It was never a secret when Steve Yzerman and Julian BriseBois took over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, one of their top priorities was to strengthen the teams minor league system.
Tampa Bay has been increasing its minor league system since then and it showed when the Norfolk Admirals won the Calder Cup last season.
Now, affiliated with the Syracuse Crunch, the minor league continues to strengthen. The Crunch lead their division with 86 points and are starting to produce NHL players. Although the Lightning switched minor-league affiliations in the off season, BriseBois, Lightning assistant General Manager and Crunch GM, believes the change was a positive one.
"We accomplished what we wanted to in Norfolk...it was good for our players to experience that playoff atmosphere and to win the Calder Cup," BriseBois said last week during the game against the Philadelphia Flyers. "Change is always good and you never want to be in one place for too long."
BriseBois is not surprised with Syracuse's success this season and certainly is not surprised many of the Crunch skaters have not only found their way into Tampa Bay's lineup, but they are starting to produce.
"We knew about their skill level, their competitiveness, and their hockey sense," BriseBois said. "We all knew they could be NHL'ers, it was just a matter of when that would happen."
It has happened this season for many of the "Crunch Bunch."
In fact, seven players on the Lightning roster were a part of the Admirals' Calder Cup winning season. There are some players in the minor league system that did not start the season with Tampa Bay that are now in the lineup because of
"The guys that are up now are proving they can hold their own in this league," BriseBois said. "They have enough skill and I know they are ready," he added.
Leading the way this season for Tampa Bay as far as rookies are concerned, is forward Cory Conacher, who has 22 points (eight 8 goals,14 assists). Conacher earned a spot on the Lightning's roster in training camp and has played in every game so far this season.
Collectively, the Crunch skaters have registered 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists) this season with the Lightning. It is surely making up for the injured players and helping to keep the pressure off of players like Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis.
BriseBois believes that Syracuse Coach Jo
n Cooper has been one of the most instrumental figures in getting Crunch players ready for the NHL. According to BriseBois, Cooper has done this on and off the ice.
"He created a winning environment and he established a relationship with the players that goes beyond a player-coach relationship," BriseBois said. "If the AHL is hockey university then he is a hell of a professor."
Lightning defensemen Radko Gudas agrees. Gudas has quickly adapted to the speed of the NHL after his promotion from Syracuse.
"They are trying to play us as much in the minors as they do here and the transition really isn't that different," Gudas said. "What Coops and the coaches in Syracuse have done for us is unreal."
Former Lightning Coach Guy Boucher (in remarks made last week, well before his dismissal Sunday) was impressed with the skaters who came up from Syracuse. He knew they would be ready to go when they had their chance.
"They are looking good because they are ready not because they are young guys that we just hoped could do the job," Boucher said.
These players continue to produce for Tampa Bay including Tyler Johnson. Johnson, who has played in six games with the Lightning, has a point in each of his games (three goals, three assists). Before being called up to Tampa Bay, Johnson led Syracuse with 32 goals.
At first, Johnson was in awe of the talent on the team, including watching players like Stamkos and St. Louis. But, Johnson admitted he had to get that out of his system and start to take things more seriously now that he is at the NHL level.
"When you are playing the game you can't think of it," he said. "My first game, I was starstruck on the ice because I watched some of these players while growing up but I let go of that and now every guy is just another guy on the ice."
Johnson said that it is special to share his first NHL experiences with his minor league teammates. He is even playing on the same line he did in Syracuse with Palat and Panik.
"It is awesome having these guys here with me," Johnson said. "They are all guys that I went through a lot with last year. We are very close, like a family, and that is something we preach on down in Syracuse."