While the Flyers are off to a solid start, their AHL affiliate is still searching for its first win.
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms, directed by new coach Ian Laperrière, are the AHL’s only winless team (0-5-2), and are averaging a league-worst 1.4 goals per game.
Laperrière isn’t overly concerned. The players, he said, are getting acclimated to him and his new coaching staff, which includes Jason Smith, Riley Armstrong, and Bill Downey.
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“It’s a new staff, new system, new players,” Laperrière said earlier this week. “It takes a little time before everything jells. We’re in the game every night; we just can’t score. We lost three 2-1 games and a 3-2 game. We just need to get our power play going and get a little bit more offense.”
Laperrière, 47, sees some promising signs. The defense and goaltending have kept the team competitive, and highly touted players like center Morgan Frost (four points) and defenseman Cam York are playing better lately.
York “has been much more engaged in the last three games,” Laperrière said. “I asked him to be a little bit more assertive, and that’s what he’s been doing.”
Zamula making strides
Another top defensive prospect, Egor Zamula, recently returned from an injury and “has been finding his game, slowly but surely,” according to Laperrière, whose team has been outscored, 21-10 through seven games.
Laperrière, a former Flyers player and assistant, also praised the play of defenseman Wyatte Wylie. “He had a great camp with the Flyers and he came down to us, and he’s an amazing, coachable kid. He just wants to get better and he’s fun to work with.”
York has been paired with AHL veteran Logan Day, and Zamula with Adam Clendening, a veteran who has played 90 games in the NHL.
Right winger Gerry Mayhew tops the Phantoms with three goals and shares the team lead with Frost with four points. Speedy left winger Max Willman, who played with the Flyers in their first two games of the season, has two goals in five games with the Phantoms.
Frost, a first-round selection in 2017, is “creating a lot more offensively in his last two or three games,” said Laperrière, who has been using the 22-year-old center in all situations — even strength, power play, and penalty kill. “He wants to go to the next level and he knows what he needs to do — and it’s my job to tell him and show him what he needs to do. And he’s been way more engaged the last week or so, which is great for him and us.”
Frost has been centering Garrett Wilson and Mayhew.
“Wilson brings some pace to that line and he’s winning those battles,” Laperrière said. “The other two guys are a little bit more on the smaller side, and it’s a good mix.”
Like Frost, center German Rubtsov, 23, is a former first-round selection, having been drafted by the Flyers in 2016. He played in Russia’s KHL last season with HC Sochi, and has two points (goal, assist) over seven games with Lehigh Valley this year.
“He’s working hard and improving every day,” Laperrière said. “He’s not super-fast, and he just needs to work on the pace of the game.”
Right winger Tyson Foerster, 19, a first-round selection in 2020, has a goal, two points, and a minus-6 rating. As an underage AHL player last season, Foerster had 10 goals in 24 games, but Laperrière noted that the league wasn’t as strong as it is now.
“With a guy like that, people are looking for offense. He’s a goal scorer,” Laperrière said. ”He’s frustrated a little bit; he’s snakebit right now, but he has had his chances. It’s an adjustment for him, big time. I know last year he had success in the American League, but people forget that it was a weaker league last year. Most of the good players were on [NHL teams’] taxi squads. So for a lot of guys who had success last year, it’s not coming as easy this year. The league was closer to junior last year than it was the NHL because a lot of good players weren’t in [the AHL].”
As for the goaltenders, Felix Sandström (0-3-1) has a 2.79 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, while Samuel Ersson (0-2-1, 2.74 GAA, .892 save percentage) is recovering from an undisclosed lower-body injury that Laperrière says is not serious. For the time being, Kirill Ustimenko has replaced Ersson.
Laperrière said becoming a head coach has been “a big adjustment. It’s a lot of responsibility, but that’s what I wanted. Like my players, I’m trying to get better every day. I’m learning a lot. It’s been great so far. Obviously, I’d like to have a win, but like I tell the guys when we watch the tapes, we do a lot of things well and haven’t gotten rewarded yet. But if we keep doing what we’re doing, I think we’ll be a pretty good team down the road.”