults and Robby Fosdick make up most of the Caps experience on the blueline, a solid pair of returning defensemen.  Daniel Lebedeff is the top goaltender, getting the start in both games this year for the Caps. He's the USHL veteran presence, having played in 6 games for the Caps last season posting 3.06 GAA and a .896 SV%. This season he's starting out with an impressive 1.52 GAA and a .955 SV%. Dryden McKay played part a single game last season for the Green Bay Gamblers, a little over half a period. He let in 2 goals on 6 shots and ended up with a 11.39 GAA and a .667 SV%. Ironically, the game he played in was against the Caps who picked him up after the Fall Classic where McKay was still playing for the Gamblers.

The Phantoms return to the Covelli with a solid offense, leading the USHL in total goals scored with 16. Austin Pooley is the league leading goal scorer, tied with Chicago's Greg Prinz with 4 on the season, as well as second in the leage in total points with 5, tied with several other players. This is a much appreciated surprise from a guy who was brought in for grit and and his PK prowess. We have a host of guys looking to be big scorers, Brett Murray, Max Ellis and Griffin Loghren all impressing more than just this blog writer. Heck, I could name half the forwards on the roster, Alex Esposito, Nicholas Werbik, Brad Cocca and Coale Norris all look like potential 20+ goal scorers. On defense, Michael Karow has landed himself on the NHL CSS. Marcus Joseph has great two-way skills as well.  It's a little early in the season for me to see how the defense is going to shape up, especially without playing any regular USHL teams yet. Both Darion Hanson and Ivan Kulbakov look strong in net. Hanson got a pounded a little on opening night but rebounded well when he played in the second game last weekend. He's posted a 3.00 GAA and .900 SV% in his 2 starts. Kulbakov is a more aggressive goalie, like many Eastern European goaltenders. In his only game he posted a 1.00 GAA and a .941 SV%. The race for the top goaltender is still in effect and I won't make any predictions yet.

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