Phantoms select players as tryouts come to conclusion
By Tom Williams
The uncertainty of the Youngstown Phantoms’ long-term future had little effect on the players competing to become members of the hockey team’s fifth season in the USHL.
Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen said the five-day tryout camp which concluded Monday at the Ice Zone was the most competitive he’s seen in his four seasons in Youngstown.
“Far and away, the deepest group of prospects that we’ve had come through here,” said Noreen who is beginning his third season as head coach.
“There were a lot of guys on the ice that are good enough to play in this league,” said Noreen of the all-star games that concluded the camp. “We just didn’t have a spot for them.
“It’s a good problem to have.”
It’s a better one than pondering the team’s future after May 2014. Last week, the Phantoms reached an agreement to play another season at Youngstown’s Covelli Centre and team owner Bruce Zoldan said he hopes to negotiate a long-term contract for more.
Noreen said none of the prospects decided to stay away even though the fifth season was not confirmed until the day camp opened.
His approach, Noreen told players, “is to control what we can control — how hard we play, how we conduct ourselves in the community.
“Obviously, there are business [decisions] that are out of our control,” Noreen said. “Bruce is committed 100 percent to making [hockey] work here. I’ve echoed that sentiment to every player who has come in here, whether it was for a tryout or for the draft or for free-agent purposes.
“We have an organization that is committed to making this work.”
Forward Kyle Connor, who completed his sophomore year at Ursuline High, didn’t return to his Michigan home until school finished.
Connor said the possibility of the team not returning “crossed my mind a little bit.
“But Coach said we’d be good for next year and I believed it,” said Connor, the youngest player in the USHL last season. “We trust him so.”
The Phantoms have selected 30 players for their protected list that must be released by July 10. Many were members of this year’s team (37-27-0, 74 points) which finished in third place in the Eastern Conference.
In the playoffs, the Phantoms ousted Green Bay, 3-1, then fell to the eventual champion Dubuque in a hard-hitting five-game series.
“We faced adversity all season,” forward Luke Stork said. “When we were down to Dubuque 2-0, we didn’t have any doubt that we’d come back.
“The way it ended was not the way we wanted, but we [put up a] fight.”
At the camp, dozens of players not with the team last season were hoping to make an impression on Noreen, his assistants Rob Rassey and Brad Patterson, and assistant general manager Jason Koehler.
“Competition is healthy, competition breeds success,” Noreen said. “I think we are going to have some very good, healthy competition when we come back here in August.
“We had it all weekend, we heard that from the college scouts how deep we are,” said Noreen, adding that some of his top returning players — Alfred Larsson, Nathan Walker, Zach Evancho and Josh Nenadal — were either not here or not on the ice.
Blake Christensen, the Phantoms’ top pick in the USHL’s draft, injured his thumb on Thursday and sat out the rest of the games. Maxim Letunov, the second pick from Russia, was unable to stay for the whole camp because of travel plans.
“Six of our top players were not on the ice for the final all-star game,” Noreen said.
Also returning will be: goaltenders Sean Romeo and Jake Moore; defensemen Jimmy Mazza, Kyle Mackey and Kale Bennett; and forwards Mac MacSorley and JJ Piccinich.
Stork said resuming skating was a challenge.
“It was difficult getting my legs back,” Stork said. “But after the first period of [Sunday]’s game, I felt better.”
Connor said the camp was deep.
“Last year’s was good, too — really deep,” Connor said. “I think we’re really going to have a good team.”