Where the Phantoms fit into the grand scheme of hockey

Where the Phantoms fit into the grand scheme of hockey

The hockey world is a large one. From the National Hockey League on down, there are so many different levels of hockey. For the roughly 736 players that find themselves on an active NHL roster currently, they’ve all had a path to the big leagues, and not every path has been the same.

Some players can step right off the draft stage and into a professional lineup, while others may not see the ice on the pro stage until the end of their 20s.

So where does Youngstown fit into the grand scheme of hockey?

As a Tier 1 junior hockey club, the Youngstown Phantoms primarily focus on development for not only the professional game, but to help players prepare for college hockey should they so choose. Players come from youth leagues mainly from the United States, but teams can have four “import” players that aren’t American and as many as two additional Canadian players at a time.

The players in Youngstown are not professionals yet, but they’ve had a track record over the years of developing players into professional hockey players in some fashion. Not every player reaches the NHL, but many go on to play at least one season professionally either in North America or abroad.

To compare the Phantoms’ place in the hockey world to the former team that occupied the Covelli Centre, the Youngstown SteelHounds were part of the Central Hockey League, which was considered a “mid-level minor professional hockey league.”

Players in the CHL were often older players, some of whom spent time playing in higher leagues in the past. There was very little development of players in the CHL, especially compared to the USHL, but there were some players that got their first taste of professional hockey in Youngstown.

The CHL no longer exists, but remnants live on through the East Coast Hockey League, which absorbed some of the teams. The ECHL is considered a AA hockey league, but differs from its baseball counterpart. The ECHL more often serves as a development league for hockey’s AAA equivalent, the American Hockey League, than the NHL.

Most ECHL teams have an NHL affiliate, but it’s not required. The SteelHounds were affiliated with both the San Jose Sharks (2005-06) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (2006-08) during their time

The AHL is where a lot of NHL prospects see their professional careers begin. Sitting a rung below the NHL, the American League is where many players get their feet wet before making the jump to the next level full-time.

After college, former Phantom Scott Mayfield bounced between the AHL and NHL for four and a half seasons before finding his fulltime footing in the top-flight league for the 2017-18 season.

Names like Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), Mayfield (New York Islanders), Ryan Lomberg (Florida), Ivan Prosvetov (Arizona) and Nathan Walker (St. Louis) have all seen time at the NHL level and more are expected to join them in the coming years.

Over the last few seasons, the Phantoms have gotten more aggressive in pursuing high-end talent. With a club-high six players hearing their name called in the NHL Draft over the summer, and multiple players expected to hear theirs called in the coming years, the Phantoms want to cement themselves as an institution on the hockey pyramid.

Adding players like Sascha Boumedienne and Zach Morin, two players who are very highly-touted prospects for the 2025 NHL Draft, is a good way to do that.

“A lot of people don’t understand it, even in Youngstown, but you’re watching some of the best athletes in the world right here in Youngstown,” Phantoms coach Ryan Ward said. “I think often that goes a little bit missed, but we have the best players from all over the world that want to come here and play, and I think I think that’s a really cool thing to have in Youngstown.

“We had two of the best 2007-born players in the entire world choose to come to Youngstown, Ohio, and play junior hockey, and I think that’s a really really great thing for the city, for our organization and the Mahoning Valley. You can come to the Covelli Centre in Youngstown and see future NHL stars, and that’s a really cool thing.”

The Canadian major junior leagues are widely considered the “top” league competition-wise, but there’s pros and cons for major junior and “Tier 1” junior leagues like the United States Hockey League.

What makes the USHL different from the Canadian major junior hockey leagues is that it focuses on getting its players ready for college as well as the pros. In the Canadian leagues, players lose their amateur status with the NCAA, they keep it in the USHL.

To use another high-end draft pick as an example, when Connor was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2015 NHL Draft, Connor stayed on the college route. Instead of jumping for major junior, Connor stuck with his plan and attended the University of Michigan.

Players are eligible to play in the USHL until they’re 21 before they decide their next move, but many players leave before that.

For example, former Phantom Martin Misiak opted to join the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, one of the aforementioned Canadian major junior leagues. College wasn’t an option as Misiak played professional hockey in his native Slovakia, so the OHL was his next best step for both him and the Chicago Blackhawks who drafted him in the second round this year.

“For us, our job was to get (Misiak) into a situation where he was playing against his peers and raising his draft stock as high as possible,” Ward said. “Now has the ability to sign with the Blackhawks. … We did our job and I feel really good about that. He got drafted and now he has the ability to sign a contract and I think for us, the most fulfilling thing that we do is get those guys to where they want to go. That’s why we’re here and that’s why we do things.”

Different teams have different development philosophies.

Andrew Strathmann for example, recently named captain for the Phantoms this season, postponed his commitment to college for the upcoming season and decided to stay with Youngstown.

So how do the Phantoms get these players ready for their next step, whatever it may be?

One aspect is top-notch facilities that Ward puts alongside those of professional teams.

“(Owners Bruce Zoldan and Murry Gunty) are committed to putting the best product on the ice, they’re committed to this being a place where players can feel that they come and develop and can help them live their dreams after playing junior hockey and after playing college hockey,” Ward said. “They can go professional and be ready for that. I think the commitment from ownership to buy our practice rink, building a state of the art, half a million dollar gym, to allowing us to hire a staff that is bigger than any other USHL staff and to put money into the program, helps take away any excuse the players could have to optimize their performance on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s a lot easier to work when you have the resources and tools that you need to develop players and our ownership has not been shy to commit to what we’re trying to do within our vision of our team and our organization and quite honestly we couldn’t be more thankful for that.”

There are certain pitfalls that come with that “development-first” focus however. Some years, the roster you have might be really young compared to more experienced groups elsewhere in the league. There’s a balance in making sure your younger players develop to the best of their ability meanwhile still winning hockey games.

This is something Ward tries to balance and thinks the two go hand-in-hand if you handle it properly.

“I think a lot of things can be true, but I think that for us, we put player development probably ahead of everything else and that means that there’s going to be some (rough patches) at the start of seasons,” Ward said. “And as we migrate through the grind of a season, there’s going to be some times you hit adversity and have to have patience with your younger players and give them opportunities even if you know they haven’t had so much success at the beginning. You have to work through that with them and you have to continuously be on their side as far as allowing them to fail forward and make mistakes and I think that’s something that (we value).”

Ward cited William Whitelaw, a third-round pick in the NHL Draft this past year, as an example of a success story in the approach of letting your players “fail forward”.

“Will had ‘limited details’, as we say when he first came in here and had to learn a lot,” Ward said. “For us it was the willingness to be patient with him and give him opportunities and, and it was twofold. It’s the willingness of the player to buy in and put the work in, so for us like yeah, of course we want to win. I firmly feel and I think our staff believes that player development will drive winning when it’s supposed to, and I think we saw that last year.

“I think we’ll continue to see it with our we have some very exciting young players coming up through the program. I think our player development-first philosophy will ultimately drive our success and it also drives sustainability to be able to perennially have success as a team on the ice from a win-loss standpoint.”

The Phantoms’ season begins on Wednesday as a part of the USHL Fall Classic. They’ll face Tri-City at 7:30 p.m. at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township, Pa.


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