By Tom Williams
After the Youngstown Phantoms completed their final practice before the roster has to be reduced to 23 players, forward JJ Piccinich said he can’t wait for his second USHL season to begin.
“The whole team is really excited,” said Piccinich after Wednesday’s practice at The Ice Zone. “The intensity at practice was higher [than usual]. I think we’re ready to go.”
Friday night at the Ice Cube in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Phantoms will open their fifth USHL season against the USA National Team Development Program’s 18-under squad. Saturday afternoon, the Phantoms will play Team USA’s 17-under squad.
“Now that the team is pretty much what [it’s going to be], I think guys are really starting to join together,” Piccinich said.
The Phantoms began making roster moves on Tuesday. Two of last year’s hockey players — forward Mac MacSorley and defenseman Kale Bennett — won’t be back as they were released to make room for newcomers.
“It was difficult on everyone,” third-year head coach Anthony Noreen said of those cuts. “It was difficult on them, it was difficult on us. [Cutdown time] is the one day of the year we least look forward to.
“You build a relationship with these guys, you go in to battle with those guys for more than a year,” Noreen said. “They were two guys who did everything the right way, every thing we asked them to do.
“It was just a situation where we felt it was probably better for us and them that we give them different options.”
Last season, MacSorley played 22 games, scoring two goals and one assist. He finished -3 in plus/minus that measures on-ice performance during even-strength and power-play opportunities.
Bennett had three assists in 41 games and finished -16.
Noreen said he released them early to give them a better chance to latch on with another junior team.
“We didn’t want to hold them hostage,” Noreen said. “We wanted to give them some time for other teams in the league to give them a hard look.”
Wednesday, the Phantoms traded a conditional draft pick to the Indiana Ice for defenseman Alex Smith. Last season, Smith played 12 games for the Ice. Two seasons ago, he played 47 games for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
It’s uncertain if Smith will be in the lineup on Friday, but most likely Jake Moore will be in goal. Last season, Moore played in eight games after taking over the backup position to Sean Romeo after Patrick Spano was traded over the Christmas break.
Noreen said he’s not certain Romeo will be ready to play Friday as he heals from a minor injury.
“To his credit, when he was number three, he was not on our active roster and he could not play a game for us,” Noreen said of Moore. “But he was the hardest working guy on the team, the last off the ice every day. He never asked when he was going to get his turn, just worked and trusted that we were going to get him in there at some point.”
Moore played in eight games last season, posting a 4-2 record.
“When Jake was called upon last year, I thought he did a very good job,” Noreen said. “Throughout the preseason, he’s given a chance to win in very game. We feel fully confident in Jake.”