|Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
Written by: Tony Androckitis - Twitter/Facebook
ALLENTOWN - Forwards Taylor Leier and Jordan Weal, in addition to defenseman T.J. Brennan, will represent the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in front of the hometown fans at the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic this weekend.
While Brennan is essentially an AHL All-Star veteran, making his fourth straight appearance to the event, the Phantoms' forward nominees will have a combined three appearances if you count 2017's event before it starts.
"I didn't really know what to expect," Leier said of when he found he would be representing the Phantoms in his first AHL All-Star Classic. "There were some people asking me about it, but I didn't know what to tell them.. It's definitely a very good feeling, and I'm excited to represent the Phantoms with Weal and Brennan."
The last time Jordan Weal was an AHL All-Star was during his last AHL stint in 2014-15 when he led the Manchester Monarchs to a Calder Cup championship as was named the AHL's Playoff MVP for the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs.
"It's a fun event," Weal said, recalling his last All-Star appearance in Utica in 2015. "It's going to be really cool doing it in the home rink, especially with our fans and the support we get. It's going to be a loud, fun building in there," he added of what he expects the atmosphere inside the PPL Center will be like.
While both are excited to participate the events, having it at their home rink and having some of their closest hockey friends in town makes it a great weekend to catch up in a non-competitive environment.
Leier making his final year of entry-level count
Leier, in his third year of pro hockey with the Phantoms this season, spent a month in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers in December - playing in 10 games and scoring both his first NHL point (an assist) and his first NHL goal in back to back games. He proved he could play at hockey's highest level and was reassigned to the AHL a few days before the All-Star rosters were announced.
With the Phantoms so far this season, Leier has been the team's top line left wing and a staple of one of the league's most successful power play units - tallying six points (two goals, four assists) in his last six games entering the All-Star break.
"I don't think anybody on the team will tell you differently, he comes prepared every single night and gives his best," head coach Scott Gordon said of Leier. "It's one of the reasons why he's one of our captains. The example he sets with his attitude, his work ethic - not just in the games but every day in practice, the weight room. I don't think anyone is surprised at the kind of effort he puts forth."
"It's been really exciting," Leier said of the Phantoms' success to this point. "I'm definitely forward to this weekend. I think it will be special for our fans to be able to watch their own players and the rest of the best players in the league. It'll be an exciting weekend for the whole community."
Unfortunately for Leier, his good friend Brendan Leipsic has been replaced for the All-Star Classic due to a concussion. That doesn't mean he won't see a few familiar faces in the other locker room this weekend though.
"We lived together in junior. We're really good friends and see each other every summer still," Leier said of his friendship off the ice with Leipsic, a former teammate of his with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. "And Bjorkistrand too," he added. "He was my linemate for three years so it's going to be good reunite ... and catch up."
All in all, year is making his mark with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and probably isn't too far from full-time NHL work with the Flyers in the very near future. For now, he's looking to get a weekend to relax having fun on the ice before preparing for the stretch run.
"It'll be a weekend for the people. The All-Star games are great to show the fans all the best players together and put on a show," Leier said. "I love three-on-three, so that will be really fun," he added about Monday's All-Star Challenge.
Weal 'grinding away' in the minors
Weal has been the Phantoms' most consistent offensive threat this season, leading the team in scoring with 45 points (15 goals, 30 assists) in 40 games.
He also enters the All-Star break second in the league in scoring behind Chicago's Kenny Agostino, riding a season-high eight-game points scoring streak that has seen him tally 12 points (four goals, eight assists) since January 13th.
"I don't know, he's been pretty consistent all year," Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said of Weal's play this season. "The fact that he has a few more points lately, maybe that might be indicative of the guys that he is playing with are getting some points and cashing in on more chances. Second leading scorer in the league, so I don't think we can say anything about being more consistent. A guy, from a production standpoint, has been there all year for us," Gordon added.
His ability to create offensive chances at even strength as well as setup his teammates on the man advantage are a big reason why the Phantoms are 29-12-2 heading into the All-Star break this as opposed to hovering around .500 hockey just one year ago. Lehigh Valley's 158 goals through 43 games is more than any team in the AHL this season.
"Every game, 5-on-5, there's something going on when he's on the ice and it doesn't matter who he's playing with," Gordon said of Weal's two-way game. "That line is starting to connect offensively and they all benefit from that."
The line coach Gordon is referring to is what is currently the Phantoms' second line, with Weal centering Danick Martel on the left and rookie Nicolas Aube-Kubel on the right wing. A streaky scorer, Martel tallied a hat trick in Wednesday's 7-2 win over Binghamton. Aube-Kubel, still learning the pro game as a first year pro, scored goals in back-to-back games to start this past week - including the game-winning goal Friday night in Binghamton.
Now in his second AHL All-Star Classic, Weal is just looking to kick back and relax this weekend, and have some fun on the ice.
"It's a fun event. The new format with the 3-on-3 will be a lot of fun," Weal said of this weekend's events. "It's just a good weekend to get to know some of the guys you play against, and see some guys you've played with in the past and have some fun."
Some of those former teammates and friends Weal speaks of are with the Ontario Reign, the Los Angeles Kings affiliate he played with when they were on the east coast with Manchester two years ago. Reign defenseman Vincent LoVerde was Weal's old roommate, and Reign head coach Mike Stothers was Weal's coach the last time he was in the AHL.
All the AHL success hasn't panned out into full-time NHL work yet for Weal, but his attitude on the situation is whats going to give himself the best chance to get that opportunity at the next level down the road.
"Personally, I think I've been doing that for four years now," Weal said when asked about using the bigger spotlight this weekend to show some NHL teams he's capable. "Just have to keep doing my thing and keep working." Just playing hockey, grinding away and things will take care of themselves."