The rings for the 2023 Clark Cup champion Youngstown Phantoms will arrive mid-October, but head coach Ryan Ward doesn't foresee himself wearing his outside exceptional circumstances.
There's still too much left to do for the defending champs to rest on their laurels, no matter how shiny or adorned with unlimited carats.
"We turned the page in July, and I think for us, we have a whole 'nother set of goals, and now we have to defend the championship," Ward said on Thursday in Pittsburgh. "It's a different position to be in, and we're excited about that."
It's a different position indeed, but the bones of the Phantoms organization will stay the same in 2023-2024 despite losing its six leading scorers from last season and its star goaltender.
"I think for us, it's an organizational philosophy, it's a team mindset, and we have a lot of guys that fit different roles," Ward said. "As they grow comfortable in those roles, we're going to see growth. And I think for us, we've always done it by committee, and that's not something we're changing."
The Phantoms won 46 games last year, including five straight, to win the organization's first Clark Cup. The run to the title included playoff series wins over the Chicago Steel and Fargo Force, widely considered two of the most consistent teams in the USHL. The Steel was also involved in what Ward called one of the watershed moments of the 2022-2023 campaign.
"The two moments that stick out for me from a galvanizing standpoint would be the weekend in January that we swept Chicago at home. I think that was a big weekend. I thought our guys really put a lot of emphasis on that as a litmus test," Ward said. "And I think the Cleveland Classic, the outdoor game in February, was an experience that brought our guys together, and they realized that they wanted to play together as long as they possibly could."
North Dakota commit and Columbus draft pick Andrew Strathmann returns as Youngstown's captain for the 2023-2024 season.
Perhaps the most critical piece from the title run is no longer in Youngstown, as the Phantoms will be without Jacob Fowler, who won USHL Goaltender of the Year honors last season after leading the league in wins (27), goals-against-average (2.28), and save percentage (.921). Fowler was arguably even better in the Clark Cup playoffs, winning eight of nine games in 2023 and posting a goals-against-average of 1.36 and a save percentage of .952.
Unfortunately for the Phantoms, the third-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens is now tending goal for Boston College.
"It obviously helps to have a really good goaltender, and I think our guys played really well in front of him," Ward said. "So for us, we're proud of Jacob and everything he did and excited to watch him grow, not only at Boston College, but (also) with the Montreal Canadiens."
Despite the departure of Fowler, Ward is confident that the Phantoms can still find the strength of their team in the crease and on the blueline.
"From the backend out, Colin Winn and (Minnesota commit) Owen Bartoszkiewicz have done a great job through preseason," Ward said of his goaltending tandem. "Our D core is extremely deep. Stratty (Andrew Strathmann), (Tory) Pitner, (Tomas) Machu, all those guys," Ward continued, adding Finn McLaughlin, Luke Osburn, and Sascha Boumiedienne as three more members of the team's defense to keep an eye on.
Colin Winn won 11 games backing up 2023 USHL Goaltender of the Year Jacob Fowler last season.
Up front, Ward mentioned Michigan commit and National Team Development Program alum Charlie Cerrato and high-flying Boston University commit Zach Morin. Morin, a 2007-birth year from Quebec, is the team's youngest player, born eight days after fellow 2007-born skater Boumiedienne. Despite his youth, Morin didn't look at all out of place in Pittsburgh, driving the play and showing off the speed and skills that made him a content for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's No. 1 overall pick before signing with Youngstown.
As previously mentioned, the Phantoms lost their six leading scorers from last season and will be relying on fresh blood to replenish the offensive coffers, an aspect of the team dynamic that has Ward and the coaching staff raring to go this fall.
We have a young team again, very similar to last year, and we're excited about that," Ward said.
"We have a ton of room for growth, a ton of potential, and for us, that's exactly what we want. We want to be getting better the entire season and obviously reach our peak down the stretch, and I think we have a potential to do that," he continued.
"I'm not concerned at all about a Clark Cup hangover."
Quebec-born Zach Morin is one of Youngstown's young forwards that has the coaching staff excited to defend its Clark Cup title.