This year was not a pleasant one for the top AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Since the dawn of the Steve Yzerman/Julien BriseBois/Al Murray era within the Tampa Bay organization, the Norfolk Admirals (and Syracuse Crunch, after the Bolts switched affiliates) had two outstanding years as the fruits of good scouting, drafting and player development started to pay off at the level just below the NHL.
The 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals had a 55-18-1-2 record and a winning streak you might have heard of. They swept the Eastern Conference and Calder Cup Finals en route to an AHL championship. Following the affiliate switch, the Syracuse Crunch went 43-22-6-5 and swept three rounds of the AHL playoffs before falling in six games to the Grand Rapids Griffins in the Finals, 4-2.
So to call 2013-14 a "down year" or a "disappointment" would probably be a bit of an understatement.
Setting aside that it's likely even more difficult to build a consistent winner in the AHL than the NHL, the Crunch struggled all year long on the ice, finishing with a 31-32-4-9 record (.493 winning percentage) and out of playoff contention. They scored 49 fewer goals than the season before and allowed 31 more.
On the surface, you could point to the roster turnover for the decline, as top players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Radko Gudas were promoted up to the NHL club. But might there have been something more going on?
The AHL doesn't track shots and shot attempts quite like the NHL, but Josh Weissbock (of NHL Numbers, among other things) has developed a system to parse the shot data the AHL does track to provide and estimate of AHL puck possession stats:
"In the NHL we measure possession with Fenwick or Corsi, but in the AHL we don't have the luxury of detailed play-by-play sheets, which means we have to improvise instead. Thankfully we have smart people like Nick Emptage who looked into the correlation of Shot For% and Fenwick Close and found an r-value of .925. Looking at just the first two periods of each game helps further reduce the impact of score effects that are most common in the third period, when the game is more likely to be out of reach for one of the two teams."
Using his method, the Syracuse Crunch finished the year as a 50.26% possession team, good for 13th in the AHL (8th in the Eastern Conference). By points in the standings, however, they finished 12th in their conference and well out of playoff contention. (Full chart here.)
Weissbock weighs in on the overall trend in Syracuse's season:
"In terms of the team it appears the team itself has faced a roller coaster of possession going from top of the league to the bottom. I am guessing this has to do with callups as well as injuries. When the team was all there they are easily a 54% possession team.
Unfortunately due to going up and down Syracuse has dropped down to 50.26% which should have been good enough to make the playoffs..."
We'll get to the 'should have made the playoffs' part later ... Here's a chart to illustrate that roller coaster of possession:
There are a myriad of factors at play here to cause such drastic up and down movement: injuries, call-ups, opponents, coaching tactics, travel, back-to-back situations, and plenty more. A few months ago when this chart was created, I added a few major events from the Syracuse Crunch season to try and provide some context and help shape a narrative for why some of these peaks and valleys occurred:
After an auspicious beginning to the season, the Syracuse Crunch almost immediately started trending downwards in terms of possession, cratering after Vladislav Namestnikov broke his hand and linemates Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Brown were called up to the Tampa Bay Lightning, eliminating what had been a productive top unit for the Crunch in the first month of the season.
Things started to look up again around the 25-game mark, with AHL veteran Jon DiSalvatore signed to add some depth scoring and J.P. Cote called up to the Lightning. It's interesting to note the uptick in possession that Syracuse experienced while Cote was with Tampa Bay, though it's impossible determine if there is more to this than mere coincidence.
Perhaps most importantly, after the trade deadline moves made by Julien BriseBois and Steve Yzerman flipping Dana Tyrell and Matt Taormina for Dalton Smith and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (as well as adding Yanni Gourde) the Crunch finished the year on a demonstrable upward trend with something to build on heading into next season.
As mentioned above, while the Crunch dealt with adversity that almost every AHL team must overcome, there was another aspect of their game that held them back from success moreso than puck possession.
The goaltending in Syracuse this past season was just not very good overall. A young, mistake-prone defense group certainly contributed to the poor numbers from the stable of goalies that the Crunch trotted out this year, but since it's impossible to objectively determine how much blame the defense deserves for goals against all we can do is look at the numbers themselves.
They aren't pretty.
|Save %||Games Started||SO||SO %||QS||QS %||RBS||RBS %||BO||BO %|
The stats listed there include save percentage, games started, shutouts, shutout %, quality starts, quality start %, really bad starts, really bad start %, bail outs, and bail out %. Most of those stats are fairly self explanatory, but for the ones that aren't:
I should point out that we define a "Quality Start" for a goaltender as one in which he starts the game, and gives his team the best chance to win by posting a by posting greater than league average in save percentage or saving greater than 88.5% of the shots he faced while allowing 2 or fewer goals...
Really Bad Starts (RBS) -- the opposite of a QS, where a goalie posts
...Bail Outs (BOs) are an interesting concept, which we're just starting to really look into; it's the number of games in which your team wins despite the starting goalie posting a RBS.
Those numbers are not exactly encouraging, for either goaltender. League average save percentage in the AHL this season was .910, so both guys were well below average. Gudlevskis in particular was the picture of inconsistency in his first North American season. After dominating in the ECHL, he was all over the board in the AHL, with a high number of shutouts and shutout %, a decent % of quality starts, but also a significant amount of really bad starts where he simply did not give the Crunch much of a chance to win.
The game-by-game fluctuations for Gudlevskis are noticeable, to say the least. Saying that a goaltender needs to find consistency in his game is usually a meaningless cliche but it's absolutely true for Gudlevskis moving forward, and indicative that he almost certainly needs more time in the AHL before potentially ascending to a spot with Tampa Bay in the NHL.
Desjardins, while more consistent, was also more consistently bad, and with Andrei Vasilevskiy now in the fold, his days in the Lightning organization are probably over (again).
The following is an offensive production table for Syracuse Crunch forwards that skated in more than 15 games, sorted by shots on goal per game:
As with possession metrics, we prefer to use shot-based statistics to goal-based ones when analyzing player or team performance, because it helps mitigate the effect of random variation and because there is a much larger sample with shots than there is with goals. Most of the above statistics are also fairly common, except for IPP (Individual Points Percentage) and NHLe (NHL equivalency).
IPP is a simple percentage indicating how often a particular player was "in" on a goal when one was scored by his team while he was on he ice. A player with a high IPP is an offensive creator; a player with a low IPP is just along for the ride. For example, Brett Connolly's IPP is extremely high (79.17%) which means that Connolly recorded a point on nearly 80% of all Syracuse goals scored while he was on the ice. This is a good indicator of a player who is helping to create offense, and even more importantly, Connolly was doing this without the benefit of an abnormally or unsustainably high shooting percentage.
To further see the difference between top-6ers and role players, compare Connolly's number, for example, to Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who factored in on just 42.86% of all Syracuse goals scored while he was on the ice.
IPP doesn't just say good things about Connolly here, however. While the sample size is much smaller, it suggests good offensive capability in players like Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov (who were subsequently called up to the big club) as well as deadline acquisitions Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (who also took a very high number of shots per game) and Yanni Gourde.
Conversely, guys like Tanner Richard, Luke Witkowski, Joey Mormina, and Artem Sergeev all faced a bit of bad luck in terms of percentages, and could reasonably be expected to perform better next season. Richard in particular is likely far more skilled than his shooting percentage this year (2.4%) would suggest, and he'd be a candidate for a big improvement next season as a sophomore pro.
The last column, NHLe, is a rough estimate of how a particular players scoring ability in the AHL will translate into the NHL should they be called up, based on their scoring rate in the AHL and a historical equivalency figure based on past players who have made the jump from the AHL to the NHL. These numbers are far from perfect, however: consider Nikita Kucherov, whose early season hot streak gave him an NHLe of 51 points in an 82 game season (0.62 PPG). Kucherov ended up playing 52 games in the NHL as a rookie and scored just 18 points (0.34 PPG).
The AHL doesn't officially track time on ice, but by pulling even strength goals for/against, Weissbock was able to estimate it, along with quality of competition and quality of teammates statistics weighted based on the time on ice numbers derived from the goal numbers:
This chart gives us a rough estimation of how Syracuse Crunch head coach Rob Zettler was using his forwards. For a brush up on how usage charts work, go here, but the gist of this one is the further to the right you are the harder competition you faced and the further up the better quality of teammates you played with. Bigger circles mean bigger ice time, and the darker the blue the better the relative goals for %. (Consider this: a player with a big, blue circle in the bottom right would be the 'perfect' player, one who can play toughest competition, carry weak linemates, play big minutes, and still come out ahead. Think Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar, or Joanthan Toews.)
Thus, the chart shows that Zettler doesn't really specialize in terms of forward usage, instead opting to roll most of his lines fairly evenly. Outliers Eric Neilson and Geoff Walker were used in the most defensive role, playing tougher competition, with Walker and Drew Olson being the two worst forwards in terms of relative goals for %.
The hot button issue in Syracuse this season for sure, the defense, like most of the team in general, was inconsistent and often overmatched by more experienced AHL squads. Here's the same offensive production chart, without shooting percentage which isn't very helpful for defensemen:
Unsurprisingly, Matt Taormina was the best puck-mover/offensive blue-liner for Syracuse last year, and he was shipped out at the deadline. In general, the Crunch struggled on the back end both in defensive zone coverage and in controlling the puck to start breakouts and create offense. They'll need one or more of these guys (or some new blood, like Dylan Blujus or Jake Dotchin) to step into the void left by Taormina.
While Zettler's usage of forwards was fairly straightforward, the defense usage gives us a little more to go on:
Here we see that Zettler did specialize a few of his defensemen, protecting Nikita Nesterov and Matt Taormina in particular against easier competition and behind the best forward lines. That Nesterov and Taormina scored just 16 and 18 points, respectively, is not particularly a good sign given their assignments.
The rest of the regular defensemen for the Crunch were deployed defensively: against tough competition and behind the Syracuse bottom 6 (which was not very good). Dmitry Korobov got the worst of things -- from Weissbock:
"I would like to point out Korobov has the toughest competition, weakest teammates and HUGE ice time and his ES GF% isn't too bad at 42.72%."
Korobov, in his second AHL season, was leaned on heavily by Zettler and still managed to lead the Syracuse blue line in scoring. While his turnovers and visible gaffes weren't exactly few and far between, it's a little easier to forgive this typical scapegoat for the Syracuse defense's failings by understanding just how difficult his assignments were. While he was never scouted as an offensive defenseman, it would be interesting to see what he could do with a little bit more favorable/offensive usage.
There wasn't much that didn't go wrong for Syracuse this year: the goaltenders were atrocious, the defense was raw and young and oftentimes overmatched. Forward production relied heavily on one line that was broken up barely a quarter of the way into the season.
Hopefully, this season will be a blip in otherwise perennial competitiveness for Tampa Bay's farm team. Kristers Gudlevskis should improve with a full AHL season under his belt plus an off season of training. Adding Andrei Vasilevskiy, even as he transitions to the North American game, should provide value above what Cedrick Desjardins was able to do in net for the Crunch this year.
The rookie skaters should get better, and an infusion of new talent (including some Black Aces at the end of the AHL season like Henri Iknonen, Adam Erne, and Joel Vermin, among others) should help the Crunch build off what was actually a decent finish to an otherwise lost season.
Of course, that's an awful lot of "should". We'll see if the Crunch bounce back next season or not.