Photos: Nina Weiss/Flyerdelphia
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms will have two representatives in the AHL All-Star Classic this weekend in Syracuse, NY — forward Nick Cousins and goaltender Anthony Stolarz.
Cousins, 22, hails from Belleville, Ontario and leads the Phantoms in scoring with 12 goals and 24 points in 36 games.
Stolarz, also 22, is from Edison, NJ and has a 14-10-3 record with a .916 save percentage and 2.43 GAA in 28 games. It is the first All-Star selection for both.
"It's obviously a tremendous honor to represent the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Philadelphia Flyers," Cousins said. "I'm really looking forward to it. I think me and Stolie are excited about it. I have my mom and dad coming down for Sunday and Monday. It's something I'm definitely looking forward to."
"It's an honor to represent the Phantoms and Flyers in the All-Star Game," Stolarz said. "Knowing that it was the coaches who selected the players, just being recognized by them, it's an honor to be selected and I'm happy to be on."
Cousins is in his third full season with the Phantoms. As a 2011 third-round pick of the Flyers, Cousins joined the Phantoms for one game in the 2011-12 season and seven games in the 2012-13 season while finishing up his junior career with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Cousins had one assist in the 2012-13 season.
His first full season was in 2013-14, where he scored 11 goals and added 18 assists for 29 points in 74 games. Cousins scored 22 goals and added 34 assists for 56 points in 64 games last season. He is on pace for career-highs in all categories this season.
For as good as his offensive numbers have looked, Cousins has been a consistent part of the scoring for the Phantoms this season, something he feels has helped him grow as a player.
"It's been consistency," Cousins said. "I think there were times last year, there'd be some games where I was invisible on the ice. There's times where I wasn't feeling myself, where I wasn't feeling that my game was where I wanted it to be. This year I've tried to focus on playing all 76 games at the top of my ability and I think I've done that. I've played 36 games so far and I'm just trying to improve in the small areas of the game and just try to get better everyday."
Cousins has only played in 36 of the Phantoms 44 games because of a brief stint with the Flyers in late November this season. Cousins has played in four games with the Flyers this season and joined the team for 11 games last season. He has no NHL points just yet, but came close to contributing on the scoresheet several times in both callups.
"I just think it's a really hard league to play in for a young guy," Cousins said. "It's the best league in the world for a reason, right? It's a hell of a league and for me to get back there, I've got to keep working hard down here and be patient. When my opportunity comes again, I'll be more than ready."
While he waits for that opportunity to come, Cousins is focused not just on playing with consistency, but fine-tuning the small areas of his game that will set him apart at the next level. Among those small areas is a focus on defense. Cousins looks at a former teammate excelling at the NHL level for inspiration.
"Every hockey player is looking to improve in little areas of the game. For me, it's my own end, the defensive play," Cousins said. "You look at Ghost [Shayne Gostisbehere,] for him to stick there, it's going to be his defensive play. We all know he has the best offense in the organization. For me, it's the defensive play, and also the skating. I've got to improve on my skating a little bit. I've been doing that throughout the summer. I worked with a power skating coach this summer. It needs to get better and I'm just trying to do that the best I can."
For Stolarz, development is crucial as a young goaltender. That said, the goalie, who just turned 22 on Jan. 20, is making progress very quickly at a position that can take many years to develop.
The Flyers drafted Stolarz in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft. Stolarz turned heads as a member of the London Knights in the 2012-13 season. In 20 games, Stolarz was 13-3-2 with a 2.29 GAA and .920 save percentage. He was putting up even better numbers the following season when a gruesome injury to his leg forced Stolarz to miss significant time. He still posted a 25-5-2 record with a 2.52 GAA and .926 save percentage in 35 games.
When Stolarz made the leap to the AHL for the 2014-15 season, it was a slow start for the goalie who had excelled at the junior level. Stolarz struggled to gain consistent playing time, and as a result, his numbers were not a good reflection of his abilities. He posted a 9-13-4 record with a 3.28 GAA and .905 save percentage in 31 games.
In just his second season, Stolarz is earning the bulk of the starts in goal for the Phantoms and having a strong sophomore season while demonstrating some very positive growth.
So what's changed for the young goalie?
"I think my patience is probably the biggest thing," Stolarz said. "Last year, I was pretty scrambly. I didn't really use my size and positioning to make saves, I relied on my athleticism. I think this year I'm able to get in the right spots, track pucks and just make an easy save instead of having to lunge or dive across."
There are many things that are different for Stolarz this season. The Phantoms have a new head coach behind the bench after Terry Murray left the team to be an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres and the Phantoms hired Scott Gordon. Gordon's confidence in Stolarz has him in net with consistency, something Stolarz fells has helped him the most.
"The biggest thing for me is just playing games," Stolarz said. "With 'Barbs' [Jason LaBarbera] being hurt early in the year, I was able to play in a string out of 15 games. I think I played 13 or 14 in a row. Just getting on a roll like that, it gets your confidence going. I haven't played a string like that since junior. You keep practicing and maintaining that high level of play, it just keeps rolling and keeps going."
Another addition for Stolarz has been the hiring of goaltender coach Kim Dillabaugh and goaltender development coach Brady Robinson. Robinson has worked extensively with Stolarz, helping the goalie make strides in his play.
"I worked with Kim in training camp, but mostly it's been Brady Robinson," Stolarz said. "He's been here working with me. I think he and Kim share the same philosophy and have many of the same ideas, being that they both came from the L.A. Kings. It's been good for me and the results have shown it."
It will certainly be a memorable weekend for the two Phantoms as they showcase their skills in Syracuse, but more than anything, it's about taking the honor of representing the Phantoms — and the Flyers of the future — and translating that to helping the Phantoms succeed while they await their call the next level.
"Obviously, there's that confidence you get within the game, but to be recognized by the entire league, it gives you that added boost," Cousins said. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't give me a little bit of confidence, so I'll try to use that to my advantage. I just have to play with confidence, play with the puck and make plays. When I'm doing that, that's when I'm at my best."
"For sure, I think it's a boost of confidence," Stolarz said. "First off, to be recognized as one of the better players in your division, it gives you, not cockiness, but a little bit of a swagger. You know you're able to compete at a high level. I think for me, I've been using it to be on a roll. I'll use it to go out to Syracuse to have some fun, and it'll be back to business when I come back."
Brent Baldwin is Lehigh Valley Phantoms beat writer for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @BBFlyerdelphia.