Written by: Tony Androckitis
ALLENTOWN, PA -- As the Lehigh Valley Phantoms prepare for a Friday night road tilt in Hartford, CT they'll take the ice at XL Center without one of their assistant captains. Forward Taylor Leier has been traded to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forward Justin Bailey.
On the surface, it looks like a change of scenery trade for both parties involved. Leier was outcasted by Dave Hakstol last season, playing little to no hockey at all before beginning the 2018-19 season back in the AHL with the Phantoms.
According to Leier, who caught up with Inside AHL Hockey after Wednesday's Phantoms win over Springfield, he was just starting to get his game back and get into a rhythm.
"I pretty much took a year off from playing the way I can play and seeing the puck go in the net, it took me about 15-20 games or so of playing a good amount of hockey to kind of get that rhythm back," Leier explained, adding, "It's hard to explain as a player, the feeling of wanting the puck on your stick all the time. I think I have that back in my game now. I've watched video of myself, and I can see it and I think you guys can see it too. I'm kind of a different player than the beginning of the year when I first came back."
Noticeable in recent games, Leier has tallied seven goals in his last six games - including two goals Sunday in Hershey and another Wednesday night against Springfield.
"It feels good to be contributing," Leier said. "The goals are nice, but at the end of the day people want to be associated to be with winners, so if I can score and help this team win then it'll be good."
With help from Brad Keffer - noted Phantoms' advanced stats tracker (be sure to check out his website!) - a deeper look into the numbers reveals Leier has been arguably the team's best forward in the last 10 games.
Over the last 10 games, Leier has a 56.7% Corsi for (CF) and a 63.95% scoring chances for (SCF) at 5-on-5. Both of those figures are first on the team during that time frame.
Then there's relative stats, which is a way to view how the team played while a certain player was on the bench vs when they're on the ice. In the last 10 games the Phantoms have a 45.9% CF and 45.02% SCF with Leier on the bench, making his relative stats as follows: +10.85% CF rel, and +18.94% SCF rel. Both, again, first on the team.
And then there's his individual stats. Again, just to be clear, this is just 5-on-5 play, but he leads the team with 19 individual scoring chances in the last 10 games (Bunnaman is second with 18) and only McDonald and Carey have more shot attempts overall (Leier has 26, McDonald 27, and Carey 28.)
"I'd absolutely say he's been their best player over this stretch," Keffer told Inside AHL Hockey. "The relative stats are pretty damn high compared to the norm."
What's Leier's take on his recent success?
"It's a lot of work behind the scenes practicing. I think with that mental confidence like I said, you want the puck all the time and you're not afraid to make plays," Leier said. "Those things, they correlate a lot. When you have those two things going on at the same time in your head when you have the puck, it can be pretty dangerous if you use them at the right time. Im just hoping to keep getting better and better until the end of the year and hopefully get hot going into playoffs."
For Leier, he'll hope to continue his road back to the NHL in the Buffalo Sabres organization - where he'll likely pick up where he left off in Lehigh Valley with the Sabres' AHL affiliate Rochester. Oddly enough, the Phantoms host Rochester on Saturday.