With the preseason ending this weekend and rosters being finalized in the coming week, now is a good time to look at the other teams of the East Division and how the Bears can expect to matchup against them. With Syracuse moving to the Northeast Division and the Phantoms returning to eastern Pennsylvania, the division feels more "local" now. I really wish it was Norfolk that moved out and Syracuse that stayed. I like the sort of "I-81" rivalry between Hershey, Wilkes-Barre, Binghamton and Syracuse with a trip up to the War Memorial within just a 3 hours drive or so. Anyway, this will be a two part preview with Wilkes-Barre and Lehigh Valley first, being that they're from PA and the teams the Bears will play most this season. Binghamton and Norfolk will be previewed in Part 2.
To a certain extent, it appears that the days of East Division teams dominating the Eastern Conference are gone. If it wasn't a year in which the Bears were running away with the division and conference then one could almost expect one of their division rivals to be the top team. However, it appears that most of the East Division teams, right along with Hershey, are feeling the effects of the various stages of rebuilding or retooling by their respective NHL affiliates. That being said, with the exception of Syracuse the rest of the teams finished within 10 points of each other last season. Wins one way or another and any of those teams could have been bumped out of the playoffs. But that could be a good thing this year. With the teams pretty much on par with each other, the Bears have plenty of opportunity to define themselves under Troy Mann and reclaim the top spot in the East.
The young players either continue to get better as players and learn how to win (leading to a tough fight at the top of the division) or they struggle to develop and middle out in the division like they have done the past 3 years. The key is whether that progress pays off with success. Another issue is call-ups. The past couple of years has seen a lot of forwards being called up to Pittsburgh to fill spots on the third and fourth lines. This year should be the defensemen's turn. With Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen now Capitals, the Pens could see Philip Samuelsson, Simon Depres and Brian Dumoulin called up to the big club quite a bit this year. This will make for a weaker back end in those close games the Bears and Pens inevitably find themselves in.
That being said, it may be a long season for the first year Lehigh Valley Phantoms. It doesn't appear that the Flyers organization knows whether it's in a rebuilding mode or a retooling mode and this has trickled down to the Phantoms. Much like Wilkes-Barre, the Phantoms are stocked with younger guys who have been around for awhile now. Likewise, they have not made very few moves in the off-season except for Derek Whitmore (having a brief stint with the Bears), who has shown to be a good contributor, and Hershey favorite Andrew Gordon. Let's be honest, signing Gordon was a great move by the Phantoms. This will really bring something to the rivalry in the Phantom's first year back in PA.
The question is will the change of location and division make any difference? Most likely not. The Phantoms have struggled since leaving Philadelphia and there doesn't appear to be any improvement on the horizon. At best they're a middle division team although the most likely position is to replace Syracuse at the bottom. But here's hoping that the renewed State rivalry brings out the best between the Bears and Phantoms. And the Phantoms and Pens. With the Bears on top and the Pens and Phantoms battling for the second and third spots.
And now, a bit of a rant and point to be made. A lot of hype was made about the owners getting the stadium built in Allentown and bringing the Phantoms back to PA. As I said previously, great for the State and couldn't be happier. However, in all this build-up the management forgot one thing: THE TEAM! How can they go to this much trouble in bringing the team back to PA and forget the product in the marketing process? I'm specifically referring to the Phantom's website. Basically, it's terrible. The first thing one is faced with is the team's schedule and purchasing tickets. I get it, you need to sell tickets. But when clicking the link to the "Phantoms" website, it takes you to Adirondack Phantoms old site that hasn't been updated since before last year's playoffs.
If I'm a Phantoms fan, this is unacceptable. They should have Andrew Gordon's and the Flyers' prospects faces and videos plastered all over a new site exclaiming how good the team is going to be. But no news is had on any team developments. Just very poorly executed.
Anyway, next up we'll look at Binghamton and Norfolk.