The Phantoms player I’m most interested to follow during the lockout may surprise you

In three seasons covering the Adirondack Phantoms, only two players made me stop and say, “Wow.”

Brayden Schenn and Matt Read belonged in a different league from their first shifts. Instead of rookies, they looked like 16-year-olds with forged birth certificates who faked their way into some 13-and-under house league.

They were the only sure things. And you didn’t need to be a hockey genius to see it. If you asked me, however, who was the third most impressive forward I covered, I bet you’d be surprised by the answer.

This time last year, Matt Ford was a third-liner for the Hershey Bears. Today, he’s the  player I’m most interested to follow when the Phantoms’ lockout buoyed season begins Saturday.

Philadelphia’s attention, of course, is going to gravitate toward players who’ve played for the Flyers. But what does it really tell us if Schenn and Sean Couturier put up big numbers? They should. If they don’t dominate, some may fret because there’s little other hockey to discuss, but does anyone really fear a long-term deleterious effect on their career?

Meanwhile, as long as the lockout lasts, some of the storylines I  prepared to follow won’t fully develop. We’re probably not going to find out how sophomores Tye McGinn and Tyler Brown would have handled first-line minutes, or if players on one-year extensions, like Ben Holmstrom, Mike Testwuide and Harry Zolnierczyk, could make a case to be in the organization’s long-term plans.

That leaves Ford as a compelling subplot.

Ford isn’t the same class of player as  Schenn or Read, nor is he an NHL star in the making. But as a candidate for a fill-in, mid-to-bottom level role with the Flyers, he has the most offensive upside of any of the call-ups they’ve recently tried. If that doesn’t sound like much, well, take issue with the Flyers because that’s all they really use the Phantoms for these days.

The Flyers acquired Ford, a right winger, from Washington in February in exchange for Kevin Marshall, a third-round pick who never really developed into the shutdown defenseman the Flyers thought they had. They didn’t quite pull Ford off the scrap heap, but expectations weren’t astronomical. Ford was 27 — he turned 28 this week — an eighth-round pick in 2004, and obscured by Hershey’s top-tier AHL talent.

All he turned out to be was the Phantoms’ best player in the second half.

Ford’s impact is impossible to overstate. He scored 19 goals in 31 games, a statistic that becomes more impressive when you consider that total accounted for nearly 24 percent of the team’s goals during those games. Nine of his 29 combined goals were game-winners, second most in the AHL.

Ford’s breakthrough season came during turbulent personal time. A few days after the trade to the Phantoms, his father-in-law died, causing him to miss a game and a week of practice. He scored twice in games when he didn’t arrive at the hotel he lived out of until earlier in the day.

When an unheralded AHL player scores a ton of goals, he’s often dismissed as a one-dimensional, minor-league sniper. An aging Denis Hamel scored more goals the last two seasons than anyone on the the Phantoms, but no one — except for that poor writer from Bleacher Report — confused him for an NHL prospect.

It’d be wrong to pooh-pooh Ford that way. He did much more than hang out at the blue line and wait for the home run. He set up his teammates (31 assists), killed penalties on the top unit and was one of the team’s leading shot blockers. For comparison’s sake, I’d say he brings the speed of a Zolnierczyk — a tick below Eric Wellwood — with a more polished finish, but less physicality.

The Flyers didn’t wait, re-signing him to a one-year deal in April before the season ended. He served as a Black Ace during the playoffs, and I believe the Flyers would have given him a long look had there been an NHL training camp.

Yet, Ford remains relatively unknown in Philadelphia. His name didn’t warrant a mention in an informal and certainly unscientific Twitter poll Thursday of fan interest. That’s understandable. Fans are naturally interested in players they’ve followed from the beginning of their careers. Every prospect became one for a reason, and there’s always some positive quality to latch onto to believe your team is smarter than the rest. Hope abides.

But if forwards like McGinn, Brown, Holmstrom, Jason Akeson and Marcel Noebels pique your interest, you should add Ford to your watch list. Don’t let his age fool you; he’s only entering his third full AHL season.

Ford’s anonymity won’t last long. According to The Post-Star, he skated this week on the top line with Schenn and Couturier, a unit coach Terry Murray says is likely to start the season together. It’s a once-in-a-career opportunity.

What he does with it will be worth watching.

Website of the week. Ever wonder what it would cost to have Phantoms forward Harry Zolnierczyk show up at your fantasy draft? Or to have him go over the video of your adult-league game? Probably not, eh. But if you have the $1,500 per hour to spare, a reader stumbled on a site that tells you just how (and how much it will cost) to make it happen. Presumably, the accept credit cards.

Roster decisions. If Twitter was any indication, the Flyers’ decision Monday to assign forward Jason Akeson and defenseman Blake Kessel to the ECHL surprised many people. The Kessel part was a non-story to me as it was clear last season that he’d been passed by Cullen Eddy, among others. But it’s certainly a story when the team’s leading scorer and power-play pivot of a season ago is demoted while others who’ve struggled offensively, like Mike Testwuide, made the team.

Twitter chatter speculated this was another sign of Akeson, who surprisingly wasn’t named a Black Ace last season, slipping from the organization’s favor. There no doubt they’d like him show more fervor for defense and to play more aggressively. But don’t forget, Akeson doesn’t help you much unless he plays on the top two lines, and those are awfully crowded these days. Terry Murray essentially made that case to The Saratogian this week:

“We’re all aware that Akeson had a good rookie year and put some points up on the board. He’s a player that has to play on your top two lines. With the NHL lockout, there’s a reaction and players get pushed down. With Schenn, Couturier in particular coming, it puts players in different situations and Akeson, as a result, is not in our top two lines and therefore it’s better for him — in our opinion — that he would play in Trenton, be an important player, play on the No. 1 line and keep his game in order.”

Preseason musings. I don’t put much stock in preseason play, especially this one, which featured a lockout swollen roster trying to meld together. But the Phantoms 0-3 preseason record has to be at least somewhat disconcerting to Adirondack fans because it featured the lackluster offense that’s been a Phantoms’ hallmark during their three seasons in Glens Falls. The Phantoms scored five goals — Albany and Connecticut outscored them 10-3 — and went 3 for 21 on the power play. You’d almost expect better than that by accident with all the NHL talent around.

Surprising fact. This won’t be Sean Couturier’s first time living in Glens Falls. His father, Sylvain, was traded from the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners to the Adirondack Red Wings midway through the 1992-93 season. Sylvain scored 17 goals in 29 games with the Red Wings and had three more in the playoffs. Born in Phoenix in December of 1992, Sean spent the first few months of his life in Glens Falls.

Eye on Allentown. The Morning Call reported last week that the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority closed on a $224 million bond sale. The deal will finance the oft-delayed, $272 million, 8,500 seat arena that will host the Phantoms beginning in 2014. Or 2214. Or something.

Stat of the week. The Adirondack Phantoms are 1-2 in season opening games, but 2-1 in home openers at Glens Falls Civic Center. They’ve won the last two.

This week’s schedule. Saturday, vs. Portland, 7 p.m.; Sunday, at Springfield, 3 p.m. Radio broadcasts are streamed online. Video is available on a pay-per-view basis at ahllive.com. Single games cost $6.95. The site also offers multi-game packages.

– Tim