The Syracuse Crunch has reached the quarter mark of their season. Two months are behind them and five lay front. November, although better than October, was still full of inconsistent play and effort, and certainly had its share of frustrating games. The ups were great, but the downs were, and still are, a concern.
Fittingly enough, the Crunch's final week of November contained the exact mixed bag that the rest of the month served up. Wednesday night, Syracuse lost to Utica 5-4. According to those watching the game, starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made huge save after huge save, but that effort wasn't enough to combat the Crunch's defensive deficits. Friday night, the Crunch got off to an amazing start against the Binghamton Senators with forward Philippe Paradis putting up a natural hat trick (one that even included a penalty shot!). However, Syracuse then let its foot off the gas, allowed the Senators to score four unanswered goals in the third period, and lost the game 6-3. Then, Saturday, the Crunch played one of its most complete first and third periods this season, which thankfully was enough to topple opponent Hershey 4-1.
See what I mean? The past week was a crazy mix of the improbable and the impossible, the good and the bad. As I think about the past two months, I can't help but ask myself some questions about what's going on. Some are tougher questions than others, I will admit.
Question #1: What's going on with Jerome Samson?
When he was signed over the summer, Jerome Samson was thought to be the jewel of the Crunch's off season. Samson was known around the AHL as a dependable vet, someone who could score while being a dressing room leader and a call up option if needed. His previous AHL seasons spoke to this. For instance, Samson skated in 68 games with the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League last season, where he recorded 27 goals and 56 points.
I know it can be hard for some to understand, but these kinds of players are the backbone of this league. They're the players who shape a dressing room's culture and keep things going while the younger prospects develop. Teams generally can't win in this league without the Samson's of the world.
Given that, Samon's struggles probably explain, at least partly, why the Crunch is also struggling. Samson had yet to score a goal this season and only has six assists. In comparison, last season at this time, he had 7 goals and 7 assists.
Up until this past Saturday night, Samson was not being used where he's used to being used. In his previous seasons in the AHL, Samson was a first or second line guy. But when he got to Syracuse, he had a hard time breaking into those lines because of the prospects in the organization. At the beginning of this season, Syracuse had Cedric Paquette full time, and he clicked pretty well with the likes of Jonathan Marchessault, Tanner Richard, and Yanni Gourde. Also at the time, Mike Blunden wasn't out of the line up indefinitely with injury, and when he was in Syracuse and not recalled to Tampa Bay, he was being played in the Crunch's top two lines. The line up was more stacked, and Samson got shifted down the chart.
Now, however, things are different. The Crunch is in desperate need of someone upfront who can be creative and pot chances. Samson could be that guy, or he could not be. I think it's worth a shot, to be honest. Surprisingly, and almost as if he was reading my mind, Syracuse head coach Rob Zettler started to give Samson some of those chances this past Saturday. Samson saw time on the second line with Tanner Richard and Philippe Paradis. That trio also saw power play time during the game.
I'm not saying Samson is the answer to the Crunch's prayers, and playing him certainly wasn't an immediate fix. The Crunch won, but Samson didn't add any points to his personal score sheet. However, I say keep putting him up there. Maybe he could get something going. He's so snake-bitten right now, and he's in desperate need of a shot of confidence. Give it to him. See what happens.
Question #2: What happened to the Luke Witkowski we all knew and loved?
I'll be totally honest with you: this question sucks to have to ask. With the previous question, I freely admit that I have no emotional attachment to Samson. However, having watched Witkowski rock his development last season, I definitely have one to him. He's one of my favorite players with the team right now.
Which is why it kills me to have to wonder here what has happened to him.
Everyone predicted that Witkowski would be getting some heavy lifting this season in terms of blue line usage. As far as defensive prospects go, no one can really touch him (unless you count the oldest prospect in the system, JP Cote, of course). Witkowski is next in line for a permanent spot up in Tampa once he's ready, no question.
However, his prospect status is why his performance lately should be concerning, to both Lightning fans and Crunch fans. Witkowski had several defensive miscues this past month, from shoddy blue line work to, as seen several times this past week, passing to members of the other team. His focus is lacking. His signature grit has also disappeared, and he's been oddly quiet on the ice. Fans have even reported that he's seemed quieter off the ice, too, not quite as happy or in the moment as he was last season.
Going into this season, most figured he'd be in our top four, if not in our top two, and everyone figure he'd be ready to handle it. To be frank, everyone counted on him being ready to handle it. Sure, the Crunch has veteran D leadership in Cote, Joey Mormina, and Matt Corrente, but Witkowski was the bridge between those guys and younger prospects like Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek, and Dylan Blujus. Given what we saw last season, everyone had the confidence that Witkowski would be ready and raring to handle it.
Unfortunately, and I really need to emphasis how worried I am about this and how much it kills me to write this, Witkowski has not been the guy we need him to be so far this year. We need the Witkowski we had last season back, and we need him back soon. Witkowski may be one injury in Tampa away from either being leaned on more heavily here or seeing time up with the Lightning.
Question #3: What's going on with the goaltending?
Most people have no problem admitting that one of Syracuse's major problems last season was goaltending. The drama with Riku Helenius, the inconsistency of Cedrick Desjardins, the rapid, but still developing rise of Kristers Gudlevskis, and the weekend that saw a local high school hockey coach suit up for a game all pointed to a crazy time in Syracuse's crease last season. Crunch fans were hoping for a little bit more stability in that area this season.
However, the development of both Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy seems to have stalled a little bit. Gudlevskis has struggled to find consistency and a stable footing. He absolutely has moments of brilliance, times when you can see what's there and get titillating glimpses of what's to come. However, in 10 games (6 wins, 4 losses), he has a .896 save percentage and a 3.06 goals against average.
Perhaps surprisingly to some people, Vasilevskiy's stats aren't much better. In 11 games this season (5 wins, 3 losses), Vasilevskiy has a .898 save percentage and a 2.88 goals against average.
Vasilevskiy is still adjusting to the speed of the North American pro game. Both goalies haven't always been able to count on the Crunch's defense. In all fairness to both, the majority of the goals scored this past week on both goalies were rebound goals.
However, to see two netminders with limitless potential have such rough numbers is just rather puzzling. I don't know enough about the nuances of the position to be able to pinpoint why beyond what I've said, but I think mostly everyone agrees that neither goalie is where we thought they'd be by now.
Again, the problem with judging goalies is that they can be hurt by their team's defense, and their records can also reflect when their team's offense isn't scoring. The Crunch's defense has been weak this season, as has their offense at times. But, despite that, it does seem like both goalies should be better than what they're currently showing.
Don't get me wrong. there's a lot going on in Syracuse that is good. Crunch captain Mike Angelidis is playing some of the best, most passionate, and impressive hockey of his career right now. Forward Yanni Gourde netted 9 goals and 9 assists during the month of November, pacing the team and landing him in the top 10 of scoring in the league. Right behind him is forward Jonathan Marchessault, who is 11th in the league in scoring and who potted 6 goals and 6 assists during the past month. Defenseman Joey Mormina played in his first game since October 18th Saturday, and netted two assists. JP Cote is still the defensive rock that Syracuse needs to keep moving forward.
However, the AHL season is only a quarter done. These three questions are among the biggest ones for the team right now, in my opinion. They're not end-all-to-be-all questions, but answering them could go a long way in helping the Crunch's season stay positive and on the winning side as the team starts the next portion of their schedule.