ALLENTOWN, Pa. — It’s been 13 months since Philippe Myers felt this good about his game.
It’s been that long since he took a nasty hit from Luke Kunin behind the net in Canada’s quarterfinal matchup against the United States at the 2017 World Junior Championships. It was also at that tournament where TSN analyst Bob McKenzie tweeted Myers looked “NHL ready, or close to it.” Not long afterward, former NHL executive and current analyst Craig Button listed Myers as a top 10 prospect currently not playing in the NHL.
Incredibly high praise for the 6-foot-5 defenseman who wasn’t drafted as an 18-year-old while playing with Rouyn-Noranda in the QJMHL and eventually signed as a free agent with the Flyers in September 2015.
His first professional season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, though. Like Samuel Morin, Myers has been dealing with a nagging groin injury that has forced him to miss 17 AHL games so far.
“The first half of the season wasn’t the half that I wanted,” Myers said. “I was hurt for the first couple of games. I missed about half of them. Lately, my groin’s been strengthening up and I feel a lot stronger and more stable on the ice.
“I feel like I can move a lot better, and that’s huge. Skating is a big part of hockey. I’ve just been feeling myself, getting to the stuff that I was doing last year and regaining those good habits. I felt like myself on the ice a couple weeks ago for the first time this year. I felt comfortable moving. I wasn’t feeling any pain at all.”
Myers' feeling of immobility prevented him from being a complete all-around player, so his attention was squarely focused on positional play in the defensive zone and winning one-on-one battles that are essential to developing into an NHL-caliber defenseman.
In 28 games with the Phantoms this season, Myers has contributed three goals and nine assists. This after a three-year junior career that saw him score 29 goals and record 63 assists for 92 points.
“I’ve been trying to chip in offensively when I can, but obviously we have a defensive-first mindset here,” Myers said. “Good offense starts with good defense. You got to take care of your own end before you can join in on the rush.
“You just got to seize the opportunity, and when the opportunity is there you just gotta go. And if it’s not there, you don’t go. Not trying to force things — that’s something I’ve had to work on throughout the year and I think I’ve done a pretty good job at it, and now I just got to keep at it and keep the little details going.”
Organizationally, the Flyers' philosophy with their defensemen is comparable to rings around a tree. The outside arc is solidifying the basics, and as their respective games adapt to the speed of the AHL, that circle shrinks and they can start working on the finer details. Impressively, despite his injuries, Myers is considered to be on the same track as Travis Sanheim was a year ago when his game started to take off with the Phantoms.
“There’s a process where you take care of the big things first and with all of our D, it’s about the ice surface first,” Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said. “It's about not complicating your life on the breakout and making that first early pass when it's there. Now it's about the positional play, it’s about the defending part of it, the abrasiveness at the net front. Good stick, the positioning of the stick. The little details come over time. You can’t have everything all at once. It’s just information overload.
“When you consider the last three to four weeks, Philippe has played some of his best hockey. But he’s done it in half the time because he’s missed half the amount of games and half the amount of practices. You wonder where he’d be right now if he didn’t have the nagging injuries.”
With Morin out for an extended amount of time, Myers now comprises the Phantoms' top pairing along with Sanheim, who was assigned to the Phantoms this week after playing 35 games and scoring one goal, with the Flyers. When you evaluate Morin, Myers and Sanheim, they’re three players with unique skill sets, but Myers appears to be more of a hybrid of the other two. Sanheim has the offensive flair while Morin's specialty is physicality.
“[Myers'] ability is to get up and down the ice and make plays, and use his shot and defend. He’s a sneaky, hard player.” Gordon said. “He’s got a little bit of Sam in him at times when players have to pay a price when they go near him. It’s maybe not as dramatic as Sam, but he does play with an edge and he has that offensive upside.”
In between playing three games over four days paired with Sanheim together and logging 22 to 25 minutes, Myers also enjoyed his 21st birthday this past week. Nothing too celebratory despite the significance. He simply looks back at this past year and realizes how much he’s endured and matured.
“I just think I grew as a person, and as a player, I feel like my confidence is coming back,” Myers said. “I’m happy with the way things are going now, and I’m going to keep building on that.”