Young Players Fueling Phantoms Playoff Push

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /
April 15, 2023

Regardless of what happens in the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ upcoming playoff series, the 2022-23 season has been a successful campaign for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in terms of young players advancing their development over the course of the season. Along with “young vets” such as 26-year-old Cooper Marody and Adam Brooks plus older vets like Artem Anisimov and Garrett Wilson, many of the Phantoms’ catalysts this season have been among their youngest players.

Samuel Ersson (G): Ersson, who missed most of last season due to a recurring groin injury and eventual surgery, has had a very promising overall 2022-23 season in the AHL with the Phantoms and the NHL (12 games) with the Flyers. He’s become the Phantoms’ undisputed No. 1 goaltender, which has been a godsend to the club when an initially planned split-time arrangement with veteran Troy Grosenick went awry. Injuries have limited Grosenick to just 325 minutes played over six games this season.

Ersson has appeared in a combined 54 games in 2022-23 between the Phantoms (42 games) and Flyers, with a combined 3,154 minutes in goal entering the season finale. There have been many games this season where Ersson has been the Phantoms’ best player.

As with the team as a whole, the final week of the regular season since clinching a playoff spot has not been kind to Ersson. Between the Bridgeport and Charlotte games this week, Ersson uncharacteristically yielded 10 goals on 53 shots over those two games and then allowed an additional five goals to Hershey on Saturday in the finale, which has pulled his save percentage down to .901 for the season. However, at various junctures of the season where the Phantoms were playing inconsistently and the season could have gone off the rails, Ersson was (literally) their biggest saving grace. Additionally, a strong playoff run would quickly erase any negativity from the less-than-ideal final week. That goes for the team collectively as well as the goaltender.

Tyson Foerster (RW): The Flyers’ 2020 first-round pick came back strong this season after losing most of the 2021-22 season to shoulder surgery and finishing the campaign back in the Ontario Hockey League. Foerster, who turned 21 on January 18, earned a spot in the AHL All-Star Game this season, and paced the Phantoms with 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists) to his credit in 66 games played.

Foerster impressed during his first NHL callup, posting seven points in eight games before he was returned to the Phantoms to bolster the farm club’s roster for the stretch drive and playoffs. Between the NHL and AHL, Foerster put together a 11-game point streak late in the season: five games (3g, 4a) for the Flyers and then six games (2g, 5a) for the Phantoms upon his return from Philadelphia. The streak came to an end in Wednesday’s loss to Bridgeport.

Elliot Desnoyers (C): Playing in his first professional season, the Flyers’ 2020 fifth-round Draft pick established a new Phantoms rookie goal-scoring record with 23 tallies among his 44 points in 65 games heading into the final game. Desnoyers has been an all-situations player for head coach Ian Laperriere’s squad, with a pair of shorthanded goals to his credit along with a half-dozen power play goals. He’s also a diligent checker, both up-ice on the forecheck and in his own end of the ice.

From late February to early March, Desnoyers earned a four-game recall to the Flyers to see his first NHL action. He held his own, especially in his ability to track the play and keep his feet moving, while averaging 13:22 of ice time. He did not record a point but came close a couple times during NHL debut game on Feb. 25 against the Devils.

When the offseason arrives, the No. 1 thing the Flyers organization will want from the 21-year-old Desnoyers is to add muscular weight to his 5-foot-11 frame. Right now, though, there is playoff hockey in the immediate future. A strong playoff series in the best-of-3 from Desnoyers on both sides of the puck would be a big boost toward advancing to the best-of-five Atlantic Division semifinals.

Ronnie Attard (D): The hard-shooting, big-framed defenseman (6-foot-3, 208 pounds) is still working on refining various aspects of his game but made significant strides in his AHL rookie season with the Phantoms in 2022-24. Attard, who turned 24 on March 20, played in the AHL All-Star Game this season along with Lehigh Valley teammate Foerster.

There has never been a question about Attard’s shooting ability or willingness to engage physically. Entering the regular season finale, Attard has posted 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) and a plus-11 rating for the Phantoms in 68 games played. The learning curve is in terms of making the right reads and decisions to a level of consistency that will translate to the NHL. The amount of progress in one calendar year has been impressive.

Attard spent the final 15 games of the 2021-22 NHL season with the Flyers (earning his first two NHL goals and first two NHL assists in the process while progressively settling in after a couple rough nights at the beginning). He recently had a two-game recall to the Flyers and, while still raw in certain aspects, played decently. In his first two NHL games last year, Attard found himself repeatedly on the wrong side of the puck. This time around, Attard stayed above the puck more successfully in his two games with the Flyers.

During the AHL stretch drive, the right handed-shooting Attard scored four goals in March and April. In a losing cause, he notched a goal and an assist in Wednesday’s game in Bridgeport.

Bobby Brink (RW): The Flyers 2019 second-round pick and 2021-22 Hobey Baker Award finalist spent the final 10 games of last season at the NHL level with the Flyers (0g, 4a). Off-season hip surgery cost him the first half of the 2022-23 season. The 21-year-old Brink joined the Phantoms in January.

As expected, it has taken time for Brink to physically get back to where he was before the hip injury and, simultaneously, to adapt to the pro game as a rookie. He played on adrenaline (and put up some points) his first few games with the Phantoms, hit a wall, and then started the real work in rebuilding stamina. With Brink, who is 5-foot-8 and is not a pure speedster, it’s all about his hockey sense, quickness, ice vision and puck skills.

Brink posted 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 41 games with the Phantoms including goals in back-to-back games to conclude the season. He’s more of a playmaking winger than a pure sniper but Brink has several artistic looking goals to his credit. He’s also 2-for-3 in shootout attempts. In Friday’s game against Charlotte, Brink tallied on a breakaway.

Brink was not recalled to the Flyers this season because the organization did not want to disrupt his ice time or progression toward fully recovering his game and developing further from there. John Tortorella has yet to see Brink play because the player was unable to participate in training camp and has been playing catch-up at the AHL level in the second half of the season.

A solid playoff performance, following by a strong (and healthy) offseason, would be very helpful for Brink to prepare for the demands of a Tortorella training camp.The ultimate goal, whether he makes the NHL squad of camp or returns to the Phantoms, is for Brink to push for an NHL spot by some point of the 2023-24 season.

Egor Zamula (D): The puck-moving Russian blueliner, who turned 23 in March, has been teetering on a breakthrough to becoming an NHL regular. Between early-season and late-season (March 23-25) stints with the parent club, Zamula dressed in 10 games for the Flyers this season. At the AHL level, Zamula saw considerable ice time for the Phantoms.

With the Phantoms this season, Zamula has chipped in 19 points (1g, 18a) in 44 games played. His feet and first-pass ability are his greatest assets. Unfortunately, Zamula has been out of the lineup for the Phantoms since suffering an injury in the March 31 game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Phantoms blueline is more formidable with Zamula than without him.

Adam Ginning (D): The smaller-rink North American game has been beneficial to the 22-year-old defenseman in his first professional season since coming over from Sweden’s top league (SHL) and a championship-winning 2021-22 season with Färjestad.

Ginning, whom the Flyers drafted in the second round (50th overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, has been a pleasant surprise for the Phantoms in his rookie pro season. He plays a no-frills, defensively responsible game with some bite from a physical standpoint.

Improving his game with the puck on his stick has been Ginning’s number one work-in-progress area for the player since his Draft year. He’s taken steps forward. Ginning contributed a respectable 19 points (3g, 16a) to the Phantoms as a rookie this season ahead of the regular season finale.

Most notably, while traditional plus-minus is a notoriously flawed statistic, the fact that Ginning tied a Phantoms’ single-season record with a +24 rating is commendable. When the left-handed shooting Ginning and the right-handed shooting Attard have played together, they’ve generally had good results. Earlier this season, Ginning saw time with countryman Linus Högberg (who has since returned to Sweden) or Wyatte Wylie as his partners.

Ginning was rewarded for his strong season with the Phantoms with an NHL recall to the Flyers for the home finale against Columbus on April 11. He skated 16:40 of ice time across 21 shifts. In the game, Ginning was credited with two hits and two blocked shots. He has since returned to Lehigh Valley.

Emil Andrae (D): Recently signed by the Flyers to an entry-level contract that kicks in for the 2023-24 season, the team’s 2020 second-round pick (54th overall) joined the Phantoms for the rest of the current season on a tryout arrangement. Before that, he had a strong campaign in the SHL on a weak HV71 club and was a standout for Team Sweden (as well as team captain) at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Overall, Andrae’s addition bolstered the Phantoms offensively in the heart of the AHL stretch drive. He is particularly adept as a power play presence and clever passer. He’s chipped in six points (2g, 4a) in his first ten games with Lehigh Valley.

The 5-foot-8 blueliner still has development to work on in other areas but the 21-year-old is a highly competitive player. As with most of the Phantoms, the last two games heading into the season finale were not among Andrae’s better games. Ultimately, though, it’s just a blip on the radar screen. The 2023-24 season, which will officially be Andrae’s rookie AHL season, will be more telling about his progression level toward the NHL.

Olle Lycksell (LW): Playing his first season in North America, Lycksell had an outstanding Rookie Camp and solid NHL camp. In the regular season, the 23-year-old Swedish forward led the Phantoms in scoring in the first half of the season. Lycksell is second on the Phantoms with 45 points and first with 31 assists (14g, 31a) in 53 games played. A clever passer with good ice vision, Lycksell still leads the club in assists.

Lycksell had a consistently strong first half of the AHL season. He hasn’t stood out as consistently in the second half but produced some of his most clutch performances in the games that immediately led up to the Phantoms clinching a playoff spot last weekend. While not the only reason, of course, Lycksell’s power play abilities have been an important factor in why Lehigh Valley ranked near the top of the leaguewide power play stats all season (and still rank eighth in the 32-team league heading into the regular season finale).

Lycksell received a couple of call-ups to the NHL this season. He dressed in eight games for the Flyers, registering one assist in generally limited (10:34 average TOI) duty. Lycksell saw a little more ice time during the latter part of his February stint with the Flyers including a high of 14:28 ice time against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 24 and 19 shifts against the New Jersey Devils the next evening.