By Tom Williams
In February, the Youngstown Phantoms went 6-4, including victories against playoff-bound Green Bay and Dubuque.
That was the only positive month in the Phantoms’ fifth USHL season. It was a surprising tumble after two straight playoff appearances.
Last August, Youngstown’s junior hockey team was coming off its most successful season. In April 2013, the Phantoms, the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, ousted the Green Bay Gamblers in a four-game series then pushed the Dubuque Fighting Saints to a fifth-and-deciding Game 5 in the Eastern Conference Final.
Hopes were high when the Phantoms gathered at the re-opened Ice Zone in Boardman for training camp. Those hopes came crashing down as the regular season began.
First, goaltender Sean Romeo, who had set franchise records for regular-season wins (31), shutouts (5) and playoff victories (5), suffered a nasty groin pull, causing him to miss the first eight games of the season.
Nate Walker, the Australian forward who missed the 2013 playoffs with a broken bone in his neck, returned for a few practices then joined the Washington Capitals’ training camp.
Walker never looked back, signing with the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, and leaving a large hole in the Phantoms’ power-play plans.
Returning forwards were Nathan Walker, Kyle Connor, Alfred Larsson, Luke Stork, Zach Evancho, Josh Nenadal and JJ Piccinich. But the only returning defenseman was Kyle Mackey.
Jake Moore, Romeo’s backup during the 2011-12 season when the Phantoms finished 10 games over .500, started the first six games, going 1-4-1.
Head coach Anthony Noreen gave backup Colin DeAugustine a shot and it paid off with wins over the Chicago Steel and Indiana Ice.
Romeo returned in mid-October, played five games and then re-injured his pulled groin muscle. By the time he returned in mid-December, the Phantoms were five games below .500 and plummeting to the bottom of the standings.
From Nov. 27-Jan. 31, the Phantoms won once, dropping to 8-24-5.
When the season ended last weekend, the Phantoms were 17-37-6 for 40 points, 22 points behind the seventh-place Steel. They missed the playoffs for the first time since Noreen became head coach.
With 74 points, Connor broke the single-season scoring record and finished second in the league to Omaha’s Jake Randolph (86 points). He shattered Mike Ambrosia’s record of 65 points.
“[Connor] has been here for two years, and if you look at where he was to where he is now, he’s a ton better,” Noreen said. “He’s developed himself into one of the elite forwards of this league.”
Next in scoring were Piccinich and newcomer Max Letunov with 58 and 43 points. No one else had at least 33 points.
Defensively, Evancho finished +2 in the 51 games he played. He was the only regular player with a positive number in the plus/minus category.
Romeo played in 29 games, going 7-21-1. DeAugustine, who became the full-time backup when Moore was released in the fall, played 28 games, posting an 8-12-4 record.
Despite the team posting its worst record in its five USHL seasons, Noreen said there were positives.
“We were put through this because we were strong enough to handle it,” Noreen said. “Don’t look at the record, don’t look at the losses, but look at the people.
“Look at the guys that are going to move on from this program. Who would you rather have to represent this town, team and family other than [guys like] Conor Lemirande, Alfred Larsson, Tyler Spezia, Sean Romeo or Truman Reed?
“These guys are the most special group of people that I’ve been around,” the third-year head coach said. “They’re going to move on and be leaders, captains, great members of families, and they’re going to make people around them better.”
Changes are possible as the team moves forward. In March, owner Bruce Zoldan sold half of the team to Troy and Aaafke Loney. A Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, Loney has taken over day-to-day operations of the team.
The Phantoms have a new three-year contract with Covelli Centre. Next up will be negotiations with Noreen and his assistants Brad Patterson (five seasons) and Michael Zucker (one season).
“We need to work,” said Noreen of returning the team to playoff contender. “I need to work, the guys need to work, and we need to make sure that we’re better. Just because we have returning guys doesn’t mean we’ll win games.
“Returning players that work and get better over the summer, and if the staff works to improve the organization — that’s what wins you games.”