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Phantoms in need of enforcer

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Phantoms vs. Hamilton Bulldogs

Aaron Eisenhauer - aeisenhauer@poststar.com The Phantoms' Tye McGinn, left, and Zack FitzGerald of the Hamilton Bulldogs hold onto the other's jersey as they fight during the second period at the Glens Falls Civic Center on Friday, January 13, 2012. The Phantoms defeated the Bulldogs, 5-4.

When Ben Holmstrom jumped Albany's Dracy Zajac last weekend to retaliate for a borderline hit on Eric Wellwood, it raised several questions.

Should Holmstrom have done it in the final minute of a game holding a lead? Did Zajac's hit justify the response? Was it worth Holmstrom risking suspension?

Those were all valid queries in the immediate aftermath. They don't address, however, the bigger-picture question that's been kicking around my head for a while now.

Why does it always seem to fall to Holmstrom to handle this kind of stuff?

There are a few captain archetypes: the star with elite talent, the valedictory veteran, the hard-nosed leader-by-example.

Holmstrom has defined his captaincy by developing into the latter. He has 100 penalty minutes in 36 games this season. That's 24 more than he had all of last season.

Long-time observers of the team have drawn the comparison to Boyd Kane, the current Hershey captain who, before Holmstrom, was the youngest to serve that role in Phantoms history. Kane is a perennial 25-goal, 100-penalty minute type guy.

It speaks to Holmstrom's character that he's taken the responsibility of standing up for teammates as part of his leadership repertoire. He shouldn't change anything.

This piece isn't really about him. It's about whether he's enough. It's about whether the time has come due, or past, for the Phantoms to add a legitimate enforcer.

The verdict here is yes.

This isn't a blood lust thing. The more you read about the long-term effect of concussions, the harder it's become to watch two guys wailing away at each others' skulls without worrying if they're going to remember their kids' names in 40 years.

The fights I've always appreciated the most, the ones I'd hate to see leave the game, are the ones like Holmstrom and Zajac - the heat of the moment, see-something-and-react type.

They've always been more appealing than watching two professional fighters tangle. Besides, the game has evolved to the point where you need all 18 skaters to be able to contribute hockey-wise. There's no place for a one-dimensional, stereotypical goon.

But even within the confines of the modern game, there's something to be said for a guy who creates room for his skill guys to operate.

The Phantoms have small forwards like Jason Akeson, Eric Wellwood and Garret Roe. Despite his newfound orneriness, or perhaps because of it, Holmstrom has also been a guy opposing teams target. They've all taken a beating in games without adequate response.

There's also the emotion a good fight creates. There have been too many games, particularly at home, where periods slip by in sleep-inducing chunks.

It's been encouraging to see rookies like Brandon Manning and Tye McGinn show an eagerness to drop the gloves. Kevin Marshall and Cullen Eddy are usually willing to keep guys honest.

But this isn't about total number of fights. The Phantoms are 11th in the league in major penalties.

This is about having that one guy who can create space for his teammates. The player whose sheer presence deters bad behavior. And it'd be nice, for once, for him to be on the Phantoms' bench. That's something they've never really had during their time here.

If Tom Sestito committed to that role, he could certainly fill it. But that seems to be more his NHL purpose than it is here, where he's one of the Phantoms' more skilled offensive players. His last on-ice fight in the AHL was Dec. 3.

Matt Clackson was always game, but he didn't have awe-inspiring size.

Garrett Klotz never has seemed to relish being a pure enforcer.

The newly disciplined Zac Rinaldo of this year would probably fit the bill, but he's not likely to be here anytime soon and is still more of a middleweight.

With Klotz out since Dec. 18 and Sestito injured at the beginning of the month and then recalled recently, the Phantoms' lineup has been somewhat toothless.

Don't think opponents don't notice.

Binghamton doesn't even bother to dress Francis Lessard against the Phantoms. Bridgeport parked Trevor Gillies last week.

It's a striking departure for an organization that's long prided itself on its toughness.

The Phantoms' last Calder Cup-winning team in 2005 had three players with more than 230 penalty minutes, led by Riley Cote's 280. Ten players had 100 or more.

The game has changed. That kind of lineup is gone forever.

But you'd expect more from an organization that trotted out a guy called "the Animal" as a representative of their legacy before the Outdoor Classic.

Tim McManus may be reached at tmcmanus@poststar.com. Follow him on Twitter (@PSPhantoms) and read his daily updates online on the Phantoms Forum blog.

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