In part one of this series, I explored the players from the Syracuse Crunch that probably were going to be called up to Tampa Bay for the gathering of the Black Aces. These talented players proved during their time with the Crunch, whether that time was six games or 76 games, that they deserved a look during the Lightning's post season. Their body of work with Syracuse featured consistency, improvement, tenacity, and, in every case, pure sweat and hard work.
Part II of this series takes a look at, well, everyone else. For the most part, these guys are the depth players, the young guys who did not excel this year in Syracuse but who may still have the potential to do well. They also might be guys who had one or two moments of brilliance and shine, but who didn't "razzle-dazzle" all season. They could have been a Black Ace, given their contract status and their age, but chances are they wouldn't have made it (and didn't exactly deserve it).
A bit of a disclaimer here: I've never experienced a Tampa Bay Black Aces gathering. The guys featured in part one -- Adam Erne, Luke Witkowski, Vladislav Namestnikov, etc. -- were pretty much slamdunks.They had earned the experience to be a Black Ace, and I would have been shocked had they not been invited. The group presented here in part two could be considered a little more subjective in comparison, so I had to use my intuition more. Some players may have earned placement with the team had it been formed, depending on what the Lightning wanted to see. Others...probably not so much.
Crunch defenseman Artem Sergeev is still a bit of a mystery. He played 68 of the Crunch's 76 games and scored 10 points. His -10 +/- stat is second-worst on the team, just two points better than Dmitry Korobov's -12.
Sergeev still has quite a bit to work on with his game, but he should continue to get minutes in Syracuse behind and beside guys like JP Cote, Joey Mormina, and Luke Witkowski. Sergeev was just kind of "there" this past season, not sticking out as either totally bad or totally good. He desperately needs to improve his physicality, something Cote, Mormina, and Witkowski should be able to help him with...as long as Sergeev is willing to learn.
To say that Syracuse Crunch forward Brett Connolly had a bit a tough year would probably be an understatement. Connolly started the season with the expectation (one held by more than just himself) that he'd make the Lightning roster. He shined during Tampa's pre-season, impressing everyone from the coaches to the fan base. Despite all of that, however, Connolly found himself back in Syracuse after forwards Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik and Ondrej Palat all unexpectedly secured spots with the big club to start the regular season.
With his confidence clearly shaken, Connolly then struggled at various points this past season with the Crunch. Although the occasional recall to the NHL seemed to bolster his attitude for short periods of time, it wasn't until Tampa Bay traded for forward Jonathan Marchessault and he joined the roster that Connolly really found his stride again. Being paired with such an obviously talented playmaker definitely increased Connolly's confidence. Connolly scored 5 goals and netted 10 assists during the month of March, his best month this season. His April totals might have surpassed those numbers had Syracuse played more games.
Connolly was ranked at 7 on Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25. Although that rather high ranking comes with the disclaimer that the votes were tallied in the summer before Connolly's various slumps this past season, much of his latter play in Syracuse seemed to have been more on par with what was originally expected of him. Connolly was an alternate captain with the Crunch, so the coaching staff clearly believed in his leadership ability.
Connolly will be an RFA this summer, and his future with the organization is considered by many to be a bit of a question mark. The Lightning seem overloaded with talented forwards. Tampa may have invited Connolly to be a Black Ace, but they also might have figured that they've seen all they need to see from him.
Defenseman Dmitry Korobov has not had the season Tampa Bay hoped for. It's now the impression among many Crunch fans that being paired with current Tampa Bay defenseman Radko Gudas last year made Korobov look more talented than he really is. It would have been a surprise had Korobov made the Black Aces.
Not everything about Korobov's game was negative this year. He was the top-scoring defenseman with the Syracuse Crunch this past season. In 68 games he scored 3 goals and netted 23 assists. However, in comparison with last season, team-leading "offensive defenseman" Mark Barberio had 8 goals and 34 assists, while Korobov himself had 3 goals and 19 assists. Barberio ended that season with a +8 in the +/- category and Korobov ended it with a +20.
To put it bluntly, Korobov was supposed to be the Crunch's Barberio this season. He fell quite short of that, in both points and +/-. Korobov, who clocked in at #18 on Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25 last summer, ended this season with a -12. That was the lowest rating among Crunch defensemen. In fact, when taking the whole team into consideration, only forward Geoff Walker's -14 was lower than Korobov's +/-.
Honestly, while his offensive upside can't be denied (especially when on a good team), it appears that Korobov became a frustrating defensive liability this past season. The undrafted defenseman will be an RFA this summer. It will be interesting to see what happens with him.
Syracuse Crunch defenseman Nikita Nesterov had a rough season. Forced to attempt larger developmental steps than he probably could handle, he found himself rotating in and out of the lineup as the Crunch struggled to put together a workable blue line. He often ended up sitting out as a healthy scratch. Nesterov only played 54 games this season for Syracuse, and only played one game in April due to an upper body injury.
Nesterov ended the season with four goals, 12 assists and 39 penalty minutes. He got off to a great start initially, and was a big part of the Crunch's power play. When he was paired with forwards like Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov, his game sparkled. But once that line fell apart due to call ups and injuries, Nesterov's season kind of did, too.
Nesterov wasn't even a "near miss" on Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25 list. He is currently ranked at number 17 out of 25 by Bolt Prospects. Nesterov desperately needs to improve on his speed and strength this off season.
Syracuse Crunch rookie forward Tanner Richard had a disappointing rookie season in the AHL this year. Richard clocked in at 19 on Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25, as at the time of the list's creation it was expected that Richard would easily fill the shoes of departing guys like Ondrej Palat. Unfortunately for Richard and the Crunch, things didn't exactly work out as planned.
Richard was supposed to be the Crunch's crafty playmaker, but his 2 goals and 15 assists in 65 games wasn't exactly what fans were hoping for. His -10 in the +/- category was the third-lowest on the team among the forwards. It took Richard four months before he scored a goal this season. His first one came on January 25th, 2014. In comparison, Crunch forward Eric Neilson has one and forward PC Labrie has two. Neilson played in 35 games; Labrie played in 38. Neither Neilson or Labrie are known for their scoring touches, and certainly not in the way Richard was supposed to be known for, so it's concerning to see their goal totals matching with his.
To be fair to Richard (and maybe all of the players listed here), no one beyond the Crunch's first line particularly excelled this season, at least not until those trade deadline moves breathed new life into the team. But fans had certainly hoped for more from him, especially given the opportunities he had to seize ice time due to injuries and call ups.
Hopefully a focused, productive off season will give him a running start for next season (which, again, is something we can hope for the majority of these players).