Phantoms begin Clark Cup defense
YOUNGSTOWN — The climbing gear is back on.
While last season’s journey ended at the apex, the Youngstown Phantoms are back at the ground level. It’s a new year, and while the championship run was fun, it’s all but entirely out of the team’s mind going forward.
The 2023-24 season has additional challenges however. Fresh off a championship season, the Phantoms have a bullseye on their backs. That’s exactly what the Phantoms want though.
“We’re going to get everyone’s best every night,” Phantoms coach Ryan Ward said. “I think we saw that in the first period in Muskegon (in the preseason.) Teams are going to do things that are probably out of their element a little bit to try to try to have an effect on us, and we’re just going to play our game. We love the target on our back. We welcome it. We can’t wait to go through 62 games with a big bullseye on us, and I think that’s something that our guys cherish and something that they have to be ready for.
“Hopefully next year, we’re sitting here talking about having an even bigger target on our back. It’s something we relish, something we love, and certainly something we don’t take for granted.”
Each roster has an identity, and it changes from year to year. This year, the Phantoms’ speed and depth are the defining characteristics.
“I think we’re fast. We’re going to play fast,” Ward said. “We have a bunch of guys that can skate, we have very very deep skill, but we’re going to continue to build on what we did last year. If you look at one thing that we did consistently, it’s that we out-worked our opponents and I think for us, that has to be the main staple of our identity. … We want to be on the attack and we want to be aggressive and I think we have the speed to do it, we have the toughness to do it and we just want to continue to build off of what we did last year and make sure that our opponents understand that any night they play Youngstown, it’s not going to be an easy night.”
Like every season at the junior hockey level, there’s a solid bit of roster turnover as players age out, new players rise through the ranks and as trades are made. This group is no different.
It’s been almost a year since defenseman Sascha Boumedienne and forward Zachary Morin were signed to tender deals by the Phantoms. Both are highly-touted prospects for the 2025 NHL Draft, and the next step of their hockey journey starts in Youngstown.
Charlie Cerrato is “as advertised” as a top-line center according to Ward. The University of Michigan commit is expected to be a big part of the team’s forward crew. He was paired a lot with new additions Kuzma Voronin and Adam Pietila during the preseason, so expect to see that combo on the ice this season.
Finn McLaughlin is another new name to watch on the backend. The University of Denver commit had a promising training camp and strong showing over the summer at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, an international under-18 tournament. McLaughlin represented Team USA during the tournament with fellow Phantoms defenseman Tory Pitner and forward Grant Young.
The name highlighting the returning players for the Phantoms this season is defenseman Andrew Strathmann. Selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the draft last season, Strathmann opted to postpone his commitment to the University of North Dakota for a season and stay to captain the Phantoms.
The newest captain is excited for the challenges ahead.
“There’s no other way that we would want it,” Strathmann said. “You want to be on the top of the mountain. We’re going to have people chewing at our ankles. We just need to stay in there without getting too high or low on ourselves. We’re going to keep pushing forward. We know we have that target on our back and honestly, there’s no other place I’d rather be.”
His partner on the backend this season is expected to be Pitner. Pitner came to Youngstown part-way through last season and his role grew as the year went on. This is his first year eligible for the NHL Draft, so on an individual level, getting ready for that has been his main goal.
“Individually, it’s my first year of (draft) eligibility, and I’d love to be picked,” Pitner said. “It kind of started in the summer playing out in the Czech Republic for the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. That was the first time really that the draft kind of kicked off for all of us. I’m hoping to get picked. I think it continues here through Pittsburgh and then becomes an everyday thing. That’s a big one for me, personally, is getting drafted and trying to get drafted as high as I possibly can.”
Some other names returning to the fray are forwards Brandon Svoboda, Braiden Clark, and Miles Gunty, as well as defenders Jack Willson and Tomas Machu.
While not on the squad last year, goaltender Owen Bartoszkiewicz will be between the pipes this season with the Phantoms. Bartoszkiewicz spent last season with the University of Minnesota, but opted to return to the Mahoning Valley. He and Colin Winn, last season’s backup goaltender, will be splitting time in net.
The season gets rolling tonight as the Phantoms take on the Tri-City Storm in their first matchup of the USHL Fall Classic. Puck drop is set for 7:30 p.m. at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township, Pa.
The Phantoms’ home-opener is set for Saturday, Sept. 30 against the United States National Team Development Program. Before the game, there will be a banner-raising ceremony.