Winning is supposed to be desired on all levels of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, but with the current status of other parts of the organization, one must wonder how dialed back that has become below the NHL level, where the ideal of achievement no longer seems to be the goal.
Let's acknowledge the elephant in the room before going any further; the excuse that all those call-ups of talent from the Syracuse Crunch are the driving force behind the lack of team success. It's true that Vladislav Namestnikov has found his place in Tampa even though he wasn't initially expected to make the club. It's also a fact that Cedric Paquette has stepped in for the Lightning at times and played admirably. Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden and defenseman Luke Witkowski have also stepped in when the NHL team was depleted via injuries, playing like they could play at the top level and be competitive. This has been a truth with players recalled since last season who stayed in the NHL for brief and long stints; they played like capable pros.
This leads to the question, how is it a team filled with players that could fill roles (and have) on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster are so mediocre at the AHL level?
The Crunch aren't the 2012-13 Oklahoma City Barons a team loaded with pissed off Edmonton Oilers 1st round draft picks who didn't like being relegated to the AHL and played like it during the 2012 NHL lockout. The Crunch are a mix of Lightning prospects (Witkowski, Joel Vermin, Tanner Richard, Henri Ikonen, Slater Koekkoek, and Andrei Vasilevskiy among others) and AHL veterans (Mike Angelidis, J.P. Cote, Joey Mormina, and Jerome Samson to name a few) who've had it engraved by management that they've got to develop and compete to help them earn a promotion to the NHL; nothing will just be handed to them.
How is it a team of skilled and talented players, those who could play at the NHL level as part of a concise unit, cannot find that same direction and motivation with their AHL teammates? It seems like a clear sign something is wrong.
Everyone knows Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is a big advocate of playing for 60 minutes. Just this past Sunday, he praised his club for playing as "close to a 60 minute game" as they have all season. Although it seems like a silly cliché - aren't all regulation professional hockey games 60 minutes long? - playing for 60 minutes is a pretty high compliment.
While Cooper made it clear to fans as well as his players during his tenure in Syracuse that 60 minutes of effort was the expectation, it seems that requirement hasn't been communicated to the new boys on the Crunch. The Crunch hasn't played with that kind of constant effort since the very early parts of last season. Sure, they get in a game or two where they show an inclination to play with effort for the full game, but if the goal is consistency, then the Crunch has a long way to go.
When the status-quo holds and the product remains tepid and mediocre (making a showing but not putting together a winning effort) there's a problem. It's a problem higher than the guys on the ice. Anyone who watched the team struggle through their games versus Norfolk this past Friday and Saturday would know exactly what is meant here. The Crunch put up shots on goal; they averaged 28 per game over the weekend. Their goalies didn't steal any games, but as Clare Austin said the other night, they appear to be improving and adapting the way they need to. The defense blocked shots. The fighters fought.
The problem is that the effort the Crunch is currently displaying is too disorganized, too scrambled, and too disconnected from each other to be capable of generating consistent efforts that translate to wins. Yes, the Crunch "earned" four out of a possible six points this past weekend, but the way they did it just isn't very reassuring. The Crunch gave up the lead four different times over the three games. Their power play went 2-for-16 and allowed another short-handed goal on Sunday, increasing their league-worst record in that area. The Crunch's penalty kill let in four goals over the three games.
At one point on Saturday, goalie Kristers Gudlevskis got so visibly irritated with the defense's inability to clear the zone that he couldn't help but throw his arms up.
The forwards moved in spurts and flurries of goals-they scored four in the third period Saturday - but couldn't seem to work together for even a full 20 minutes during any of the games, let alone for 60.
This is the second season the Syracuse Crunch are underperforming, and the second season that player recalls have been cited as the reason the compete-level is underwhelming from a talented roster. At what point is the problem acknowledged? At what point is everyone - players and coaches - held accountable for the lack of results?
Friday night, Syracuse forward Joel Vermin was on the Shootout Show with Crunch broadcaster Dan D'Uva and shared his honest opinion as to why the Crunch is struggling in some of these areas. He told the crowd that the team isn't talking to each other. He went so far as to say that they're not practicing that skill, so they're not carrying it over into the games.
Let that sink in for a moment. One of the Crunch's younger forwards was able to pinpoint with relative ease one of the things that's so obviously wrong with this group's performance, and the thing that's wrong is pretty big. How many times are good leaders on the ice pinpointed as talkers? Fans hear all the time about how this player or that player doesn't stop yammering while on the ice, and how beneficial that behavior is to the whole team.
This team has those leaders. Angelidis is not exactly known as a shy player. Cote has one of the best leadership personalities you can find in the AHL. Eric Nelson played on Saturday, and everyone knows the effect he has on the bench, in the dressing room, and on the ice. There are definitely more of these kinds of players on roster. So why isn't this simple yet so important train being encouraged?
Syracuse is providing Tampa Bay with talent when necessary, as a feeder team should, but the standard of excellence that we've been led to expect for the minor league franchise is nowhere near where it should be. And this is a problem, for both the Crunch's fan base and the Lightning organization as a whole.