Youngstown’s USHL club returns just 7 players
By Tom Williams
Change is in the air as the Youngstown Phantoms prepare for their eighth USHL season.
Thursday, the Phantoms released a 33-man preseason roster. Only seven are returning from last year’s team (31-20-9, 71 points) that finished in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, missing the playoffs by seven points.
The seven — five forwards and two defensemen — are the fewest amount of returning players in franchise history.
“There are a lot of new faces out there,” said Brad Patterson, the team’s new head coach who served, seven seasons as an assistant. “We’re learning a lot [about the newcomers] each day.”
In June, Patterson was named the team’s fifth head coach since it was created in 2009. He replaces John Wroblewski, who coached the team for one season then departed to coach the U.S. National Development Program’s 18-under squad.
Patterson said his summer wasn’t much different despite the dramatic shift.
“In my opinion, you always prepare for the season in the same way,” said Patterson, who was a forward for two seasons when the Youngstown SteelHounds played in the CHL.
Another change behind the bench will be the presence of two assistant coaches. When John Ronan left the team before last season, he wasn’t replaced, creating very active roles for Wroblewski and Patterson during games.
After Patterson’s promotion, the Phantoms hired two NAHL-experienced coaches as assistants: Tom Upton (Minnesota Magicians) and Jeff Potter (Lone Star Brahmas).
The staff has its hands full right now evaluating 26 new faces.
Returning forwards are Alex Esposito, Eric Esposito, Noah Lalonde, Tommy Apap and Garrett Hall.
“A lot of weight is on [our] shoulders,” Alex Esposito said of the veterans. “[We’ve] got to show the new guys the way to do things around here.”
Returning defensemen are Ty Farmer and Carter Ekberg.
“It feels good to be back with the guys,” Farmer said. “We’re ready to get the season going.”
The team lacks experience in the back end. None of the three goalies — Darion Hansen, Connor O’Brien and Ivan Kulbakov — have USHL experience.
“There’s definitely a little pressure,” Farmer said.
After the fourth practice of the week, Patterson said his staff has a long way to go in determining lines and defensive pairings.
“We’re juggling lines around every day,” Patterson said.
Esposito said playing with different guys right now is not a problem.
“In the season, it’s a little harder when you change because you want to build chemistry with your [linemates],” Esposito said. “Once they are set, it’s nice to keep them.
“Right now, it’s early so we can figure out what works well.”
Although the Espositos are brothers, Alex said isn’t sure they playing together. He estimated they played together “maybe three games” last season.
Patterson said the Phantoms must reduce their roster to 23 by Sept. 19, two days after the Fall Classic ends at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township, Pa..
“It’s exciting,” Esposito said of skating again. “The boys seem ready to go — [there’s] a lot of energy.”
The regular season begins on Sept. 24 with a road trip to face Team USA in Plymouth, Mich.