Editor's note: This story was edited to update player information.
GLENS FALLS -- Matt Ford can see the effects of the NHL lockout every time he steps on the ice.
The four-year AHL veteran was a third-liner for the Hershey Bears for the first half of last season. He was traded to the Adirondack Phantoms in midseason, racking up 19 goals and 31 points in 31 games with the team.
He has been practicing on a line with Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, a line that will likely start off Saturday's season opener. His linemates played a combined 131 games in the NHL last season.
“You can see it out there, they are two really talented hockey players. If there wasn’t a NHL lockout, they’d be great NHL players,” he said. “I haven’t played in the National Hockey League, (so) this is the best hockey I’ve played in my entire career so far. I’m excited to get going. It’s going to be competitive.”
The lockout has given the Phantoms, and many other AHL teams, stronger-than-usual lineups. Players that might have started the season in cities like Phoenix, Buffalo or Philadelphia will instead play in places like Portland, Rochester and Glens Falls. It’s a bonus for fans who follow minor-league teams.
At some point, the top Phantoms players hope the lockout will end and they will report to Philadelphia. But head coach Terry Murray hopes their presence will make a long-term impact, perhaps helping the team to its first playoff appearance in four years.
“It elevates the pace, the tempo, the execution, how to do things right every day when you play three in three days and you come back to practice after a day off,” Murray said. “They’re the guys you look to to set the tone as quality veterans — well, young guys but players that are special players.”
The increased level of play could make the transition to professional hockey an even bigger jump for the Phantoms’ rookies. The three rookies, however, seem more concerned with what they can learn with this opportunity than if they’ll be able to keep up.
Matt Mangene said having NHL-caliber players out there can only help him.
“It just shows what it takes to be at the next level, just learn from those guys, pick their brains and see what it takes to get there,” he said. “Playing with these guys — Schenn, Couturier, (Zac) Rinaldo — just seeing what they do on and off the ice, how they get better, just learn from them, picking their brains. All it can do is help us.”
Goaltender Cal Heeter echoed that sentiment, saying he was looking forward to going up against highly skilled players in both practice and games.
Many teams have at least a couple of players who might have been in the big leagues.
Adirondack did as well as any AHL team. Couturier reported directly to the Flyers for his rookie year last season and scored 27 points in the 77 games. Schenn was called up after only seven games with the Phantoms and then played 54 games for Philadelphia.
The Phantoms have seven additional players who were on the Flyers’ roster for part of last season. Rinaldo (66 games), Marc-Andre Bourdon (45), Harry Zolnierczyk (37), Erik Gustafsson (30) and Eric Wellwood (24) got significant playing time for Philadelphia.
They all hoped to be fighting for roster spots in the NHL this year, but are looking to take advantage of the time with Adirondack.
“I’m looking at it in a positive way: At least I can still play hockey at a high level, it’s still pro hockey and I think the American Hockey League is going to be pretty strong this year with all the guys sent down,” Couturier said. “I’m really looking forward to it and to trying to prove myself.”
Couturier is one player who has a specific area of focus while he is with the Phantoms. He was one of the Flyers’ best defensive forwards last season, according to both Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette and right wing Jaromir Jagr, but he wants to be more.
“I think it’s a good time for me to show the offensive side of my game that maybe people didn’t see at the NHL level,” he said. “I mean, stay the same player but bring more offense like I had in juniors.”
Murray also pointed out that this is a good time for players to get leadership experience. Couturier and Schenn are the two youngest Phantoms at 19 and 21 respectively, but they and the other players with NHL experience become de facto leaders.
Of course, there is a downside. Jason Akeson was pushed out of the top two lines by the NHL players and was sent to the ECHL.
“We’re all aware that Akeson had a good rookie year, he put some points up on the board and he’s a player that has to play on your top two lines,” Murray said. “It’s better for him, in our opinion, that he play in Trenton and be an important player on the top line.”
Even some of the players who are still with the Phantoms will see the downside when they get less playing time. Players like Tye McGinn and Tyler Brown might have seen some first-line minutes, and now will likely be restricted to the lower lines.
But for all of the Phantoms, there will be more eyes on the minutes they do play. Management and scouts from Philadelphia will spend more time in Glens Falls than usual — the press box is already overflowing for Saturday’s season opener. This is the Phantoms’ time to show what they can do and make their case for NHL minutes.
“It’s a huge opportunity. The spotlight is on the AHL; Everybody is going to be watching this league,” Ford said. “For everybody, it’s going to be a chance to showcase what they can do against higher competition.”