What the Crunch might do for Tampa Bay: A look back and a look forward

Ondrej Palat is one of several Syracuse Crunch veterans who could crack the Tampa Bay lineup in 2013-14. - Photo by Scott Thomas and used with permission

With eyes already on the 2013-2014 season, who are the top four names to watch for that could impact the Tampa Bay Lightning's roster the most?

When the curtain opens on the Syracuse Crunch's 20th anniversary season on October 12th, it's guaranteed that there will be some different names in the locker room. Personnel changes with AHL clubs are pretty standard, with some guys getting that golden ticket to the big club while others make the decision to join new organizations.

I'll be honest with you: dealing with the entire Crunch roster from last year was completely stalling me out. For one reason or another, I just couldn't bring myself to sit down and write about all 31 players we ended with. Although it could have been that the task was just too overwhelming, I know for a fact it wasn't that I was upset or mad at them. Not in the least.

I loved that team. Flat out, no Cup included, I loved that team. How could I not? The accomplishments and memories that group of guys brought us as an organization and as a fan base is unmatched by any other team in club history. I rather emotionally summarized the year over at Chairman How's, but to be brief, the things the 2012-13 Crunch players brought us aren't even comparable to previous years:

  1. A franchise-high four AHL All Stars (Radko Gudas, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, and Mark Barberio)
  2. Tyler Johnson: the AHL's regular season MVP
  3. A division championship.
  4. Two victorious playoff rounds, where the Crunch swept both opponents.
  5. A third victorious playoff round where the Crunch went 4-1 and clinched the first Conference Championship in organizational history.
  6. A competitive trip to the Calder Cup finals for the first time in the Crunch's history.

Yeah, that last one fell a little short of the ultimate goal, but I can tell you this right now: there isn't a true fan in Syracuse who is disappointed with that team. Not a one. The joys this team brought us, and the amount of support they were able to enlist from the city of Syracuse, really has no measure. Those guys changed the culture in the War Memorial. They showed this fan base that we're deserving of winners, and it was an honor to have those guys play in our jerseys this past season.

I can't wait to see what next season brings.

Now, on that note, there will be guys who played here last year who will be quick to make an impact in Tampa for the Lightning. It's already been pretty much established that Gudas has played his last game in a Crunch jersey, as he was signed to a 3 year, one-way deal by the Bolts a few months ago. Tampa Bay has proven in guys like Dan Sexton that they will pay for those kinds of players if they can positively influence Syracuse, but I really don't think that will be the case here.

Sexton was on a one-way contract with the Anaheim Ducks when he was acquired by the Lightning in a trade in March and then assigned him to Syracuse, but it was always known that they brought him in specifically to give the Crunch a boost. Any call up value that they could find in him was secondary. Gudas has proven already that he can play in Tampa. He scored two goals and three assists in his 22 games NHL games this past season, and made quite the impression on several players on other teams. I will pretty much fall over and die of a heart attack if Gudas starts the season in Syracuse.

So, with that said, who are some other names that might crack the Bolts lineup next season?

  1. Center Tyler Johnson. Yeah, I know, it's like shooting fish in a barrel with this one, but the obviousness is exactly why I had to include him. Johnson was the regular season AHL MVP in 2012-13, carrying on the standard set by former Bolt Cory Conacher the year before. In 62 games with Syracuse this year, Johnson scored 37 goals and 27 assists. In 18 playoff games, he scored 10 goals and 11 assists. In his 14 game stint with the Lightning, he netted 3 goals and 3 assists. With the buyout of center Vincent Lecavalier, there's been speculation that Johnson will slide into the 2 C spot for the up coming season. Fans in Syracuse would not be surprised.
  2. Left wing Ondrej Palat. In 14 games with the Lightning this past season, Palat scored 2 goals and 2 assists, but Palat's game really flourished during the AHL playoffs. Had the Crunch won the Calder Cup, Palat would have been a shoe-in for playoff MVP. Palat's final 26 playoff points was still five more than Grand Rapids' highest player, left wing Tomas Tatar. His 19 assists were the highest in the AHL post season by far. Palat's drive, effort, and play-making ability could be a real assist to the Lightning next season.
  3. Defenseman Mark Barberio. Barberio's RFA status is slightly puzzling right now to me, but I have a feeling it's a matter of when he and Tampa get things squared away, not if. Barberio was the 6th-highest scoring defenseman in the AHL during the 2012-2013 season, skating away with 42 points (8-34). Barberio's 15 points during the Calder Cup playoffs wouldn't be beat among defensemen. As an alternate captain, Barberio's leadership was highly valued both on and off the ice, and his presence in the Syracuse community was often felt, as well. Although he only played two games for Tampa this past season and failed to notch a point, I could see him making the big club right out of camp if there's room. If not, he'll be the first one on the plane when there's a call-up.
  4. Right wing Brett Connolly. Again, aiming for the obvious here, but Connolly has also probably played his last Crunch game. Connolly totaled 63 points in 71 games with the Crunch this past season. In 18 playoff games, he scored 6 goals and 5 assists. Tampa recalled Connolly in April of this past season, where he played 5 games and scored one goal. Tampa promised not to rush Connolly's development this past season, an oath they kept. However, Connolly is probably ready to make the NHL jump, and should be a strong player to do so right out of camp.
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