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A season of woe for the Syracuse Crunch

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Recent successes by the Tampa Bay Lightning's AHL affiliate have vanished this season as the Crunch flounder.

Syracuse Crunch goalie Cedrick Desjardins (30) after being scored upon by the Binghamton Senators in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Friday, October 18, 2013. Binghamton won 6-2.
Syracuse Crunch goalie Cedrick Desjardins (30) after being scored upon by the Binghamton Senators in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Friday, October 18, 2013. Binghamton won 6-2.
Photo provided by Scott Thomas and used with permission

On a week-to-week basis, we've had Alex Ackerman (aka allokago) writing updates about the Syracuse Crunch, giving a perspective of life in the AHL and how the team in general is doing. She's given a lot of insight into the life of an AHL fan during the good times and the bad times.

Right now, for Syracuse, it's the bad times.

We toss around the phrase "Tampacuse" a lot, as a reference to players brought along through the development system. The Tampa/Syracuse hybrid word was born during the success of the Jon Cooper led Crunch during the 2012 NHL lockout, when Lightning fans put a bit more focus on the farm team... And they had every reason to do so, as this team - the majority of it - had won the AHL Calder Cup just a few months earlier (while playing for the Norfolk Admirals franchise).

Last season, the 2012-13 campaign, marked the beginning of the Steve Yzerman/Julien BriseBois led Lightning system paying dividends. Players like Cory Conacher, Alex Killorn and Richard Panik came up from Syracuse and played many minutes for the Lightning in 2013. More of the core that made Norfolk and then Syracuse a success also graduated to the NHL... I think we ticked off many of the names in a recent Answer This! Column, so I'll spare you those details of who made their NHL debut and who stuck.

It wasn't just the prospects graduating to the NHL, though. Cooper himself graduated to the NHL upon the dismissal of Guy Boucher last March. Assistant coach Rob Zettler was given command of the Crunch, with former Lightning assistant Martin Raymond working with him, and ran things down the stretch and deep into the playoffs, ultimately losing the Calder Cup to the Grand Rapids Griffins.

It wasn't the same, though. Even if players who had been promoted - Radko Gudas, Tyler Johnson, Mark Barberio, Ondrej Palat and Panik - the level of drive was different, the compete level was different. Fans started making excuses - "if only they had kept Dustin Tokarski instead of trading him" - and they seemed to miss the forest for the trees.

Flash forward to now, and despite the talent level in Syracuse (it's not like Yzerman and Co. abandoned the concept of development after that first batch of prospects found their way to the NHL)... Well, you wouldn't know there was a talent level in Syracuse. The Crunch is wallowing near the basement of the AHL (18-21-3-5, last in their division, 13th in the Eastern Conference, and tied for 26th in the AHL as of Sunday evening). Injuries in Tampa raided the roster early of the next crop of prospects (J.T. Brown and Nikita Kucherov) and injuries to regulars have also played their part (Vladislav Namestnikov's broken hand, Matt Taormina's lingering back issues). Drama has once again played out in the crease (the entire Riku Helenius / Kristers Gudlevskis affair) and is playing out again at the moment as Gudlevskis is bound for Sochi while Cedrick Desjardins remains with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the Olympic break.

A team with Brett Connolly, Namestnikov, Tanner Richard, Cedric Paquette, with solid locker-room guys like captain Mike Angelidis, Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Dana Tyrell; they should be competing in spite of this. The fight should still be there.

It's not. It's roll-over-and-play-dead time in Syracuse (who are 1-9-0-0 in their past 10), and that's a problem.

Part of the Crunch's ill-fortunes that look only to continue, come by way of the Lightning's own goalie situation, which leaves Syracuse without talent in net. Despite issues in the crease, the overall situation remains the same: an underperforming group in front of the crease.

While I can't find the exact quote, let me paraphrase Syracuse GM (and Lightning assistant GM) Julien BriseBois in saying that, to prep players as best the organization can for the NHL, the coaching staff in Syracuse has to be driving players to play better than they are at the AHL level. A coach needs to drive the players as well as prepare them. While there seems to be success individually (Cedric Paquette leads the team in scoring while former first round picks Brett Connolly and Vladdy Namestnikov are next with 31 and 30 points, respectively), there's a steep drop off from there - the next top scorer on the team is Nikita Kucherov (24 points), who hasn't played with the Crunch since November.

You could look at this season as simply a rebuilding year for the Crunch, and find a plethora of excuses (the injuries, the call ups, the fact they're a marked team because of success in recent years) but it comes back to one issue and one issue alone: drive and leadership for the group as a whole.

In past years with the Lightning, I'd seen blame for this lumped directly on the players who didn't fit the head coach's system, which would have led to a grand roster turnover (remaking the roster in favor of the coach) if the GM of the moment wasn't at odds with the coach (four years ago this month, Brian Lawton tried to fire Rick Tocchet and replace him with then-Norfolk Admirals coach Jim Johnson; he ended up firing assistant Wes Walz and inserting Johnson onto Tocchet's coaching staff).

In the case of the Crunch, it's hard to gauge how much coaching is playing into the free-fall that Syracuse is suffering right now, but it's hard to deny the fact that head coach Rob Zettler and assistant coach Trent Cull bear responsibility in part with those struggles. The plan for Syracuse (and Norfolk before it) in Steve Yzerman's eyes was contention and showing players the ways of winning. That, driving toward success and competitiveness, didn't come with an asterisk mark representing terms and conditions where compete levels were allowed to be relaxed or skipped out on entirely.

Even if Syracuse was bolstered by top prospects still in juniors, the KHL, and college, I don't think issues currently facing the club would be smoothed over. It's not a talent problem at this point, nor a health problem, or a locker-room leadership problem. It's not one that's easily remedied (especially if you use Jon Cooper's success as a measuring stick) but it comes back to coaching.

Training players for success and giving them the instruction and guidance in the game so they can compete and achieve that rests solely on coaching. That's what's lacking.