One of the minor results of both the Lightning being swept from round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Syracuse Crunch not making the playoffs is that the Black Aces were never formed in either league. Last year, the Crunch's Black Aces consisted mostly of guys from juniors who practiced with the Lightning's AHL affiliate during their postseason. In doing so, they got to witness a playoff run that went all the way to the Calder Cup finals. Some of those players, like defenseman Luke Witkowski and Cedric Paquette , went on to have a fairly big impact in Syracuse this past season.
This season, the Black Aces were going to form only if the Lightning forced a game five. The Crunch's regular season went later than the Lightning's, so players weren't really available to join the team much sooner than that. Only two players who normally would have been considered Black Aces received NHL call ups before the Crunch's season ended and the NHL postseason started. Those players did see NHL time, both at the end of the regular season and during the playoffs. Paquette was called up in time for the April 11th game, while goalie Kristers Gudlevskis also made his NHL debut that same night.
However, those two players only tell a little bit of the story of the Black Aces that Weren't. A whole crop of players, some very deserving of the name "Black Ace" and some with a slightly murky worth, were waiting in an anticipation in Syracuse to see if they were going to get to soak in the NHL playoff atmosphere. Although that call never came, it will probably prove important for Lightning fans to be familiar with the potential guys they could have seen.
Syracuse's season did not go as planned, but that doesn't mean development didn't happen at all. About half of the guys who could have been considered for the Black Aces may only need another season of AHL time before they're ready for the big league, so Lightning fans could be seeing them sooner rather than later. Other guys...well, maybe not so much, but the depth they provide is still an important part of the over-all system.
Part one of this series, posted here today, will tell about the guys who were almost certain to make it, guys who are, for the most part, only a season or two away from making the full time jump to the NHL and who will probably see call up time next season. Part two of this series, posted later this week, will focus on the guys who the Lightning brass may have wanted to see, but who probably won't be ready for any serious NHL time before another two to three seasons has passed (if they ever are).
Note: First up on this list are three players who saw limited time with Syracuse but would have fit in well with a Black Aces squad. These three are probably a bit away from NHL time, but their talent level and age should have made them obvious choices for the squad. The rest are guys who fit more into the "potential call up fodder for next season" role.
Although his sample size with the Syracuse Crunch was a very small one, forward Adam Erne did a lot in the 8 games he saw with Tampa’s farm team. Erne had one goal and three assists, netting his first professional point in his first game with Syracuse. Erne clicked very well with talented forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Yanni Gourde. His game was sharp, and he seemed to adjust to the speed of the AHL rather well. Erne is too young to suit up for Syracuse next season, and is expected to return to the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts. He should have impressed as a Black Ace. Erne was ranked at number 22 on Raw Charge’s Top 25 Under 25.
Like fellow forward Adam Erne, Henri Ikonen had a very small sample size with the Syracuse Crunch this season. Ikonen only played six games with the Crunch, as he spent his regular season with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL and only joined the team once his season there ended. Ikonen was drafted just last summer by Tampa Bay.
Ikonen netted two assists in those six games with Syracuse. Both of them were in one game, against Tortono on Saturday, April 12th. Ikonen meshed well with forward Brett Connolly, assisting with him on one goal and assisting on one of Connolly's own goals. During his time in a Crunch uniform, Ikonen also saw time with Syracuse's power play unit.
Ikonen was not mentioned at all in Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25. The timing of this list was not opprounte, especially with a guy like Ikonen who was so new when the list was produced. He is currently listed at number 13 on the list generated by Bolt Prospects.
Forward Joel Vermin played eight games with the Syracuse Crunch this season. He spent the regular season playing for the SC Bern of Switzerland's National League A. He was drafted by the Lightning last summer in the 7th round, and is primed to join the Crunch for a full season in 2014-15.
In those eight games with the Crunch he scored one goal, an unassisted gem during Syracuse's last home game of the season. One hopes that goal will lead to many more under the Onondaga County War Memorial's roof.
Syracuse defenseman Luke Witkowski has definitely cemented himself in Crunch lore through his gritty, physical play and his reliable defensive skills. Although still developing, Witkowski is probably the closest out of all of Syracuse's young blue liners ready to make that jump to the NHL. While not primed yet for a full time gig yet, it's practically a guarantee that he sees call up time in 2014-2015, especially if--and I would venture an "even if" here-- RFA Dmitry Korobov is not brought back.
Witkowski was Syracuse's only iron man this past season. He played in every single one of the Crunch's 76 games. His ending -1 +/- stat was second-best among Crunch defenseman. Witkowski's game isn't scoring (he ended the season with 12 points), but his stay-at-home style steadily improved throughout the season, and also steadily reaped rewards for the Crunch. He was voted the team's Most Improved Player at the end of the season, and was cheered for by fans for his physicality, especially in one notable game against Adirondack.
Witkowski was a "near miss" in Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25 list this past summer. He is currently rated at number 18 on Bolt Prospect's Top Prospects list.
Left wing Jonathan Marchessault joined the Syracuse Crunch in a deadline day trade and immediately made an impact, scoring 3 goals and netting 4 assists with his new club during the month of March. Marchessault is clearly a talented playmaker who had amassed 14 goals and 27 assists with the AHL's Springfield Falcons before he was traded to Syracuse. At the time of the trade, he was Springfield's top scorer.
No where was Marchessault's impact more keenly felt in Syracuse than on the power play. He has netted a goal and three assists while on the man advantage in the last month of the season, and his quick hands and good eyes helped that once-struggling unit to get their act together. His speed and craftiness with the puck was a joy for Crunch fans to watch.
Marchessault shining moment in his short time with Syracuse so far is definitely the large part he played in one of the most memorable games in Crunch history. The game has been dubbed the Miracle at the War Memorial, and during it Marchessault scored two shorthanded goals in a row with Crunch goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis pulled for the extra attacker. Those goals were crucial to the match's outcome and helped to lift the then-floundering Crunch to a 6-5 overtime victory against the Utica Comets. Marchessault then left the game, rushed to the hospital where his wife Alexandra was giving birth, and welcomed his son into this world.
All in a night's work, eh?
Syracuse Crunch forward Yanni Gourde has had a bit of an interesting career. He was the QMJHL's top scoring award as well as the league MVP in 2011-12. After that season, he joined the AHL's Worcester Sharks, where he played 54 games over the course of the 2012-2013 season. He netted 14 points that season, which was just enough to earn him a 25-game professional tryout (PTO) with the Sharks to start this past season. But, at the end of that contract he found himself moving to a new organization despite being the Worcester's third-leading scorer at the time (with half the amount of games played as everyone else on the roster).
It's rumored that the San Jose organization wasn't interested in talking about NHL opportunities with Gourde. The Tampa Bay organization, however, was more than interested in seeing how Gourde could immediately help out their struggling farm team. What's more, they were also interested in seeing him stick around. They offered Gourde an AHL pact to finish the season and then an extended two year, two-way deal after that. That kind of serious commitment made the decision between the two organizations a no-brainer for the speedy forward.
Gourde immediately jumped into the fray and pitched in to bolster his new team. In his first nine games with Syracuse, he netted 4 helpers. Gourde was just getting started, however, and spoke up with two goals and two more assists during the first six games of April. Both of those goals were power play markers. Gourde will probably see call up time next season soon rather than later.
If there was one player on Syracuse's roster that could make a fairly seamless transition to the NHL right this moment, it would be Vladislav Namestnikov. Despite being out for more than a month with a broken hand suffered at the end of November, his development this season has occurred in leaps and bounds. His speed, tenacity and dedication has impressed Crunch fans all season, and he's definitely been one of the bright spots in the past seven months.
Namestnikov finished the season third on the team in scoring with 48 points (19-29). He has been an irreplaceable part of Syracuse's top line, something that became painfully clear during the Crunch's two-win December. With Namestnikov out and forwards JT Brown and Nikita Kucherov recalled to Tampa Bay, the Crunch struggled mightily to win games. When Namestnikov returned, the ship righted a bit, although there just wasn't enough firepower on the rest of the roster to save Syracuse's post-season hopes.
Namestnikov was voted in at number 10 in Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25 list. His 7 power play goals are the most on the Crunch's roster (Marchessault has 8, but 7 of those were with the Springfield Falcons). In addition to his scoring talent, Namestnikov was also named an alternate captain for the 2013-2014 Crunch season, and served in that capacity when either forward Brett Connolly or defenseman JP Cote (who were also alternate captains) was recalled.
If he didn't have it already, Namestnikov absolutely secured a place in the hearts of Crunch fans recently when he was suckerpunched by a Toronto Marlies player during the second period on April 12th. He suffered a cut that took 9 stitches to close as a result, but yet returned to the ice for the third period. He then played a full game the next day despite his badly-bruised face.